The problem of teachers being bullied and harassed by students and parents has been heavily canvased in mainstream media recently. Yet, many remain sceptical, often dismissing what teachers perceive as bullying and harassment as just parents looking after their children, and probably the result of a teacher’s inability to manage a classroom anyway.
Parents claim that they must push back when they believe teachers fail to perform their job adequately.
This attitude may well be a symptom of helicopter parenting where parents constantly feel the need to hold schools to account when their child’s rights or wellbeing are threatened.
In fact, while teachers are thought to be in a position of power in the classroom, the dominant popular consumer-rights narrative promotes the idea that students have an incontestable right to a safe learning environment.
Yet a review of government education policy reveals a glaring absence of recognition of the same incontestable right for educators. The recent One Teaching Profession document is an example of this disregard. It is surprising, even shocking, that in a central document about re-organising the Australian teaching profession that none of the 72 references to ‘safe/safety’ are about teacher’s wellbeing. Why are teachers not entitled to an emotionally and physically safe working environment?
What is teacher targeted bullying and harassment?
While teacher targeted bullying and harassment appears to be a growing problem, its existence, and its debilitating impact on teacher wellbeing, is seldom acknowledged.
Teacher targeted bullying and harassment goes beyond an instance of rude or disrespectful behaviour. It is a communication process involving a real or perceived power imbalance where teachers are subjected, by one or more students or parents, to interactions perceived as insulting, upsetting or intimidating.
‘I’m sick of the constant façade I have to keep up of assertiveness …I shouldn’t have to prove myself. The lack of respect shown to teachers by students is BEYOND a joke. Many times I do not want to walk in that classroom door, it’s all too much.’ (Leanne, Secondary teacher)
In fact, what many teachers experience day in day out, would not be tolerated in other workplaces.
In our recently released research report examining student and parental teacher targeted bullying and harassment in Australian schools, we found that teachers were subjected to yelling, swearing and disparaging remarks on an almost daily basis and that up to 10 per cent of teachers had been hit or punched by a student in the last year.
Not surprisingly, up to 83 per cent of survey respondents had contemplated leaving the teaching profession because of teacher targeted bullying and harassment. Worryingly, 69 per cent of those who had entered the profession over the last 5 years had expressed a desire to leave.
In reality, teachers who initially entered teaching feeling passionate about making a difference to learners’ lives are demoralised by the widespread incidence of bullying and harassment and the lack of managerial support.
Lack of support
‘Without the support from leadership it is difficult to know that I will walk into work this morning knowing the kid that hit me will be there’ (Josie, Primary school teacher)
Teachers often mentioned a lack of support when reporting teacher targeted bullying and harassment. Responses by management are often seen as tokenistic, and management was frequently accused of allying themselves with students and parents rather than supporting the bullied teacher. This led to teachers feeling betrayed, disgruntled and abandoned.
We note here that school leaders have conflicting demands on their time and energy. The need to adjudicate contradictory claims regarding students’ and teachers’ rights to a safe learning environment is fatiguing.
International problem for teachers
Disturbingly, the phenomenon of teacher targeted bullying and harassment appears to be a global problem. Several international studies have reported the incidence and impact of teacher targeted bullying and harassment. One study in the US found that around 11 percent of primary school teachers and 9 per cent of high school teachers reported being threatened with injury.
A UK study suggests that teachers are among the most likely profession to experience bullying and abusive behaviour. A New Zealand study found that a third of teachers experience minor bullying on a weekly basis and 85 per cent reported less frequent, but more significant, forms of teacher targeted bullying.
What is the impact of teacher targeted bullying and harassment on teacher wellbeing?
‘Teaching is emotionally draining and difficult as it is. When you’re putting in long hours for students/parents who clearly don’t appreciate it, particularly over extended periods of time, it’s extremely discouraging.’ (Anne, Secondary school teacher)
For teachers, the repercussions of teacher targeted bullying and harassment are severe. Our study, corroborated by international examples, demonstrates that most of these behaviours had adversely affected teacher’s mental health.
Victims of teacher targeted bullying have been found to develop stress symptoms such as depression, headaches and anxiety. In extreme cases, teachers reported having to resort to avoidance strategies including avoiding areas of the classroom, having colleagues walk them to their vehicles and taking unpaid leave to escape the situation.
So, what is the solution?
We are still mapping the incidence and impact of teacher targeted bullying and harassment by students and parents in Australian schools. It is clear that more needs to be done in order to better support teacher wellbeing and to retain more teachers in the profession. Initial findings from our respondents suggest that there is a need for management and peak organisations to show more meaningful support when teachers report even minor incidents of teacher targeted bullying and harassment.
Our findings also suggest the need for a clear code of conduct with a zero-tolerance policy for any behaviour perceived by teachers as bullying or harassment. This code should include penalties that students and parents can face for breaching this code of conduct. Finally, our findings call for stronger measures to prevent aggressors from stepping back into classrooms or school grounds.
Dr Paulina Billett is a lecturer in Sociology in the Department of Social Inquiry at La Trobe University, Victoria. Her research interest includes the impact of violence against women, identity formation and lived experience. @BillettPaulina
Dr Rochelle Fogelgarn is a Lecturer in the School of Education at La Trobe University, Victoria. SHe specialises in classroom management and reflexive professional practice.
Dr Edgar Burns is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the Department of Social Inquiry at La Trobe University, Victoria. His research focuses on professions and professionalism.