Teachers and bullying: “When do I interfere?”

By Nina Müller

With the improvement of educational systems, the pressure on teachers has increased. Now that violent discipline measurements have become a thing of the past, bullying is the new big problem. But teachers are often unsure how to handle it.

The European Union has one of the best educational systems in the world. Over the past few decades, schools have changed how they teach discipline: verbal and physical abuse by teachers have turned from a daily necessity into a cruel no-go. But now a new issue at schools has become more and more pressing: bullying.

The issue of people teasing and marginalizing each other has been around since the beginning of time, but it was only recently that such an occurrence was given a name. Since then, bullying has become a more prominent topic. One might think that educated teachers should be able to easily prevent it, but that’s not the case. Teachers have become much more than just educators: next to being experts in their field, they have also become role models, leaders, parent substitutes, supervisors and even chaplains.

50 years ago, when politicians noticed that teachers need to be more than just experts in their field, they introduced psychological and pedagogical content into their education requirements. As a result, violence against students is now seen as a crime and lessons have been adjusted to create a healthy learning environment. How come it is still difficult to get a grasp on bullying?

What makes bullying harder to manage than other misbehaviours is it is a silent form of psychological terror. Identifying it can be a huge challenge for teachers. Philipp (31) from Stuttgart, Germany is currently absolving his Master of Education in physics and mathematics. Last year, he completed his first practical experience as a teacher at a high school and saw the problem first-hand. “When you hear mean comments between the students, you’re often contemplating and thinking ‘When do I interfere?’ As a teacher you never see a class the whole day. For me, it might be only one critical moment in one lesson. But for the victim, it could be several of those every day. It’s hard to view the whole situation. That’s why communication between teachers is so important.”

“When you hear mean comments between the students, you’re often contemplating and thinking ‘When do I interfere?’”

Communication between teachers is inevitable. That is also the opinion of Herbert Walter (83). He was part of the first generation of teachers who were taught psychological and pedagogical methods during their studies. After working as a teacher and being a principal for over 40 years, he can look back on several situations where bullying took place between students. According to him, he and his colleagues managed most situations quite well. “But at one point I realized that we teachers couldn’t provide all the psychological support the students needed”, he says. That’s why Herbert requested a social worker for his school – his school in Riegel was one of the first ones with such a position in Baden-Württemberg.

Still, didactical skills and knowledge are a priority for teachers. This seems understandable given that their main role is still the one of an educator, but Philipp thinks that the psychological part is insufficient. “If I’m honest, I don’t really feel prepared enough for the everyday work”, he says. “But I guess the rest is all about experience. We learn a bunch of certain measurements we can take in certain situation, but we’re also taught about something called ‘pedagogical discretion’. It means that we teachers should always contemplate ourselves what best to do in each situation. You can’t learn the perfect solution for everything in a lecture.”

But it is still concerning that regarding the topic of bullying, Philipp only had one discussion of 90 minutes within a class at his university. That one discussion had a big impact on him though. “Before it, I always thought that victims of bullying were partly at fault for it. That it only happens to people who fall out of line. But that changed completely throughout the discussion. Now I know that it’s almost never the victim’s fault and it’s the bullies that have to change. And the people watching who don’t do anything.”

Bullying will always be a tough issue given how complex it is. But it is irresponsible to not properly educate teachers to the point where they feel confident in their abilities. Of course, experience can be a good education tool as well, but if this education only starts once the teacher is working, it is too late. Bullying can cause severe physical and psychological damage. Students deserve both teachers with excellent pedagogical skills and didactical skills.