Staff wellbeing: Teacher targeted bullying and harassment

Up to 80 per cent of Australian teachers have experienced bullying or harassment enacted by a student or parent, according to new research from La Trobe University.

The study, which surveyed 560 teachers from primary and secondary schools across the country, has revealed teacher perspectives of being bullied and harassed at schools and the impact it's having on their wellbeing.

Of the educators surveyed, 82.3 per cent were teachers, 11.6 per cent were head teachers, 3 per cent were deputy principals and 3.1 per cent were principals.

Chief Researcher of the study and Lecturer in Sociology at La Trobe University, Dr Paulina Billett, says the findings – detailed in the report Teacher Targeted Bullying and Harassment by Students and Parents: Report from an Australian Exploratory Survey – show that the bullying and harassment can eventually wear down teachers' self-confidence, sense of efficacy and enjoyment in the workplace.

‘This report is only beginning to shed light on the problems of parent [and] student bullying and harassment of teachers,' she tells Teacher. ‘What it is pointing to is that there is a problem in our schools which needs urgent addressing.'

Key findings

Over 1540 cases of teacher targeted bullying and harassment in the last nine to 12 months were reported by teachers in the survey. Over half of respondents (56.2 per cent) said these incidents were enacted by a repeat aggressor, 26.2 per cent said they were one-off incidents, and 17.1 per cent said they experienced both.

It was also found that a total of 83.1 per cent of educators have considered leaving the profession due to parent and student harassment and bullying. Teachers also said they struggle to feel respected professionally, and revealed that when they report an incident, they feel it is often downplayed or ignored by management.

Interestingly, researchers found a teacher's age seemed to have an influence on how often they experienced bullying and harassment from students and parents. Almost 90 per cent of younger teachers (aged 21-30) reported experiencing bullying and harassment in the last nine to 12 months, compared to 54.5 per cent of teachers aged over 60.

Types of bullying and harassment experienced

Educators were asked to specify the types of bullying and harassment they've experienced in the survey. When describing student enacted bullying and harassment, 28.6 per cent said they had a student swear at them in the past year, 28 per cent had students yell at them, and 25.5 per cent experienced disparaging comments. One in 10 teachers reported having been hit or punched by a student in the past year, 12.5 per cent said a student damaged their personal property, and 16.6 percent recalled having a student invading their personal space.

As for bullying and harassment enacted by parents, the behaviour was similar, but much less likely to turn violent. While just 1.1 per cent of teachers said they had been hit or punched by a parent, 15.2 per cent experienced a parent verbally disparaging them.

Impact of bullying and harassment on teachers

‘Numerous teachers reported suffering symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD, including panic attacks and uncontrollable shaking,' Billett says. ‘And, it was not unusual for teachers to resort to taking sick leave (of one or more days), unpaid or holiday leave to avoid ongoing bullying and harassment.'

While 60.5 per cent of educators said action was taken by management to address instances of bullying and harassment, 56 per cent say the action taken was only sometimes effective, and 31.8 per cent believe it was almost never effective. Just 2.9 per cent recorded that the action taken was successful.

In light of these figures, the researchers made several recommendations in their report. Billett says this includes ‘the institution of a clear code of conduct addressing the types of expected behaviours by students and parents and that this code of conduct is made available to teachers, students and parents.

‘We have also recommended that further research is undertaken to gain a complete understanding of the depth and breadth of student and parent teacher targeted bullying and harassment in Australian schools, as well as the effectiveness of responses,' Billett shares.

Thinking about your school context, could a policy outlining the expected behaviour for parents be beneficial? How would you go about developing the policy?

A key finding of this report was that educators felt when they reported an incident, it was often downplayed or ignored by management. As a school leader, how could you improve how you respond to instances of teacher bullying and harassment? What are you already doing well?