Teacher suspects he may be a bully

Wooden singpost with "help, support, advice, guidance" arrows against blue sky.


Q: I’m an 8th-grade science teacher, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m a bully. I know this is a strange question, but how would I know for sure? Is that something you always recognize in yourself? I’m stern and demanding, not warm and fuzzy. I do have a bark and sometimes lose my temper, which some kids handle better than others. At least once a year, a parent complains to my administrator that I’m too hard on the kids, and some parents have thrown around the word “bully” in the past. My principal has given me feedback that I should consider “toning it down,” but he hasn’t called me a bully, at least not in those terms. I don’t want to have that reputation. I take pride in being strict, but I also want to be seen as kind and fair. How can I know whether I’m taking it too far, and how can I dial it back if that’s the case? I suspect I’ve crossed the line on at least a few occasions. 

A: I’m impressed with your self-awareness and willingness to change. It’s tough to admit you might be bullying students, and hard to take an unflinching look at your own shortcomings. Ask yourself some questions: Are you using your position to maintain order or to control, belittle, and humiliate students? How do kids react when you speak to them? Are they scared of you? Some clues: They avert eye contact, won’t ask for help or clarification, and avoid taking risks in the classroom. Bullying is about making people feel less-than and unimportant. Children who feel that way will do anything to avoid making mistakes, and that fear impedes their growth. 

The good news is that whether you’re bullying students or just being too “stern and demanding,” these are learned behaviors, and behaviors can be unlearned and changed. You can cut candy from your diet even if you like chocolate, for instance, or lift weights even if you hate exercise. Start paying close attention to your tone, and consider whether you’re making personal attacks on students. Take a look at your rules and grading policies, too. Are they just and equitable? As you start observing your own behavior and your students’ reactions, keep a journal and identify patterns. Do you have specific targets? Are some kids more likely to trigger your temper? 

Ask your administrator what he means by “tone it down,” too. If he’s fielding the complaints, he knows exactly how you’re crossing the line and can give you advice. You might look for other mentors, too — teacher colleagues who know how to set clear expectations without sacrificing trust. 

Teaching is by definition hierarchical. You’re in a position of authority simply because of your role. Take the time to think about why you’re defaulting to harsh behavior when it’s unnecessary. Were you raised to believe it’s socially acceptable to treat people this way? Were you mistreated yourself? Do you lack power in other areas of your life? Do you feel overwhelmed and out of control? It might be worth seeking therapy so you can figure out what’s at the root of the problem and come up with more adaptive coping strategies. As you recognize, unleashing your frustration on kids isn’t the answer. Apart from hurting them, it’s damaging your professional standing. 

As you take stock of the situation, make an effort to personally connect with your students. Show interest in their lives and apologize when you slip up. Kids appreciate authenticity, so let them know you’re working on your temper. It’s the elephant in the room anyway, and you’ll tamp down their fear by showing some vulnerability. 

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Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email contactphyllisfagell@gmail.comAll names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers.

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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