Rachael Gibson worked as a teacher in Bendigo for three years before quitting. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)
Eighty per cent of teachers have experienced some form of student or parent bullying or harassment over the past nine to 12 months, with just over 85 per cent thinking it was a problem in Australian schools, according to new research.
- Verbal aggression and swearing was the most common behaviour that teachers experienced from students and parents
- First-year teachers reported less bullying, with researchers thinking this is because they get more support
- Teachers and researchers want a mandatory code of conduct signed by parents and students
Verbal aggression was found to be the most commonly encountered form of bullying and harassment with primary school teachers largely targeted by parents and secondary teachers by students, but their behaviour was similar.
The findings were contained in a new report from La Trobe University.
Sociologist and report co-author Dr Paulina Billett said yelling and swearing was “number-one behaviour that teachers encountered from both students and parents”.
Alarmingly, 10 per cent of teachers reported being hit or punched by a student and close to 13 per cent had their personal property damaged.
Former Bendigo teacher Rachael Gibson left the profession after three years and described it as a roller-coaster.
She said at times she loved her job and at other times was left feeling exhausted by the workload and powerless over students’ behaviour.
“You can guarantee nearly every week there was some student who thought it was fine to abuse a teacher or walk out of the classroom or disrupt lessons and that was probably where it started to get really hard,” Ms Gibson said.
Working mostly in secondary schools in both the public and private sector, Ms Gibson said the parents also dished it out when called into meetings.
This was reflected in the survey with close to 60 per cent of teachers reporting at least one incident of parent-led bullying or harassment.
“You get told, ‘You’re a stupid teacher, this is your job, we shouldn’t be helping you do your job, you’re useless, why am I paying to send my kid to this school when you don’t know how to teach’,” she said.
“When students see their parents doing that, it just reinforces that it’s OK to do that.”
Lack of support for teachers
Sociology lecturer at La Trobe University, and co-author of the report Dr Pauline Billett. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)
Across Australia, 560 staff participated in the survey with more than 80 per cent identifying as teachers and the rest made up of head teachers, principals and deputy principals. As reflected in the profession, just over 85 per cent were female respondents.
Bullying and harassment were broadly defined as ongoing insidious incidents that were both small and large and took many forms.
“It can be perpetrated by one person, it can be a number of people, it can be isolated, or it can be ongoing,” Dr Billett said.
It was largely mid-career teachers who experienced more bullying and harassment than teachers in their first year.
“We think some of the more protective measures that they have around those very early career teachers is actually helping them to kind of get through that first year without so much bullying and harassment,” Dr Billett said.
“Support is the number one thing they need to be able to navigate incidents or the ongoing incidents of bullying and harassment.
“At the moment our information would show that there is a lack of support.”
Dr Billett reported female teachers were more likely to be subjected to standover tactics while for male teachers the behaviour tended to be more underhanded.
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Dr Billett said she was not only surprised by the level of bullying and harassment towards teachers, particularly in an era concerned about mental health issues, but the severe impact on teachers’ lives.
“What it did to them in their family home, the depression that a lot of them actually experienced, people reporting symptoms of PTSD, things like that, that you wouldn’t immediately locate in the context of teaching,” she said.
Ms Gibson was in her mid-30s when she first began teaching after embarking on a second degree and came with a “wealth of knowledge and life experience”.
While the ongoing bullying and harassment not only disrupted the entire class and affected the learning outcomes and emotional wellbeing of other students it also impacted upon her.
“There were some weeks I’d come home and have a glass or three of wine and that wasn’t an everyday occurrence,” Ms Gibson said.
“But there were times when you just think, ‘This is too hard, why am I doing this?’ and that’s when I started looking into other work.”
Mandatory code of conduct needed
Both Dr Billett and Ms Gibson agreed one solution was to develop clear guidelines around what constituted bullying or harassment from students and parents with a mandatory code of conduct for parents and students to be instituted across all Australian schools.
“Some accountability for their actions through a code of conduct, through warnings of, ‘You know you’re breaching the code of conduct and there are real world consequences’,” Ms Gibson said.
Dr Billett’s report recommended an examination of current federal and state policies and responses to teacher-targeted bullying and harassment.
Teachers would like to see a zero-tolerance policy of teacher-targeted bullying and harassment by students and parents, along with penalties for any breaches.
Ms Gibson would like to see this backed up by an education campaign and workshops for students and parents around acceptable behaviours and discipline structures.
“We’re always training to better ourselves, to better our careers. I don’t understand why parents don’t think that they can do something different and better to help their children,” she said.
“There’s a reason there’s such a [teacher] burnout rate and I think that this really needs to be an area that’s addressed.”