When teachers are the bully's target
Researchers said teachers often are victimized by students, kids' parents or colleagues, but many don't report the incidents.
March 11th, 2013
05:00 AM ET

When teachers are the bully's target

By Stephanie Goldberg, CNN

(CNN) Several years ago, Brendesha Tynes was taken aback when she received an e-mail from one of her former students.

The note directed her to a Facebook event for an all-night bar crawl an event with which Tynes, an assistant professor at the time, had nothing to do. But it featured an offensive image and listed Tynes as the host; another former student had set it up.

As an educator and researcher, Tynes had spent years looking into cyberbullying. Now, she was a victim.

Tynes said she was prepared to tackle the eye rolls and sharp tongues that can come with molding young minds, but being publicly humiliated by a student wasn’t in her lesson plan.

Reports from teachers say her case isn’t an anomaly. A 2011 study, "Understanding and Preventing Violence Directed Against Teachers," reported 80% of about 3,000 K-12 teachers surveyed felt victimized by students, students’ parents or colleagues in the past year.

Teachers reported that students were most often behind the verbal intimidation, obscene gestures, cyberbullying, physical offenses, theft or damage to personal property.

But few teachers or researchers are talking about it.

“People are very eager to talk about (teacher victimization) amongst co-workers and amongst friends, but they’re very hesitant to report it to authorities or to the media,” Tynes said. “People want to protect their students, even though they’re being victimized by them, and they’re worried about the reputations of the schools they work at.”

Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, ran the 2011 study and found little research available regarding violence directed toward teachers.

Only 14 studies have been conducted internationally about violence directed at teachers, Espelage wrote in a follow-up report published this year in the journal American Psychologist. In the new report, she suggests developing a national, anonymous database for teacher victimization to help researchers pinpoint “the how and the why” about violence against teachers, prevent it and better train educators.

Bullying among students and peer groups is a hot topic, Espelage said, but talking about teacher victimization is considered taboo.

According to her 2011 study, 57% of teachers surveyed said they brought an incident to the attention of administrators.

The study found that 44% of teachers said they’ve experienced physical victimization. Men who participated in the study were more likely than women to report obscene remarks and gestures, verbal threats and instances of weapons being pulled on them. Women, on the other hand, were more likely than men to report intimidation.

Educators: It's not just disrespect, it's bullying

Because there’s so little information available, Espelage said she can only speculate about the gender differences: Male teachers might be more likely to break up fights between students, subjecting themselves to more acts of violence, while women might be victimized in other ways. Espelage said she’s had students demean her gender, and make obscene gestures and sexual remarks to her. A student once wrote on an exam about having sex with her.

Despite feeling disrespected, Espelage said she, like the majority of teachers in her study, didn’t report the “low-level stuff.”

Staying quiet doesn’t make sense for teachers, she said. Her research showed that the No. 1 reason teachers leave the profession is because “they can’t handle the disrespect.”

MetLife’s 2012 Survey of the American Teacher revealed that job satisfaction is the lowest in more than 20 years. The survey reported that 29% of teachers said they are likely to leave the profession. That’s 12% higher than the number of teachers who said they would leave in 2009.

“It’s intimidating to walk in front of a group of students,” said Bill Bond, a former teacher and high school principal who’s now a specialist for safe schools with the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “They are going to challenge you academically, socially, and I hate to say it, but they will even challenge you physically. Kids just want to see where the limit is.”

Bond said young teachers especially might be afraid to talk with a principal about being victimized in the classroom because they believe it means “they’re being ineffective somewhere.”

But a good principal or mentor will be there to help that teacher look at the issue at hand and correct it, he said.

Teachers aren’t innocent, either, he said it’s more common for a teacher to humiliate or bully a student than the other way around. When students feel disrespected by a teacher, they’ll start to challenge them and eventually, they’ll make it personal, Bond said.

Mutual respect is key, he said.

“It’s tough to take control of 30, 35 teenagers with their hormones raging and all their opinions,” Bond said. “The key to surviving is having peers you can go to and help you master your craft.”

Tynes, now an associate professor of educational psychology and psychology at the University of Southern California, said being cyberbullied in 2007 left her stressed and anxious. Tynes said a mentor helped her to report the incident, and the student who created the Facebook event was required to complete diversity training.

“People were incredibly supportive,” she said.

Tynes said she has learned from experience that opening the lines of communication between teachers and students’ parents can prevent teacher victimization by students and by their parents. The 2011 study found that 37% of teachers who reported they'd been victimized felt that way because of a student's parent.

Keeping pupils engaged will also prevent an imbalance of power between teacher and student, she said. When a teacher constantly hands out work sheets and offers little support, she added, it can make students feel like the teacher doesn’t care, and that’s when they disconnect.

The cyberbullying experience fueled a desire to understand better how bullying affects young people. Through her research, she’s found that young victims of cyberbullying often experience depressive symptoms and anxiety, just as she did once.

Despite the struggles, there's no better time than now to be a teacher, she said.

“We have so many technological tools and new media at our disposal,” she said. “We can really enhance and promote learning in more ways than we could in the past.”

Have you experienced bullying, threats or violence in the classroom? Share your story in the comments, or tweet us @CNNSchools.

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Filed under: Bullying • Parents • Students • Teachers
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