How to handle bullying teachers

By Drum Digital
18 April 2014

It’s not only kids who bully – often it’s the teacher who’s making your child’s life a misery. We give you advice on how to handle it.

“You’re too stupid to understand anything.”

It was an oft-heard statement and every time 15-year-old Carmen* felt deeply humiliated in front of her classmates. She’s now 20 and has a good admin job in the legal field but the scars from her teacher’s bullying in high school haven’t healed. It’s painful to think about that time and she can still see the teacher’s face – cold and unfriendly.

“She was our physical science teacher and also the hockey coach. I wasn’t good at physical science, nor at hockey. She singled me out and refused to explain the work to me when I didn’t understand. I really tried hard so she’d like me but I was never good enough. She’d stop me as I walked to her class and tell me to turn around because I wasn’t welcome.”

It went on from Grade 9 all the way to matric, Carmen says. “I tried to confront her in a respectful way and told her she was picking on me and insulting me unnecessarily but she laughed in my face.”

The principal was unsympathetic. Even when the other learners began to notice she was being singled out nothing was done. Her parents didn’t want to get involved.

“When I complained about the teacher they said I had to fight my own battles. I think she’s still at that school but bullies don’t belong in schools.”

She regrets not getting counselling or leaving the school. “I still agonise over it and will never send my kids there. I’d want to protect them from that kind of bullying. No one deserves to be treated like that. It’s horrible.

“I believe the teacher knew exactly what she was doing and I have no idea what I did to be humiliated this way. She destroyed my emotional health with her nasty remarks. You don’t forget things like that.”

There are indeed far too many power- hungry Hitlers in our schools. They’re the educators who openly bully and misuse their authority. A young woman wrote to us: “My brother was severely dyslexic and in Grade 4 his teacher called him lazy in front of the entire class because he always misspelt things. He picked up my brother by his shirt and shook him in front of everyone.”

Sadly there are still teachers and sport coaches who bully children, Cape Town psychologist Dr Ezette du Plessis says. “These people shouldn’t work with kids at all and are in the profession solely for an income.”

They’re teachers who don’t realise it’s their duty to approach every child, regardless of their weaknesses and limitations, in such a way that they improve the child’s self-image. “They’re blinded by the child’s shortcomings and failings and think their derogatory comments will motivate them to improve.”

Bullying teachers are often power-mad or struggle with a poor self-image. They need a child’s achievements to bolster their egos. “Emotionally destructive bullying practices are still common. It’s often subtle so no one can really point a finger but it causes more lasting damage than the hidings of old,” Dr Du Plessis says.

“The child is singled out and humiliated and shouted at in front of friends. Examples of it are making a child who can’t read fluently read in front of the class; giving a child a funny but wounding nickname; and reading marks out loud so everyone knows who did the worst.”

Then there are sports coaches who single out and blame a specific child for losing a match. They might also make children run a race against an obese child and regularly praise their favourites.

Teachers who bully were often bullied at school. They believe it did them no harm to grow up the hard way.

“You must empower your children,” Dr Du Plessis says. “Make sure they know you hear them and want to help them find a way to approach the teacher. Make sure they know you believe in them and love them just as they are.

“Say they should remember the teacher works with lots of children and doesn’t remember who they told off the day before. Tell them they should imagine there’s an invisible shield around them and that hurtful remarks can’t touch them.”

Teachers and coaches need to keep in mind that even one negative comment that touches a nerve can cause lasting harm. What should parents say to a teacher who bullies his child?

“Say something such as: ‘I know John struggles with maths. It’s not your fault but it would really help a lot if you encouraged him so he doesn’t give up.’”

The bullying teacher should understand that only a positive approach gets results. A child who feels they’re a failure isn’t motivated to improve. And the teacher shouldn’t think a child’s shortcomings are a personal failure.

“They should know their main priority is to teach each child, shortcomings aside, to be positive about their work and to build the child’s self-image. Focus on strengths rather than weaknesses.”

How to handle bullying teachers

Children, parents, teacher colleagues and principals all have a role to play if a teacher bullies a child.

  • School principals should know bullying behaviour is a worldwide trend that has already begun to take on serious proportions in South African schools, school psychologist Dr Petrus Herbert says.
  • Autocratic behaviour at a teacher’s home can be a sign it also happens in the classroom, he says. “Teachers are supposed to be emotionally mature and to know they’re supposed to create an environment  at school in which learners can experience optimal growth.”
  • Parents should have facts at hand to convince the principal their children are being bullied and must ask what can be done about it. Inquire about the school’s anti-bullying programme and its implementation.
  • The principal shouldn’t treat bullying behaviour among staff lightly. Ensure the governing body is informed about any problems because it represents the parents and the community.
  • Parents can act as a group at parent evenings. These are opportunities for the school to explain its intervention strategy and involve the parents.
  • Learners must be encouraged to tell their friends, any teacher or the principal about bullies. Traumatised children can be referred to the school psychologist. If the problem is deep-seated parents should rather take their child to a private psychologist.
  • Childline recommends that every school, with input from teachers, parents and learners, should develop a clear-cut policy against all types of bullying, whether it’s verbal, physical or electronic.
  • Such a policy should be applied consistently and fearlessly.
  • Respect the ban on corporal punishment and hazing (negative initiation practices) at schools. Teachers and older learners should set a non-violent example.
  • Teachers can do a lot to help. Promote awareness among learners, for example by using role-play where one child plays the bully and another the victim. Create an environment where children can express themselves without fear.
  • If bullying teachers were also victims as children or have other problems, psychological counselling can help them too.
  • If you’re a learner being bullied, resist feeling bad or guilty about yourself. Remember, school is a passing phase.
  • Be irreproachable. Be yourself and don’t lose respect for your teacher. Behave well, even if they don’t treat you well.
  • Make an appointment with the teacher and try to clear the air. Sometimes this works.

Call for help

For more information go to childlinesa.org.za.

* Not her real name

- Haidee Muller 

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