The effects of bullying on a child are no different when the bully is a teacher than when the bully is another child. A bullied child is a child slowly dying inside, and low self-esteem, panic attacks, anxiety, low grades and depression-related symptoms are all common among victims, irrespective of who does the bullying.
Much has been done to give victims tools they can use to stand up to their peers or get help. Bullying hotlines for parents and their children are now common in countries across the world. Children are being taught that bullying is wrong, and more than ever before, victims have channels through which to put an end to bullying.
Much less has been done to address bullying when the bully is a teacher. Part of the problem arises from the fact that the “bullying teacher” is often a well-kept secret. Moreover, blind to the emotional abuse they cause, teachers who bully often reject the “bully title” they so clearly deserve. Indeed, there are none so blind as those who will not see. Blind as they might choose to be, the harm these teachers cause is far-reaching and goes beyond the school years
Rita’s* low self-esteem issues all begun in high school:
“My teachers constantly told me that my sister had taken all the brains and beauty in the family and left me with an empty shell. They said I wouldn’t achieve much. I shouldn’t have believed them and yet I did. I did and still do.”
Rita’s sister, who was two years older, had been the “bright one in the family”. Given that she attended the same school, her teachers compared them daily. “But, you look so put together” I’d retorted, completely disregarding the fact that the deepest emotional scars rarely show, to which she’d replied “Don’t be fooled. I’m the hottest mess you’ll come across.”
Cases in which “the bully is the teacher” abound, and teachers can destroy children’s self-esteem through multiple ways: treating them as “slow”, name-calling, making them the class “black sheep”, being verbally abusive, comparing them unfavorably to other kids, using unkind words, using strict or unfair treatment, constantly yelling, repeatedly picking on one kid, public humiliation, repeated threats, and so on. Buried within, the resulting unseen scars can be the hardest to heal. They can slowly eat your child up alive. They can make him doubt his every move, see himself as “worth less”, worthless, and drain all the color from his life.
Some signs of bullying by teachers will be blatant, others less so. However, be willing to probe further if your child starts speaking of a “mean teacher” or “not liking his teacher” or a teacher who “always shouts at me”.
Stan Davies and Charisse Nixon interviewed 13 000 kids in the “Youth Voice Project” to determine how to effectively respond to a bully. One of the most effective ways to deal with bullies, they found, was to ask for help from an adult. But how do you get help from your teacher if he or she is the bully? Taking on a bullying teacher can feel like a battle lost in advance.
Here are five tips to help when your child’s bully is the teacher
1) Help your child open up about the problem
We all think we know our kids really well but many of us don’t know them as well as we think we do. Your kid won’t necessarily tell you everything that’s going on either because he just won’t, or maybe because he’s scared, ashamed, anxious, or has a thousand “crazy” thoughts running through his mind.
Trying open-ended questions every day might make it easier for him to open up:
• When did you laugh?
• What made you laugh?
• When did you feel sad?
• What made you feel sad?
• When did you feel angry?
• What made you feel angry?
Remember that your child is more likely to open up if he thinks he will be believed. If you feel that there is something going on, but you are unable to get him to talk about it, consider seeing a therapist specialized in dealing with young kids.
2) Go on a serious fact-finding mission
If you suspect that your kid is being bullied by his teacher, the first step is to go on a serious fact-finding mission, and this begins by questioning your child. She needs to feel that she can confide in you and that you’ll actually listen. Telling her that you are going to do something about the situation, but you need specific examples of what has happened in the past can make it easier to collect information.
Learn all you can from your child as well as from other kids in her class. If she is constantly being picked on, other kids in her class will know and will be able to give you important insight. Speak to other parents in your child’s class and ask them if their children have spoken to them about that particular teacher or about how your kid is treated.
Here a few questions that may make it easier to know what’s going on:
• How long this has been going on?
• Are there witnesses?
• Have you had any other issues with the teacher before?
• Is your child the only one picked on or are there issues with other children as well?
It is important to write everything down. Relate the events in the most objective way possible and note down the dates if available. Use direct quotes whenever possible. You could also simply document your child’s behavior: refusing to go to school, school-related meltdown, low self-esteem, hair pulling, etc.
An important thing to keep in mind though: not all conflict is bullying. Conflict becomes bullying when your child’s teacher repeatedly picks on her, calls her names, repeatedly yells and does things such as table-banging or generally makes your child feel “different” and bad about herself.
Fact-finding also means approaching your child’s teacher, unless, of course, if you believe her behavior has been outrageous. Refusing to speak up because you fear your child will be victimized will neither make the situation go away, nor will it make your child feel better. In most cases, it will increase the bullying.
Questions such as “My daughter seems to be having a hard time in your class this year. What do you think may be affecting her?” is one easy way to get the conversation going and to give the teacher a chance to give his/her point of view. Remember that it is always easier to deal with such issues before they get out of hand.
Do not meet the teacher alone if you believe your child is being treated outrageously. Violence, irrespective of whether it is verbal or physical, will only make things worse. The best approach in this situation would be to request a meeting with the teacher in question (can be done via email) and her immediate superior and take everything you noted down from your fact-finding mission. Once the meeting is over, write down everything that happened during the meeting in the most objective way possible, when it was held, who attended, who said what, and the decisions that were arrived at. Document everything.
3) Let the school know you mean business
Transforming a school system is a long and tedious process and teachers tend to stick together. If your child is being bullied, making contact with the school is simply the first step. At the end of the meeting, let your child’s teacher know that you will be sending a summary of the meeting to the administration to make it easier to solve the issue. Send a copy of the meeting to everyone who was present during the meeting and copy the senior administrators.
You need to regularly monitor the situation and, if nothing improves, continue building your case against the teacher and the school system. If your child needs to see a therapist, ask for documentation. If other parents have complaints about the teacher, ask them to write down their experiences in the most objective manner possible – there is strength in numbers. Be careful how you use social media. Anything considered as libel or slander can get you into trouble.
If nothing seems to be changing, file a complaint with the State Board of education and send all the documentation you have about your child and all the information you have obtained about other children.
Consider contacting a child advocate (with all the documents in your possession) whose role it is to protect children. A child advocate is better placed to determine whether your child’s case falls within the context of bullying or not, and to help you decide about the best way forward (legal action, contact with the board of education, etc.)
4) Get your child out
To what extent are you willing to allow your child to be sacrificed by the school system? It might be time to consider other options if the simple fact of going to school every day is a gut-wrenching experience for both you and your child. If you can remove your child from that situation, do so. Wounds inflicted in childhood are among the hardest to heal.
5) Give your child the tools to manage the situation
Although the parenting expert Michele Borba suggests that teaching your kids to act confident can reduce their chances of being bullied, this is unlikely to work when the bully is a teacher. Being bullied has an impact on your child’s self-esteem, which is why you need to build her up and help her see herself as a worthy person.
You can achieve this by encouraging her to participate in activities she loves, proposing activities in line with her abilities to help her encounter success, strengthening the child-parent relationship, helping her develop problem-solving skills and teaching her to learn to self-distract herself through practising hobbies, sports, listening to music, etc.
Creating open communication channels will make it easier for your child to confide in you but putting these channels in place is not always as easy as it seems. Open communication channels can only be possible if you are warm and receptive to your child’s needs and if you allow him to voice his thoughts and treat those thoughts as valid, even when they differ from your own.
Jane Nelsen, one of the greatest supporters of positive education and author of the book Positive Parenting suggests that parents should set up an evening routine during which they share information with their child about the best and worst moment of the day, then ask him to share the same information about his day. This can be a powerful approach to help you and your child connect.
Has your child been a victim of teacher bullying? Please share what worked for you in the comments below.
*Name changed to preserve anonymity