A teacher speaks out on students bullying teachers

bullying teachers, often referred to as teacher-targeted bullying, is quickly assuming endemic proportions and preventing a growing number of teachers from doing their job.
Robert Smol. (courtesy Robert Smol)
Robert Smol holds degrees from McGill and Queen's universities and the Royal Military College. For most of the last 15 years, he has been teaching elementary and high school students in the Greater Toronto Area.

We assume it only happens to naive substitute teachers and to those new to the profession. But students bullying teachers, often referred to as teacher-targeted bullying, is quickly assuming endemic proportions and is preventing a growing number of teachers from doing their job.  

A 2005 survey conducted by the Canadian Teachers Federation revealed that 35 per cent of teachers had witnessed a student physically assaulting or intimidating a teacher.  

The same study found 60 per cent of teachers had seen a student verbally abusing a teacher at a level "more than just an angry exchange."  

In Ontario, the statistics are even more disturbing. A recent survey commissioned by the Catholic and public teacher unions in this province stated that "bullying of teachers by students is more prevalent than any other form of bullying."

Overall, almost 40 per cent of teachers in this province reported having been bullied by their students. Of this group, the most severely affected are the intermediate (Grades 7-9) teachers, where 50 per cent reported having been bullied by their students.  

Why are teachers being bullied so much? To answer this, we have to look at what I call the three problem p’s: permissiveness, parents and principals.    

I entered the teaching profession indoctrinated in the belief that young people today have changed. This is not true. The basic moral fabric of the child or adolescent today is fundamentally no different than it was in 1978, 1958 or 1908.

Instead, it is our society’s attitude and moral guidance that have undergone a fundamental transformation for the worse.  

Defy authority

We give our children a licence to irresponsibly question and defy authority and we call it empowerment. In the past, empowerment was more directly linked to maturity, meaning you had to learn the responsibility that came with the exercise of power.

While challenging authority may be necessary at times, it comes at a cost. All too often, belligerent students and students who bully have no appreciation of what that cost might be.    

Parents need to understand that to care does not necessarily mean to coddle. When it comes to teaching respect and self-restraint, this generation of parents seems all too willing to defer their obligation to teach basic civility to a mean-spirited, materialistic, secular society where indulgence and instant gratification are seen as the mark of success.    

When discussing students bullying teachers, a colleague of mine aptly summed up the attitude of principals as: "Work to rule." 

Citing new progressive discipline legislation or issues seemingly beyond their control, principals seem increasingly reticent to deal with students — and the students know it.

Effective referrals to the principal's office are becoming increasingly problematic. Older retired teachers I have spoken to are shocked at the degree of due diligence needed to get the office to do something with an abusive, disruptive student.  

Incident reports, phone calls and letters to the parents, along with detentions are frequently required before what often amounts to a mere slap on the wrist can be administered at the office. The disciplinary brick wall that was once the principal’s office has been replaced by a speed bump.  

Teachers, myself included, cannot do it alone. I simply cannot confront the belligerent, abusive student in my class in the same no-nonsense manner I may have once confronted such behaviour on the street or at the local pub.  But knowing that I cannot fight, I cannot flee either.  

Getting away with it

Don’t let their advocates fool you; students who bully teachers know they are doing something wrong. Time and time again, I have seen alleged misguided behavioural students who intimidate and bully teachers work at their part-time jobs in the community showing all manner of courtesy to managers and customers. These students know where they can prey on authority and get away with it, and it is not at the local fast-food restaurant.

Frankly, I have to admit that we teachers are also partly to blame for this problem.

All too often, the mark of professionalism as a teacher means, on an individual advocacy level, keeping your mouth shut and taking on a level of abuse that would never be tolerated in any other profession.  

We teachers are often prone to rationalize the abuse we receive from students. "Well you know Johnny is stressed because his parents are going through a divorce — that is why he is abusing me," or  "You’ve  got to understand that Suzy is frustrated because she did not get accepted into college — that is why she is always calling me a ----."  

So where is this problem heading? Costly absenteeism and therapy aside, teachers are trying to adjust, as they always seem to do, to the new challenges in their classroom, meaning they will be teaching less and managing more.