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The bully within us ... as teachers.


Research on teacher bullying, although scant, suggests that bullying by teachers may contribute to the transgenerational cycle of bullying among children and adults. Bully prevention programs could carefully be revised to encompass all members of the school community. In a graduate class on bullying, 13 teachers reached consensus on bullying behaviors that they see in teachers, and they brainstormed ways to address the problem.

Bullying among children may be the most common type of violence in schools today and is likely to affect more children than any other kind of violence (Batsche & Knoff, 1994). Inundated with information regarding how to stop children from bullying other children in school, educators' primary question at the end of a one-day seminar for teachers in Virginia on bullying behavior was "What can we do about teachers who bully?" (Bullies, Victims & Bystanders Conference, 2002). Because the research on teachers harming others is limited, or buried within harassment and child/adult abuse literature, and not linked to the more covert aspects of bullying behavior in K-12 schools, such as intimidation and social alienation, 13 teachers in a graduate class on bullying behavior met to share their observations of teacher bullying. What follows is a summary of that analysis, and a follow-up review of the nature of teacher bullying in schools.

Why study teacher bullying?

Teachers face a full plate of challenges every day. In an era of unprecedented accountability, opening another venue for criticism may overwhelm hardworking, caring teachers. Recent bloggers on a Resigning from Teaching (, however, articulated the negative effects on teachers who are bullied and harassed at school by students, teachers, co-workers and staff. The morale of all teachers may be affected by the bullying among them. Teachers become unwilling bystanders to the harm done by other teachers, and may fear retribution if they take action (Twemlow, Fonagy & Sacco, 2004).

Further, seminal work by Twemlow and his cohorts (Twemlow & Fonagy, 2005; Twemlow, Fonagy, Sacco & Brethour, 2006) indicate that teacher bullying may, in addition to lowering school morale, aggravate student bullying and other behavioral and academic problems. In one survey of 214 teachers, schools with the highest suspension rates had more teachers who were bullied as children, who currently bullied children, and who observed more bullying teachers than teachers in schools with low or medium suspension rates (Twemlow & Fonagy, 2005). The authors concluded that bullying teachers might contribute to the etiology of children's behavioral problems

How prevalent is teacher bullying? While teachers may not publicly self-identify as bullies, on surveys of 116 urban elementary teachers in the US, 45 percent of them confessed to bullying at least one student during their tenure of teaching (Twemlow et al, 2006). These teachers did note that teacher bullying is infrequent in most teachers, and that approximately 18% of teachers bully frequently. A study of 101 high schools teachers in the UK by Terry (1998) indicated that this percentage might be higher in secondary schools.

We may all be guilty of bullying others in some manner, according to the most inclusive definition of bullying: hurting someone else because we can. On occasion we mete out work frustrations on our families. Family strife can lead to a shorter fuse at work, which can result in workplace bullying. But, when does greater aggression cross over into bullying? "Schadenfreude" is a German term for taking pleasure from someone else's misfortune. We experience Schadenfreude when we are pleased that a particular person does not get the job they wanted, a rival school's academic team loses, or when the Cowboys lose any game. The crossover to bullying behavior seemingly occurs when persons take repeated action to cause hurt in another person, and take pleasure or satisfaction in the process. The commonly accepted definition of bullying among children in schools today recognizes these three elements (Olweus, 2003):

* repeated, intentional hurt

* unequal levels of affect

* imbalance of power

Most people can remember a time when they regretted a word spoken in anger. However, if this occurs frequently and over time, it may constitute bullying behavior. When a teacher feels less stressed or more satisfied when he or she hurts another person, bullying may be the problem. Garbarino & deLara (2003) note that bullying is evidenced when fear is used to torment or isolate another person, or when isolation is used to cut off persons from essential friendships. The teacher-learner relationship represents, by its nature, an imbalance of power. Teachers have at least three kinds of power over children by nature of the structure of schooling:

1. expert power--they have important knowledge that the child needs.

2. formal power--teachers are given the right to structure the child's time and activities.

3. resource power--teachers have access to what the child enjoys and does not enjoy, and can use this power to shape behavior.

Power imbalances occur among teachers for the same reasons. Some teachers have more experience, prestige or social capital than others. Team leaders control resources and curriculum directions. While imbalances may be a necessity in schools, they provide opportunity for abuse, unless a system of checks and balances is initiated.

While school communities regularly develop policies to prohibit the physical abuse of children in schools and to discourage the racial, ethnic, disability and sexual harassment of children and peers, schools appear to rely on an unwritten honor system when it comes to how caring relationships are nurtured, sustained and restored when things go wrong in areas outside those protected by harassment policies. Thus, the kind of bullying that occurs in school appears to be largely verbal harm, social alienation or intimidation--behaviors that are not addressed intentionally by written, community discerned, policy.

How can we define bullying behavior in teachers?

Teachers bully when they abuse power by taking satisfaction in repeatedly harming a child or peer. Most bullying takes one or more of three forms: terrorizing (creating fear to torment or manipulate), isolating (severing critical relationships) and corrupting (encouraging unhealthy ways to meet power, fun belonging needs) (Garbarino & deLara, 2003). Paul and Smith (2000) describe a "negative pedagogy" in teacher bullying that affects students through coercive classroom procedures, teaching strategies, discipline practices and/or evaluation, and harmful or unfair instructional practices related to grouping students or allocating resources. Specific behaviors, according to the graduate teachers in this study include, but are not limited to, publicly or privately humiliating another (preferring sarcasm), excluding children or adults from a group, manipulating the social order to foster rejection, threatening exclusion or revelation of personal information, starting malicious rumors or gossip, teasing or mocking that hurts others, setting up someone to take the blame, and having "favorites" so that "nonfavorites" feel less valued. When teachers bully other teachers they may also set impossible deadlines, block promotions or opportunities for growth, or assume credit for what others have done.

A factor analysis of data from 116 elementary school teachers indicated two types of bullying teachers: sadistic bullies and bully-victim bullies (Twemlow, Fonagy, Sacco, & Brethour Jr., 2006). Behaviors linked closed with each factor (from highest to lowest loading) included: sadistic bullying--repeatedly punishes same child, humiliates students to stop disruption, defensive about teaching style, spiteful to students, hurts students' feelings, shuts down showoffs, puts students down to punish them, repeatedly punishes same child, complains about work conditions, sets up students to be bullied, makes fun of special education students, uses rejection discipline, dislikes a lot of children and frequently suspends same child; bully-victim bullying--frequently absent, fails to set limits, lets others handle problems, doesn't like minorities, allows themselves to be bullied, watches as students bully each other, needless physical force, problems with discipline of BD children, changes schools frequently, disorganized in school emergencies and allows disruption without intervening.

Why do teachers bully children or peers?

One obvious answer is because they can. Bullying incidences among children occur, on the average, in less than 37 seconds (Bully B'ware Productions, 2006). Supervisors may not be around to notice the bullying. Given authority to shape the behavior of children, teachers may feel that their bullying actions are needed to shape more positive behavior in children; teachers may blame the victim or feel that the children need such motivation in order to change. Further, children who are bystanders or victims may fear retribution if they report the behavior, and observing teachers may feel it is not their responsibility to report such behavior. Certain children or teachers may be more likely to be bullied if they are new to the school, lower on the social or academic ladder, quiet and less likely to talk back, perceived as a threat or troublemaker, or who are simply chosen as readily available scapegoats. Studies indicate that teachers who bully were bullied as children (Twemlow, et al, 2006), or, as our group of teachers observed, they may be victimized in their current home situations.

Teachers who bully may have senior status in the school and seem to know the weaknesses of other teachers and students. They know how to give compliments and take them away in the next moment. As such, peers are confused by the mix of honorable and dishonorable methods and thus remain silent. One teacher observer noted that teachers might be more likely to bully if they have administrators who model such behavior. On another front, some teachers who gain pleasure from hurting others may be experiencing mental illness and may need counseling to understand and change their harmful behaviors. Other characteristics of teachers who bully, according to our observations, include evidencing:

1. susceptibility to pressure from high stakes testing or merit pay systems so that questionable means to an end are chosen,

2. a strong will and a high need for control,

3. jealousy or fear of losing their standing in the school, and

4. resistance to change.

What can be done to discourage bullying behavior in teachers and encourage greater respect for the dignity and worth of each member of the community?

We know that change begins with awareness. Thus, an obvious first step is to survey students and teachers to see if a problem exists and, if so, how it is manifested in the school. Do teachers purposefully and repeatedly commit negative acts that harm others who have less power? If so,

* what form does bullying take in teachers?

* how prevalent is it in schools?

* where and with whom does it occur?

* why do some teachers bully?

* how can teachers recognize when they engage in bullying behavior?

* what can teachers, administrators and children do when they see/hear children being bullied by teachers?

* what can teachers do when a peer bullies them?

* what can teachers do when they recognize bullying behavior in themselves?

* under what conditions does ownership of teacher power cross over into abusing that power?

Following the survey, awareness activities can be planned to help students, faculty and staff understand what teacher bullying looks like, how it can be addressed and how relationships can be restored after action has been taken to stop the behavior. Teachers may not be aware of their own bullying actions. One readily available awareness strategy is to ask educators and staff to say "Ouch" when they observe actions or words that may be harmful. I introduced the practice in a college classroom recently and was the recipient of an "ouch" by a bystander when I made a sarcastic comment to a student. The immediate feedback gave me the opportunity to assess the impact of my own humor. Such procedures can be part of the school's ongoing, broadened bully-free program that includes all members of the community--students, support staff, administrators and teachers.

Bullying can occur within any and all roles in a school community. Currently existing harassment policies can be expanded to include accountability structures for the types of putdowns, threats, social isolation and unfair actions identified in this article. All school members should have safe avenues to report bullying and have their words taken seriously. They need to be supported throughout the discernment process. Further, in a time when unfair accusations also pervade our communities, procedures to assure the safety and voice of those accused must also be rigorously implemented. Because bullying behaviors observed in teachers are primarily verbal or relational in nature, perceptions of what is truly harmful will vary across the population. Care must be taken to clearly identify the behaviors that the community consensually recognizes as harmful. Once these behaviors are identified, individual conferences with teachers who repeatedly and over time select harmful strategies can be initiated to both affirm the caring actions of the person and give voice to the harm being done. If the teacher owns the harm, plans for changing the behaviors can be jointly developed by the teacher and those most affected by harm in a community, if the latter chooses to be part of the process. If the harm is denied, and after all affected parties have been heard, then administrators will need to decide whether sanctions are warranted.

In the end, some schools grow weary of bully free prevention programs, and for good reason. A focus on a label belies the fact that bullying behavior does not truly define the person. No person bullies all the time, or even as often as they positively support others. Therefore, the label is inaccurate, or worse yet, fosters what it intends to discourage. Why not replace such labels with programs to nurture simple ways for kids and adults to get along with other kids and adults--programs for "Just Schools" or "Peaceable Schools" that are for rather than against something. Bully-free schools are created when the silent majority becomes a caring majority (Garrity, et al, 2000), when learners, caregivers and educators become peer-keepers. This care for each other is fostered by schools that work intentionally to create caring climates, collaborative problem solving, instruction in conflict resolution and empathy building, and a restorative discipline system that recognizes both the need for accountability and the participation of those harmed by the behavior in restoring relationships. Comer, Ben-Avie, Haynes, Norris & Joyner (1999) note that relationships are to educators what location is to realtors. We cannot afford to ignore relation barriers in schools or injustices in any form, if we want to model a fair society and promote safety for learning.

Creating caring communities means all members practice preventing and changing bullying actions. Educators must model what we want students to become. The cycle of violence is perpetuated across generations in homes and in schools; people who are hurt, hurt other people. By recognizing the hurt that educators have experienced in their own loves, and how that hurt can generate the same kind of hurt in the lives of others, we can begin to halt the cycle of bullying that exists in our communities.


Batsche, G.M. and Knoff, H.M. (1994). Bullies and their victims: Understanding a pervasive problem in the schools [Electronic version]. School Psychology Review, 23(2), 165175.

Bullies, Victims & Bystanders Conference (August 19, 2002). Harrisonburg, VA: Eastern Mennonite University.

Bully B'ware Productions (2006). Reasons why we must take action against bullying. Retrieved August 19, 2006, from

Comer, J. P., Ben-Avie, M., Haynes, N.M., Norris, M. and Joyner, E.T. (eds). (1999). Child by Child: The Comer Process for Change in Education. NY, NY: Teacher's College Press.

Educational Institute of Scotland (2003). EIS bullying and harassment policy. Retrieved August 31, 2003, from

Garbarino, J. and deLara, E. (2003). Words can hurt forever. Educational Leadership, 60(6): 18-21.

Garrity, C., Jens, K., Porter, W., Sager, N. and Short-Camilli, C. (2000). Bully-proofing Your School: A Comprehensive Approach for Elementary Schools. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Olweus, D. (2003). A profile of bullying at school. Educational Leadership, 60(6): 12-17.

Paul, J.L. & Smith, T.J., eds. (2000). Stories out of school: Memories and reflections on care and cruelty in the classroom. Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing.

Resigning from teaching (2006). Retrieved August 19, 2006 , from

Terry, A.A. (1998). Teachers as targets of bullying by their pupils: a study to investigate incidents. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 68, 255-268.

Twemlow, S. W. and Fonagy, P. (2005). The prevalence of teachers who bully students in schools with differing levels of behavioral problems. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162(12): 2387-2389.

Twemlow, S. W., Fonagy, P., and Sacco, F.C. (2004) [Electronic version]. The role of the bystander in the social architecture of bullying and violence in schools and communities. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1036, 215-232. in schools with differing levels of behavioral problems. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162(12): 2387-2389.

Twemlow, S. W., Fonagy, P., Sacco, F.C., and Brethour Jr., J.R. (2006) [Electronic version]. Teachers who bully students: A hidden trauma. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 52(3): 187-198.

Judy H. Mullet, Eastern Mennonite University, VA

Mullet, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Education at Eastern Mennonite University
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Author:Mullet, Judy H.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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