School climate and the bullying of teachers in South African schools

School climate and the bullying of teachers in South African schools

School climate, as we defined it, can be regarded as the school environment, and refers to the set of norms and expectations which is presented to the learners and teachers, the psycho-social context in which teachers work and teach, the morale of the teachers, the level of empowerment for teachers, learners’ view of the school’s “personality”, and the environment for learners as indicated by learners’ behaviour at the school. An important aspect of school life that can influence the school climate is school safety. A safe school is a school that cares for its learners and teachers, where the rules are unambiguous and where the learners and teachers feel that they are respected and treated fairly.

It seems, however, from a reading of research and newspaper articles that South African schools are not safe teaching and learning environments due to, among other things, bullying. Bullying in schools is not just about learners victimising fellow-learners, but also about the bullying of teachers. Whilst researchers are preoccupied with learners bullying their peers, the devastating effect of the bullying of teachers by their learners is often ignored.  Yet, a study I undertook with a colleague, Dr. Lynette Jacobs, found that 76.7% of the 544 teachers, who completed the questionnaire, were victims of bullying by their learners.

The bullying of teachers by their learners can be seen as aggressive behaviour in which there is an imbalance of power between the aggressor (learner/s with power) and the teacher. The aggressive acts are deliberate and repeated and aim to harm the teacher physically, emotionally, socially and/or professionally. These acts can be verbal, non-verbal, physical, sexual, racial and/or electronic. It is not uncommon for learners to shout and swear at their teachers and make vulgar signs or write insulting graffiti on bathroom walls about their teachers. Bullying learners will constantly and deliberately interrupt teachers’ classes and/or ignore direct instructions. Teachers have related to me that they have received threats of violence towards themselves or members of their family. The abovementioned study by Lynette Jacobs and I found that teachers being ignored is the most common type of teacher-targeted bullying, followed by verbal abuse, the damaging of classrooms and the spreading of malicious rumours about the teacher.

Victims of bullying described the learners who bullied them as arrogant, insolent individuals who are disloyal to their school and have a negative attitude towards schoolwork. Parents whose children bully teachers seem to be unwilling to discipline their children, are apathetic about their children’s education and are aggressive towards teachers. Whilst some teachers who are bullied by learners can be typified as unpopular disciplinarians who are easily provoked, others are hardworking individuals who won’t allow any tomfoolery in their classes or the school grounds.

The lack of discipline in some schools, the absence of a culture of teaching and learning, conflicting work ethics of the victims and their colleagues and colleagues who don’t act as role models, are some of the reasons why some teachers are bullied by their learners. Learners often target teachers whom they perceive to be too strict and have different views from them of what constitutes misbehaviour. The unwillingness of colleagues to implement existing disciplinary strategies and policies, the lack of support by members of a school’s management team and the school principal’s laissez-faire attitude towards school discipline are also reasons why specific teachers are targeted by their learners. An absence of positive values in the community and a disregard of authority figures unconsciously send a message to learners that it is acceptable to disrespect and bully their teachers.

The bullying of teachers has seriously negative consequences for the victims’ physical and mental well-being: they may display symptoms of psychological distress, depression and eating disorders, smoke too much or use alcohol excessively, have a preoccupation with their plight and display feelings of shame. The bullying of teachers also impacts on the victims’ professional lives, resulting in apathy, mediocrity, the questioning of their own abilities, relocation, early retirement and the breakdown of collegiality. The bullying of teachers negatively influences the career prospects of the victim as their reputation diminishes in the eyes of their learners, colleagues and principals. This inadvertently spills over to the organisation: teachers will ignore misbehaviour rather than expose themselves to being publicly humiliated by disrespectful, bullying learners.

A school cannot have a positive, safe teaching and learning environment if the teachers are too afraid to do their job. Any school policy and code of conduct should acknowledge the right of teachers to teach in a safe environment that permeates mutual respect between learners and teachers. If not, teachers and learners will perceive toxicity, i.e. a lack of respect, disintegration of teaching and learning, disempowered teachers and misbehaving learners, as the prevailing and acceptable school climate.

Author: Prof Corene de Wet, Open-Distance Learning, University of the Free State
For more on educator-targeted bullying, see:De Wet, NC. 2010. Victims of educator-targeted bullying: a qualitative study. South African Journal of Education, 30(2):189-201.De Wet, NC. 2012. Risk factors for educator-targeted bullying: A social-ecological perspective. Journal of Psychology in Africa, 22(2):239-244.