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When a Teacher Bullies – by Rodger Dinwiddie, Executive Director


A recent story form North Carolina revealed a nasty part of bullying that most everyone would rather ignore.  A middle school student received their graded paper from their teacher with the words “-20% for being a LOSER” written in red ink. The word “loser” was underlined twice and capitalized.  And, this was the second time the red ink had appeared. The first time it happened the educator had returned  home with a paper with the word LOSER in red ink. The parent had spoken to the school’s principal about the first incident had been assured that this type of behavior would be stopped.

A professional educator writing this on a students’ paper?  Surely this can’t be true. Not in an era when bullying has become a part of the fabric of school prevention efforts to address youth violence. And, as the story goes, evidently some parents in the community actually defended the teacher’s practice as his way of “relating to his students.”

Alan McElvoy, Wittenberg University, defines adult bullying of students as “conduct rooted in a power differential, that threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear, or causes students substantial emotional distress.” He points out that there are similarities to student on student, or peer-on-peer bullying, that include the abuse of power, a chronic/repeated pattern of behavior over a period of time, behavior that is expressed publicly and is a form of humiliation. The behavior is degrading to the students in front of their peers, and the identity of the student is often ridiculed.

While the story of the red ink infuriates and disgusts me, last week I had the privilege of spending three days with a group of educators from 5 states who were trained in the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.  A colleague from Virginia, June Jenkins, and I conducted this training for a group of dedicated, inspiring, empathic, serious and committed professional educators who are passionate about helping their school districts address bullying and harassment. These individuals were spectacular and demonstrated everything that is positive about what it means to be a professional educator.

For every adult who would belittle a student with such a derogatory label in red ink, there are thousands who stand in the gap each day, working as hard as they can to provide the highest quality instruction and leadership  possible for those young people they are called to serve. And, last week June and I had the chance to be around a few dozen of these inspirational folks. As McElvoy proclaims, yes, some adults will bully young people, and it is common to have one or more teachers in a school who are just simply mean to students. And, the bullying seems to be greater among those who have taught longer. His research points out that most people believe that teachers who bully will be able to do so without getting into trouble and will not be held accountable.

In the case of the educator who penned “LOSER” there is certainly a need for accountability. The mother of this child said that teachers should inspire, not degrade and bully young children. Somehow I believe that this wonderful group of educators that we trained last week in bullying prevention would make her proud.

If we can help your school address the issue of bullying, please call STARS at 615-279-0058.

STARS is deeply committed to creating a culture and work space that centers on the power of relationships, that values diversity of perspective and experience, and that honors the dignity, worth, and contributions of all.