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Staff Leadership and Management

Teacher to Student Bullying and a Call for Critical Teacher Education

Teacher to Student Bullying

The outrage over the viral video of Success Academy’s first grade teacher, Charlotte Dial, intimidating and berating her students during a math lesson, unleashed a wave criticism from countless parents, advocates, and educators.

The video, recorded in November 2015 by an assistant teacher, shows Dial exhibiting noticeable hostility toward a particular student who fails to explain a math problem to her standard. She proceeds to rip up the girl’s paper and with a raised voice, orders her away to “the calm down chair.”

Sharply shifting her direction toward the rest of the class, she unsympathetically says, “There is nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper.”

After sending the student away, Dial castigates the girl in front of the rest of the students and says, “You’re confusing everybody” and communicates her contempt and disappointment to the class.

Teacher to Student Bullying

The video may come as a shock to many who do not spend a great deal of time in schools. However, teacher to student bullying is a pervasive, yet, largely ignored problem in the field of education.

Teacher to student bullying is defined as recursive, derisive conduct that is threatening, harmful, humiliating, fear-inducing, or emotionally stressful to students, absent of legitimate academic purpose. It is the abuse of power, which forces students into submission through the use of intimidation, public degradation, and improper or excessive punishment beyond reasonable disciplinary procedure.

A study by McEvoy, which collected information from 236 public and parochial high school and college students, revealed the pervasiveness of the problem. Of the respondents, 93% identified teachers who bullied students in their schools, with 47% identifying 3 or more teachers.

In another study of 50 alternative education students, 86% or more students reported physical maltreatment by an adult in the school and 88% reported psychological maltreatment by an adult in the school. Of the students in this study, more than 64% indicated that their worst school experience involved maltreatment by an adult, suggesting students perceived bullying by the adult as more detrimental than bullying by a peer.

However, the ubiquity of teacher to student bullying may have less to do with a few “bad apples” and more to do with teacher education and the underlying ideologies promoted within it.

Classroom Management and Teacher Education

Research on pre-service teacher education in the area of classroom management reveals its profound absence in teacher preparation programs in the United States. Stough revealed only 30% of teacher education programs offered a course focused on classroom management, despite the fact that principals rate it as one of the most important sets of skills in preparation for the field.

The relative absence of classroom management education in teacher preparation programs suggests little time is spent equipping teachers with the knowledge and skills to build relationships and positive learning environments with students.

As a result, new and student teachers often rely on and replicate positive and negative strategies espoused by mentor or master teachers in their immediate surroundings. The effectiveness of the strategies is often based on observed student compliance with little regard for their social-emotional state and frequently replicated with little scrutiny or criticism.

Many teachers have heard of or espouse the following common rules of thumb:

“Don’t smile till December.”

“Start tough, then ease up.”

“Master your teacher look.” [Often an intimidating look that can be given from a distance to show disapproval toward a student]

These commonly practiced negative management strategies based on fear and intimidation, are not only ineffectual, but a permutation of violence, because they violate a child’s human right to feel safe in their environment among adults tasked with this responsibility.

Success Academy’s network leader, Eva Moskowitz, asserted in the NY Times that the video proves “nothing but that a teacher in one of our 700 classrooms, on a day more than a year ago, got frustrated and spoke harshly to her students.” Yet, the issue of teacher to student bullying in schools is not only ubiquitous, but also symptomatic of teacher education programs and on site support that focuses more on compliance; less on the preservation of students’ dignity.

Fear and intimidation may prove effective in the short-term, particularly with younger students; however, its ‘effectiveness’ often dissipates overtime. Because students grow older and more aware of their own power, with many of them reaching that dreadful point where the threats of punishment become inconsequential.

I know many adults who would never tolerate being publically castigated in a room full of their colleagues, nor a professor publically shaming them for getting an answer incorrect and writing their name on the board for all to see. Yet, we do this to kids every day, in schools and classrooms across the country, largely because many of us believe humiliation, punishment, and fear is an effective form of discipline, despite the overwhelming evidence on the contrary.

This is the ideological struggle.

So long as our educational institutions continue to perpetuate the idea that students are less than teachers; that is to say, less knowledge-able, less capable, less creative, less critical, less, dare I say, human; that students come with deficits and we do not, and that they are objects with which we can fill with our truisms about the world; so long as we buy into our own authority, we will continue to see authoritarianism in classrooms. And so will our students, who will then, when given power, do the same, because that is what was modeled for them every day.

And the same logic applies to teachers who are viewed as less than Principals, who are viewed as less than district leads, who are viewed as less than Superintendents… And the list goes on. When we view people as less than us, a little less human than us, we almost inevitably begin to see them a little more as objects. Therefore, the emotional, psychological, and physical violence used against them, matters a little less than when it is used against us.

So what can we do?

Critical Teacher Education. Both school leaders and teachers alike enter the field of education with preconceived notions about the world, about people, about teaching and learning. The same can be said about their conceptions of love, respect, and the role of authority in human organizations.

Teacher education programs that provide few opportunities to critically challenge deep-seated beliefs around superiority, power, privilege, and oppression, as they relate to pedagogy, are at risk of graduating teachers that lack a practiced critical consciousness, which enables them to identify and challenge violence when they encounter it, particularly violence that operates under the guise of conventional wisdom.

Incorporating critical inquiry, which engages people in the critique of known unknowns, or the unseen ideological backdrop, broadens the scope of consciousness such that the object of critique includes the self. Therefore, a critical education is one married to self-inquiry, an exhaustive exploration of the “why,” “why not,” “what if,” and “have I ever…” It is an education that is not just about emulation, but emancipation.

Foster a culture of self-accountability, humility, and reflection. School leaders who cultivate an environment that encourages and regards behaviors that resemble self- accountability, humility, and reflection, as a fundamental praxis for teaching, can combat teacher to student bullying internally.

Providing regular opportunities for critical reflection through questioning and empathic dialogue that challenges adults to put themselves in their students’ shoes, builds upon individual consciousness and collective conscientiousness.

Questions can include:

“Consider a time in your own schooling when a teacher spoke to you in a memorable way, positive or negative. How did it make you feel about being their student? What impact did it have on your learning?”

“How would we feel if someone spoke or acted this way toward us?”

“What are ways we can address challenging behaviors while preserving the dignity of our students?”

“How can we model the use of power for our students and what would that look like, sound like, and feel like?”

Reflective questioning challenges teachers and administrators alike to question themselves prior to and after engaging with students. However, this approach necessitates the construction of an environment in which failure and reflection are both seen as integral to the process of learning, requiring less punitive or condemnatory responses to bullying, and offering instead, critical and collaborative problem solving opportunities focused on the humanity of every individual.

Be the change. School-wide plans, inclusively constructed by administrators, teachers and students alike, that recognize the importance of modeling pro-social, positive behaviors, support a culture that dissuades teacher to student bullying.

Students will learn some of what they’re told, more of what they’re showed.

Teachers who expect students to show respect to other people in the classroom, who then display incongruous behaviors, like yelling across the room or publicly ridiculing a student, inadvertently work against the environment they are trying to create. Therefore, the behaviors must be both expected and modeled by the teachers.

Furthermore, incongruence or inequality in that which is expected of students compared to that expected of teachers, breeds division and a sense of unfairness. Such ideological divisions are precursory to exhibitions of violence, whether teacher to student, student to student, teacher to teacher, etc. because it creates an ideological “other,” and “us vs. them” mentality.

School leaders can therefore engage in dialogue with teachers, seriously inquiring into words that are often used in the construction of school or classroom expectations, like respect, love, sternness, kindness, and compassion. By deeply exploring and defining these words and then outlining what they specifically look like, sound like, and feel like, will provide a clearer framework for interaction.

Finally, taking time to explore what it means to be human, and all the creative, communicative, critical, and collaborative wonders that come with the name, is perhaps the most important step to recognizing when we dehumanize. Classroom management should have less to do with conformity and compliance, and more to do with love and respect. And this can only happen when time and space is provided to educators to deconstruct and disambiguate these words as they relate to humanity and determine how they wish for them to manifest in their classrooms.

The majority of teachers enter education with the best of intentions, and work incredibly hard, every single day, to elevate the consciousness of their students. But, they too are entitled to opportunities in their professional growth to be supported. They are entitled to reflective spaces in their continuing education, to explore the meaning of respect, love, what it means to be human, and how that directly relates to the work they do every single day. For, in the absence of such a critical pursuit, we risk leaving not only our students, but also our humanity, behind.

For breakfast, I had an egg sandwich. 

Author: Sue Jin Kim

Photo credit: Flickr

McEvoy, A. (2005). Teachers who bully students: Patterns and policy implications. Persistently Safe Schools. The National Conference of the Hamilton Fish Institute on School and Community Violence. Philadelphia.

Taylor, Kate (2016). At Success Academy School, a Stumble in Math and a Teacher’s Anger on Video. New York Times. February 12, 2016. Online:

Stough, L. M. (2006). The place of classroom management and standards in teacher education. In C.M. Evertson & C.S. Weinstein (Eds.), Handbook of classroom management: Research, practice and contemporary issues (pp. 909-923). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Whitted, K., & Dupper, D. (2008). Do Teachers Bully Students?: Findings From a Survey of Students in an Alternative Education Setting. Education and Urban Society. 40:3. 329-341. Corwin Press, Inc.

Wubbels, T. (2011). An international perspective on classroom management: What should prospective teachers learn? Teaching Education, 22(2), 113-131. doi: 10.1080/10476210.2011.567838

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