Teacher bullying and harassment by students and parents in Australian schools
Paulina Billett, Rochelle Fogelgarn and Edgar Burns
Over the last few months, much media interest has arisen on the topic of teachers being bullied. This is surprising since many individuals have trouble believing that teachers can be bullied or harassed by students and their parents (Riley 2014; Woudstra, van Rensburg, Visser & Jordaan 2018), often seeing problematic behaviour as the consequence of a teacher’s poor teaching ability.
The lack of credence placed in reports of parental and student bullying and harassment of teachers may be the result of the expected dynamics within a classroom context. In this setting, teachers are commonly understood to occupy a position of power over their students and are largely portrayed as the bullies rather than as victims, a situation which obfuscates the prevalence of teacher targeted bullying in the classroom. Parents are also seen as ‘disempowered’ within this dynamic, with bullying parents citing the need to push back when they believe teachers fail to perform their job adequately and/or protect their children from intimidating teachers.
Adding to this are reports from newspapers and the media which blame teachers for poor student performance and poor educational outcomes, and the messages promoted by film and television resulting in a range of misconceptions which negatively influence the public’s perception of teaching professionals (Swetnam 1992). This includes perceptions such as ‘anybody can teach’ and that ‘teaching is an easy life’ with teachers supposedly arriving late, leaving early and having 12 weeks paid leave per year.
Unsurprisingly, teachers who report incidents of bullying or harassment by students or parents often find that their professionalism is questioned. For many teachers, the experience of teacher targeted bullying and harassment results in a challenge to their professional self-identity, particularly when their ability as a teacher is brought into question by parents and management (Fogelgarn, Burns & Billett, 2019). This often results in high levels of stress, lack of confidence in the classroom and loss of desire to continue in the teaching profession (see Billett, Fogelgarn and Burns, 2019).
What is teacher bullying and harassment?
Reports of teacher bullying and harassment may elicit questions about over sensitivity on the part of teaching professionals and a political correctness gone too far, particularly when the reports are of single incidents. However, we would argue that teacher bullying and harassment constitutes a very specific set of actions, including the aim of gaining power over an individual and seeking to intimidate, belittle or insult. While these actions are usually verbal or physical in nature, we also acknowledge that more subtle forms of bullying or harassment can occur, such as constant disruptive behaviour in the classroom, or a parent bringing into question a teacher’s professional judgement. While on the surface, these actions may appear harmless, for many teachers, they constitute a persistent erosion of their professional practice that often has marked negative effects (Garrett, 2014). Thus, we define teacher bullying and harassment as
“a communication process that involves a real or perceived power imbalance where ‘a teacher is repeatedly subjected, by one or more students [or their parents], to interaction that he or she perceives as insulting, upsetting or intimidating’ (Kauppi and Pörhölä 2012, p. 1063). This may be verbal, nonverbal or physical in nature, it may be premeditated or opportunistic, be a single instance or recurring and of short or long duration.” (Billett, Fogelgarn and Burns 2019)
We used a mixed method methodology including a survey and one-on-one interviews to gather evidence of teachers’ experiences of bullying and harassment by students and parents in Australian schools over a twelve-month period (2017-2018). Our project received approval from the researchers’ institution Human Ethics Committee (research number HEC17-060). To recruit participants, three separate social media campaigns were run over a four-week period using one social media platform. An invitation to participate was also sent out by supporting organisations via their email newsletters.
We sought to answer the following questions
- Is there evidence of teachers experiencing student and parent enacted bullying and harassment in Australian schools?
- What type of bullying and harassment do teachers experience in their day-to-day classroom interactions?
- What effects, if any, is teacher targeted bullying and harassment having on teachers’ sense of self efficacy and wellbeing?
The survey was open nationally to all teachers who either held current Australian teaching registration or had held registration within the last two years, aged between 21 and 70.
What we found
The responses of 560 teachers were collected over the survey period. What was discovered is that teacher targeted bullying and harassment is a frequent occurrence with 80% of respondents having experienced some form of student or parent enacted teacher bullying and harassment (TTBH) over the last nine to 12-month period.
Teachers in the secondary sector suffered TTBH most often at the hands of students (78%), while those engaged in the primary sector were more likely to be victimised by parents (62%). TTBH was common among all respondents; with sector, age and gender somewhat influencing the likelihood of student and parental TTBH. For example, women were more likely than men to experience TTBH (82.7% and 72% respectively) as were those working in the secondary sector (67.6%) when compared to those engaged in primary teaching (60.9%). Teachers who worked in the secondary sector, aged 21-30 and female reported the highest incidence of TTBH of any cohort.
The impact of TTBH
From the data gathered most instances of TTBH are experienced as part of a continuum of ‘mostly separate and apparently ‘harmless’, experiences, which eventually wear down and erode teaching staff self-confidence and sense of professional efficacy’ (Billett, Fogelgarn and Burns, 2019). TTBH by students and parents considerably reduced a teacher’s enjoyment of their profession and many of those surveyed reported a desire to leave the profession or were actively seeking to leave the profession (83%). Worryingly, early and mid-career teachers were more likely to express a desire to leave the profession (69% and 61.7%), potentially having a severe impact on the capacity of schools to fill future positions.
Teachers seem to experience the impact of parental and student TTBH differently. Student enacted TTBH impacted teachers at two different levels. At a personal level, student to teacher TTBH increased a teacher’s levels of anxiety, particularly in terms of personal insecurities. For the most part, students exploited individual characteristics, such as dress sense, weight, gender and age. On the other hand, students also compromised a targeted teacher’s sense of self efficacy by compromising the effective running of lessons. Maintaining conversations while teachers are explaining tasks to the class, not completing work when asked, walking out of classrooms and general misbehaviours resulted in teachers feeling exhausted and demoralized.
The primary effect of parental TTBH was experienced as an unwarranted challenge to a teacher’s abilities and professionalism. Several teachers reported ongoing bullying and harassment by parents including intruding in classrooms during lessons, incessant phone calls, emails and even harassment outside of school hours – all of which contributed to high levels of stress. It was also suggested by a number of teachers that the high levels of advocacy adopted by parents eroded a teacher’s ability to censure, and ultimately control, poor student behaviour. This was not only humiliating for most teachers, but also disempowering.
A complex issue faced by teachers was the lack of empathy encountered when sharing the problem of student and parental TTBH with others, particularly those not in the school sector. The prevailing common reaction was to minimise the problem or suggest that somehow the teacher was at fault due to professional neglect and poor classroom management. This was understandably distressing and created a barrier to the open discussion of student and parental TTBH.
Disturbingly, the experience of TTBH by students and parents resulted in severe impacts on teachers' mental health and wellbeing. Those who responded to our survey reported feeling highly stressed and overwhelmed and a high proportion reported ‘suffering symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD, including panic attacks and uncontrollable shaking’ (Billett, Fogelgarn and Burns 2019).
Sadly, many respondents reported needing psychological support to deal with cases of TTBH with some reporting having been bullied so badly that they required extended stress leave or chose to leave the profession. Taking sick leave, holiday leave or leave without pay was also a strategy which many teachers employed in order to avoid ongoing episodes of parent and student TTBH. What is more, TTBH leeched into teachers’ lives beyond school hours, with family members, particularly victims’ children, also being victimised. Victimised teachers’ personal relationships suffered significantly due to their declining mental health.
Adding to this already stressful situation, was the lack of response from management to teachers’ reports of TTBH. Responses were often seen as tokenistic, with management frequently accused of allying themselves with students and parents rather than supporting the bullied teacher. For teachers, their inability to put a stop to bullying and harassing behaviour was disconcerting. This was particularly true of teachers who felt that management had ‘sold them out’ in a bid to appease angry parents. Victimised teachers felt that these individuals failed to understand why those who should be seeking to protect teachers in their employ would seek to question them or even do the opposite to what teachers believed was warranted. Not surprisingly, an overwhelming number of those who responded to our survey suggested that more support from management needed to be shown to teachers in managing even the most minor of TTBH cases.
Finally, for many, the lack of follow through or absence of repercussions for offenders was a source of disgruntlement. Many suggested that when action had been taken in censuring bullies, this was usually ineffective, particularly when bullies were students with an institutional right to step back into a classroom. Unsurprisingly, the suggestion of a code of conduct with clear guidelines and a zero-tolerance policy as well as measures to stop bullies from stepping back into classrooms was a common suggestion made by teachers to help them address student and parental TTBH.
Understanding the impact and incidence of TTBH is still in its infancy, however our study supports the conclusion that teacher targeted bullying and harassment by students and parents in Australian schools is a problem. Initial findings suggest that there is a need for clearer guidelines as well as stronger measures to address TTBH in Australian schools. We also recommend that management and peak organisations show more meaningful support when teachers report even minor incidents of teacher targeted bullying and harassment.
Finally, we believe that to understand the full extent of this problem, further research needs to be undertaken and that this research should include cooperation at all levels including teachers, school management, teacher unions and Education Departments. This, we believe, will result in better understanding of TTBH as well as meaningful changes, which can help ensure a safe workplace for all our teachers.
Billett, P., Fogelgarn, R., & Burns, E (2019). Teacher targeted bullying and harassment by students and parents: Report from an Australian exploratory survey. doi: 10.13140/RG.2.2.18730.06083
Fogelgarn, R., Burns, E., & Billett, P. (2019). Teacher-targeted bullying and harassment in Australian Schools: A challenge to teacher professionalism. In Gutierrez, A., Fox, J., & Alexander, C. (Eds), Professionalism and teacher education: Voices from policy and practice (pp. 175-198). Singapore: Springer.
Garrett, L. (2014). The student bullying of teachers: an exploration of the nature of the phenomenon and the ways in which it is experienced by teachers. Aigne, 5, 19-40. Retrieved from http://aigne.ucc.ie/index.php/aigne/article/view/1476/1448
Kauppi, T., & Pörhölä, M. (2012). School teachers bullied by their students: Teachers’ attributions and how they share their experiences. Teaching and Teacher Education, 28(7), 1059-1068. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2012.05.009
Riley, P. (2014). Australian principal occupational health, safety and wellbeing survey: 2011–2014 data. Melbourne: ACU. Retrieved from https://apo.org.au/node/241836
Woudstra, M., van Rensburg, E., Visser, M., & Jordaan, J. (2018). Learner-to-teacher bullying as a potential factor influencing teachers’ mental health. South African Journal of Education, 38(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.15700/saje.v38n1a1358
Swetnam, L.A. (1992). Media distortion of the teacher image, The Clearing House. 66(1), 30-32.doi https://doi.org/10.1080/00098655.1992.9955921
Dr Paulina Billett is a Lecturer in Sociology in the Department of Social Inquiry in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University.
Dr Edgar Burns is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the Department of Social Inquiry at La Trobe University. His research focuses on professions and professionalism.
Dr Rochelle Fogelgarn is a Lecturer in the School of Education at La Trobe University. She specialises in classroom management and reflexive professional practice.
This article appears in Professional Voice 13.1 Mental health, reporting and education futures.