“What rights does a child have when a teacher ‘bullies’ a student?”

This question popped up in an on-line discussion with bullying expert Jonathan Cohen, Co-Founder and President of The National School Climate Center (NSCC), who was recently named a consultant to President Barack Obama for the new federal bully prevention partnership.

Stuart Twemlow, MD, a psychiatrist who directs the Peaceful Schools and Communities Project at the Menninger Clinic in Houston, defines teacher bullying as “using power to punish, manipulate, or disparage a student beyond what would be a reasonable disciplinary procedure” and says it gets little attention. His study, published in The International Journal of Social Psychiatry, hints that the problem may be more common than people believe. His anonymous survey of 116 teachers at seven elementary schools revealed that more than 70% believed bullying was isolated. But 45% admitted to having bullied a student.

Thinking about teachers and bullying, I wondered where discipline crosses the line from reasonable discipline into bullying, and my mind immediately tripped back to my school days and the teachers that still stalk roam the hallways of my memory. It was not unusual in those days for a misbehaving student to be given “the strap.” This occurred most often in upper elementary and junior high school. Examples of offences deserving of this treatment could be insolence, abusive language, or smoking. Sometimes the student was sent to the principal’s office, where the punishment was delivered in private, although the sound of a vigorous strapping and the resultant howling echoed through the hallway of our small school. Moments later, even the toughest student would creep back into the room with reddened eyes awash in tears, while we all stared.  

But sometimes the teacher performed the strapping in front of the class, no doubt as an example and a warning. The teacher grasped the student by the wrist, palm up, and, depending on the seriousness of the infraction, applied a few or more good thwacks to the offending palm with the strap. I always assumed that holding the culprit’s wrist was done to prevent him or her (usually him) from jerking his hand away and avoiding the anticipated smack. But perhaps it was to prevent a teacher’s errant aim from striking that sensitive part of the student’s anatomy, although I saw plenty of kids try to pull their hand away as the strap fell—or even push their arm forward in the hope the teacher would hit their own hand. Some teachers definitely applied more strokes and with more fervor than others, leading one to believe they might have enjoyed delivering the punishment.

In yesterday’s climate, those teachers were merely considered harsh disciplinarians and not bullies. In today’s world, they would likely be charged with assault.

I never received a strapping. Seeing a classmate punished in that way turned my stomach, and I could easily imagine how actually being strapped would make me feel. As a result, I became the perfectly behaved student. What first set me firmly on the road to good school behavior though, were a couple of experiences I had in early elementary school. Today, they seem minor, but the fact that I still recall them and the feelings they engendered, tells me they were major to my young self.

Although we lived in the country, for three years I attended school in town. Lunchtime lasted an hour to give town students time to walk home for lunch. I ate at school. One day I got permission from my mom to leave school over lunch hour and walk to the candy store downtown. It seemed miles, but was probably three blocks away. So off I went with a friend. Cautious country kids that we were, we made it safely across the first street, but when we got to the end of that block, cars were parked so near the corner we couldn’t see both ways down the street, so sneaked out and peered around the cars to see if it was safe to cross. When we saw a car coming, we squealed and jumped back onto the sidewalk. We weren’t about to take a chance on getting run over.

We didn’t know a teacher was behind us. The meanest, nastiest substitute teacher ever created.

She caught up to us on the way back to school, accosted us there on the sidewalk, grabbed each of us by an arm, and accused us of playing in traffic by jumping in and out of the street. When she finished yelling at us, she raised our arms in the air, and slammed them together. By that time, I was humiliated and nearly in tears, but was too stubborn to let her see. I tried to explain that we weren’t playing in the street, only being extra cautious, but she wouldn’t allow me to speak.

The next year I had an encounter with another substitute teacher. (What was it that made me a target of subs when my regular teachers adored me?) We were standing in line to return to our classroom. I turned my head to look at something, not noticing that the line had started to move.

Whack! Pain screamed through my left arm. “Pay attention!” the sub snapped, brandishing the yardstick she always carried and with which she had hit me. Ordinarily, the smack wouldn’t have been so excruciating, but the day before, I’d gotten a vaccination that had left my arm so tender and swollen I couldn’t raise it from my side. She had landed on the precise location of the needle stick. Perhaps she had called my name and I hadn’t noticed. However, another brief second or two and I would have seen the line moving or the person behind me would have poked me, and the wake up whack would have been unnecessary. Bully? I think so. Or perhaps only sadistic. For certain, her reputation among students was almost as terrifying as that of the first sub who scolded me.

Later, in seventh and eighth grade, we had a principal who surely fell into the category of sadistic bully. Looking back, I believe he was mentally ill. Big bruisers were brought to their knees from being strapped by him. His other method of discipline was to get rough with troublesome boys. I remember him knocking a boy down and kicking him. A few years later, after I had left that school, I saw him with his two young daughters walking in a residential neighborhood. The girls were around 6 and 8. One was pushing and one pulling a big red wagon loaded with a tall box. From the effort and the little progress they were making, the load appeared to be too heavy for them. Their father, my former principal, strolled along behind, yelling at them to work harder. The look on their little faces was heartrending. His discipline crossed the line into bullying—and worse, child abuse.

Have you ever been bullied by a teacher or a principal? I’d love to hear your story.

Are you a teacher or principal? Have you ever encountered bullying by teachers?

When I was studying to be a teacher, we received not a single class in how to discipline or how to manage out-of-control students. I could have used such a class. Are future teachers taught these classes today? I hope so. Teachers deserve all the help they can get. And so do their students.

For more information or for tips on what to do if a teacher is bullying your children, click the following links:

Web MD

Dr. Deb

Wrights Law Way

Education News

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2 responses »

  1. whatsaysyou says:

    Thanks for this post. It is true that teachers are capable as bullies but this issue tends to be ignored. This issue should not be ignored anymore and the fact that bully teachers still do exist in this day and age. Every now and then, to hear or read news about kids being bullied by the teachers make me angry and upset. Teachers are there to teach not to destroy a child. As a reader, I also happen to be a former victim of bully teacher more than 20 years ago. I live with the scars and live to tell the tale that I endured three years of hell in the hands of a monster teacher.

    • Karen says:

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. We can only hope that, with the increased attention on bullying, the spotlight will also be directed toward teachers, who are so important in a child’s life and in instilling self-esteem.

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