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Julia Moeller Ph.D.
Julia Moeller Ph.D.

What If the Bully Is a Teacher?

Abusive leadership behavior in education.

When Anna (name anonymized) was about 7 years old, her elementary school teacher decided to make an example of her. Angry at Anna for not having completed her homework, the teacher turned Anna’s schoolbag upside down in front of the class and watched the crying child pick up her scattered belongings, while telling the class in ever so many words that this is what happens to you if you don’t keep your things in order and your homework completed. Another time, the same teacher shamed Anna in front of the class by telling the students loudly laughing all the details about the mistakes Anna had made in a recent spelling test. Other students weren’t safe either, particularly when the parents were unreachable during a school trip (before the times of mobile phones): One student who didn’t eat spinach was told that she would not be allowed to get up until she finished the meal. Since she refused to eat, she was forced to sit, crying, in front of the cold spinach for hours. The power struggle ended with the student giving in after about 3 hours, at which point she took some bites and vomited. There are countless other examples of the power abuse of this teacher. Nowadays, roughly 30 years later, this teacher is the principal of an entire elementary school.

 photo by Jaclyn Moy (unsplash)
Source: photo by Jaclyn Moy (unsplash)

While much effort has been put into developing education programs against bullying in schools, most of these programs only address bullying among students. Recently, politicians in several countries, including the US and Germany, have also been discussing how to prevent and cope with violence by students against teachers. In contrast, very little attention is given to the possibility that the bullying or other forms of power abuse may be committed top down from a teacher against students.

I am working as a researcher in teacher education, among other fields, and I have gotten to know teacher education programs in Germany, Finland, and the USA. In none of these contexts I have seen any educational contents addressing solutions to abusive teacher behavior like the behavior described in the example above. What I have seen, however, in two out of three teacher education programs, were bullying, narcissistic, manipulative, and abusive university teachers being key leaders, i.e., role models, of teacher education programs and large education research organizations.

Ever since, I have been asking myself, can we expect schools to be free of bullying or abusive teachers, given that even some teacher education programs employ abusive ‘role models’, and given that very few programs address the problem of and solutions to power abuse by educational leaders?

Why assume that abusive leadership is a thing in education?

Several indicators suggest that bullying and abusive behavior by teachers occur in some schools and some university departments. One example are the scandals around abusive sports coaches and doctors, showing that adults who habitually abuse the power that their profession gives them over children and young adults exist, that it is difficult for the affected young students and athletes to come forward, and that institutions often fail to protect the affected students once they do come forward. Many examples, such as the abuse by sports doctor Nassar at Michigan State University, or Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, illustrate a particularly harmful constellation of multiple problems:

  1. the existence of leaders willing to abuse their power, in a position that gives them power over vulnerable, hierarchically subordinate people (students),
  2. the manipulative, often subtle and sometimes coercive strategies employed by the abusive leaders that prevent many students from coming forward to others who could protect them,
  3. the inability, and sometimes unwillingness, of educational institutions to identify and address abusive behavior committed by teachers, and the occasional tendency of doubting or even blaming the victims in cases in which they found the strength to come forward, as well as
  4. the pressure put on victims by other students, parents, or uninvolved teachers, who sometimes perceive the students who speak up, instead of the abusive teacher, as the trouble makers.

Beyond anecdotal evidence, little is known about the overall prevalence of abusive leadership behavior among teachers. However, research in other than educational domains suggests that leadership positions are generally likely to attract individuals who enjoy exerting power over others, that narcissistic individuals are particularly likely to be accepted into leadership positions, and that individuals ending up in leadership positions are more likely than others to display personality traits linked to abusive, self-serving, and manipulative behavior, including narcissistic personality traits.

Moreover, research on psychopaths, or sociopaths, suggests that individuals with such dark personality traits are drawn to positions of power like moths to the light, and some of the more organized sociopaths may end up in leadership positions. While this has been investigated mostly in regard to leadership positions in management and larger businesses, there are reasons to assume that abusive leadership behavior also occurs in educational leadership positions, and there is evidence of sociopathic university teachers. The aforementioned power dynamic of vulnerable students, power hierarchies, and blind spots in the management of schools and university departments may make teaching and educational leadership positions particularly attractive to abusive and narcissistic individuals. If subordinates in large businesses are vulnerable to such abuse, as explained in Babiak 's and Hare’s book 'Snakes in Suits', then young children, adolescents, and young adults are even more at risk: Whereas adults can usually change their job, even if that might be made difficult, students in schools and universities typically depend on their teachers for their certificates and grades, meaning their teachers have the power to withhold the very basis for the students’ opportunities in further education, work, and life. Younger individuals are also more suggestible and thus vulnerable to manipulation, they furthermore lack the strategies that adults may access to find allies and protection, and they are more likely to be doubted and questioned by others if they complain about conflicts with a teacher. Thus, to some of those who long for power, the access to young children may seem an ultimate leadership position, and schools as well as universities need to brace themselves to learn how to identify these individuals early on and how to protect their students against them.

Recent scandals about bullying senior scientists have raised the attention for the vulnerability of early career researchers, who are, similarly to students in schools, entirely dependent on their supervisors, while their institutions often lack the timely support that would be needed to protect the dependent early career researchers from the abuse that many of them report. Furthermore, even if departments were aware and ready to address the problem in a timely manner, the identification of abusive behavior is often made difficult by the fact that many abusers are strategic enough to only make subordinates and hierarchically weaker individuals suffer the abuse, while displaying an often charming image to those in higher positions (“above they bow, they kick below”).

What can be done against abusive leadership behavior in education?

A useful suggestion for a possible solution has been made in the recent statement of the journal Nature about the recent scandal of bullying in German research institutions: “We will never know how many promising scientific careers around the world have been brought to a premature end because young researchers felt they could not continue to work under a bullying senior figure. But it should stop. Now. Those affected must be shown that the system will protect them if they choose to speak out. Institutions should ensure they have explicit policies in place for dealing with bullying, and, as part of that, define what constitutes bullying. And senior scientists who see colleagues behave in an inappropriate way should speak out.” It cannot be stated enough that departments need to start a dialogue with early career researchers about the forms of power abuse experienced, and the forms of protection needed. Since we tell our teacher students in our anti-bullying lectures how they should teach their students not to be bystanders, we need to live up to the same standards and avoid being bystanders ourselves.

In order to reach an organization-wide awareness and culture of standing up to misconduct, the digital or personal anti-harassment courses provided by some US Universities may be helpful tools. For example, at Yale University, every person coming into a leadership position is obliged to take such a course, including those supervising research assistants. These trainings cover many topics with an emphasis on sexual harassment, but other topics are covered as well, such as: How do I properly apologize if someone gets offended by my joke, whether or not I meant it the way it was perceived? How can colleagues, supervisors, and departments make sure people feel safe to come forward with their concerns and complaints about bullying or otherwise harassing social behavior, and what needs to be done to protect people from retaliation? Although such standardized courses have their limitations, they provide a common awareness and common sense for fair conduct that institutions without such standardized training often lack. Many departments and teacher education programs are utterly unprepared to even consider the threat of retaliation (disadvantages to those who come forward in revenge for their whistleblowing), let alone discuss protection against retaliation. To avoid retaliation, more university departments need to adopt such courses, along with the corresponding anti-bullying policies and sanctions, and make them mandatory particularly to senior leaders, as well as everyone else. It is a logical next step to consider similar courses for schools and teacher students.

Furthermore, some universities and most schools still lack ombudsman systems that offer support by external and/or independent individuals who listen to complaints and provide protection as well as advice concerning possible solutions for individuals affected by misconduct and harassment. It needs to become a standard to offer such support of a person of trust to early career researchers and students in all educational institutions.

Schools just as universities should discuss how to identify bullying behavior, how to make sure that teachers who are known to exert such behavior do not end up in even high leadership positions, and in particular, those teachers who are aware and willing to stand up to abusive leadership behavior need to get access to strategies and resources that keep them and the affected students safe and that are efficient interventions against bullying by colleagues and supervisors. An easy step forward could be to address the possibility of abusive teacher behavior and corresponding solutions in the already existing anti-bullying programs and regulations in schools. For example, the webpage already demands that "all school staff need to be trained on what bullying is, what the school’s policies and rules are, and how to enforce the rules". That sounds very much like the suggestion that Nature made for battling bullying in science, except that the existing school policies often address merely bullying among students and sometimes bullying from students against teachers, but rarely the top down power abuse from teachers against students. Adding the latter would be a small step with potentially large effects.

While education and rules against bullying committed by anyone are important, they may have their limitations, as they might not deter habitual bullies. Educational institutions therefore need screening processes to assess whether teacher candidates -and established leaders- display habitual tendencies of abusing those in lower positions. Individuals who show overly narcissistic, manipulative traits and a questionable moral compass need to be identified and kept away from positions of power, a model could be screening processes used to keep unfit individuals out of positions as psychotherapists. Where teachers who habitually exert abusive behavior are already employed (many schools and universities cannot dismiss their teachers, once they are hired for life), their interactions with students and vulnerable colleagues need to be closely supervised and those in lower power positions need to have access to efficient protection systems. A Forbes article about psychopaths in leadership positions recommends: "Glean whatever you can about the moral and ethical character of a candidate - This isn’t always easy in a formal interview process, but any subtle insights that can be gained about an individual’s moral compass and value system can be critical. Bear in mind a psychopath’s skills to manipulate a situation and tell interviewers what he or she believes they want to hear."

Finally, schools and universities need ways to hold teachers and professors accountable for behaving in appreciative, fair, and respectful ways towards students, set incentives for appreciation and sanctions for abusive behavior. The protection needs to go both ways; upholding the assumption of a teacher's innocence until proven otherwise needs to go hand in hand with protection and support for students who come forward with their complaints.

The recent campaign against bullying in science is a chance for the tone and practice in dealing with harassment to change in universities. We should do our best for this discussion to reach the schools, too. Notwithstanding this cautious optimism, a long way lies ahead. In ten years as a researcher, I have encountered diverse teacher education programs, educational research organizations, and schools, with bullying leaders in key positions and highly aware departments, parents and colleagues who have not found ways of keeping the students and dependent employees safe. Whenever I share these experiences with other researchers, I get one answer: “Yeah, that happened to me too [followed by their own anecdotes, typically followed by an explanation why there is nothing one can do about it]”. Giving a voice to these experiences is a first step, but we also need to teach and learn strategies to leave the learned helplessness behind and engage jointly in proactive efforts to make schools and universities safer, fairer places for learning and work. A small glimpse of hope appears in the certificates handed out to the students who received a perfect score on their university entrance exams in the German Federal State of Brandenburg. Their highly official certificates read a quote by a German Punk Rock Band ("Die Ärzte)": “It is not your fault that the world is as it is. It would only be your fault if it stayed that way”.

Disclaimer: Importantly, it should be noted that this essay intents to help making schools and university departments safer and fairer places for students and employees, including teachers. It goes without saying that most teachers teach with the best intentions, as well as with much care for and much fairness towards their students. Teachers often voice concerns about the high amount of criticism they face every day, and the huge demands posed on them. This essay does not intent to add to these criticisms and demands, rather than that, it intents to help increasing the resources available to affected students and fellow teachers. Abusive leadership behavior affects us all, and only together we can find ways to overcome it in educational institutions.


For further blogs on the topic, see also:

About the Author
Julia Moeller Ph.D.

Julia Moeller, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Yale Child Study Center, where she studies motivation and emotions.