This article follows from the Actual Stories of teachers who have experienced violence themselves.
Violence in schools is certainly not a new thing, nor is it an uncommon thing. We see headlines regularly of everything from student fights in the playground all the way up to mass shootings in the US.
Violent incidences between students, while not acceptable by any means, are almost expected. Everyone has their stories of school yard fights they have either been a part of, witnessed, or heard about. They occur in the vast majority of schools, regardless of things like socio-economic status and the ‘type’ of school.
What is perhaps less expected is the violence faced by teachers in their line of work. Unfortunately, this is something that is also relatively common.
One only needs to do a quick Google search to see the teacher-specific headlines. Ones like “Italian high schoolers caught on video threatening teacher over grades“, “Busselton Senior High School teacher attacked, student charged in latest violent incident“, and “‘I Am Scared to Walk Into a Classroom’: A Preservice Teacher on School Violence“. These are only 3 of the recent headlines on Google News.
In my last article, I shared stories from actual teachers. Stories of the violence they have personally experienced, or violence they have witnessed. You can read this article here. Within the first 3 days of the article being published, it became the most-read on this site, driving our social media channels into overdrive. Shock, dismay, consolidation, anger, sympathy, empathy – the strongest emotions shared between teachers and their friends and families at the stories in that article.
These stories are shocking in that they focus purely on violence against the teachers themselves. The majority of these stories are instances where the teachers have been victimised by students, but some of them include being victimised by parents as well.
After the impact that article had, I decided to look into the academic research surrounding violence specifically against teachers in school settings. What I’ve found is shocking, heartbreaking, and completely unacceptable.
In order to do this broad topic justice, I sectioned it below.
Types of Violence
Through my research, it appears that violence in school settings falls into three main categories – physical, verbal, and property. Subcategories like sexual harassment or cyber-based violence can be placed within these three higher-levels. Note that this is the categories for the act of violence itself, not the impact the act has on the victim (such as emotional or mental impacts).
It is important to note that teachers are not exposed to only one type of violence. Often incidences are a combination of types, and teachers who are victimised on multiple occasions by the same students will often experience a variety of violence.
When we first think of violence, we tend to think of physical violence. It is the most shocking, outward, and easily visible form of violence; the one that tends to get the most attention and the harshest reactions. It is the one that is most talked about, most reported on in the media, and the quickest to garner outrage.
It encompasses any form of violence where physical touch is involved, whether that is by a fist, a leg, or some other object. I distinctly remember an incident from my own primary school days where a young student threw a chair at a teacher. Thankfully it missed, but I still shudder at what could have happened had it hit.
All too unfortunately, and as evidenced by my last article, many teachers are no stranger to physical violence.
Verbal harassment, verbal abuse, verbal violence. Different names for the same form of violence. It is one that many teachers face on a daily basis. It is also one that tends to be pushed aside, excused away, or not taken as seriously as physical violence.
Unfortunately, unacceptably, verbal abuse is one of those things that teachers are expected to face. It is almost a given that as a teacher you will have students hurling verbal abuse in the classroom or the playground, parents hurling verbal abuse over the phone.
It does’t even have to involve swearing, as many people seem to believe. Snide remarks about appearance, or classroom management techniques, or even ‘jokes’, are a different side of this form of violence.
Ask any teacher, they will tell you how often it happens.
A form of violence I have chosen to include within verbal violence is the emerging trend of cyberbullying. If you’ve heard of social media, online games, or any online platform where people can interact, then no doubt you’ve heard of cyberbullying. There is a certain lure of the anonymity the internet gives people, and all too many take advantage of that for the sake of abusing others. While it may seem a lesser form of violence, it certainly has it’s impact and reach. Occasionally, it even leads to the suicide of victims.
Cyberbullying between students is well known and documented, and therefore receiving interest from the media and research sectors. If you are a teacher yourself, or have school aged children, you will know about the attempts schools make to curb cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying against teachers by their students is less well documented, and the research is limited. Kyriacou and Zuin highlight the need to shift conceptual frameworks to better understand and therefore combat this form of violence before its impact becomes more significant.
Property violence is the third type – where a teacher’s belongings are either damaged or stolen.
Again, this sort of violence is less reported, less talked about publicly. You won’t find media articles about how a teacher had their phone stolen, or their pencil case graffitied, though you will sometimes see when a teacher has had a car damaged.
Research in this area is also limited, and I believe that is because it occurs less often, and is seen to have less of an impact, than the other forms of violence against teachers.
Finding the statistics for incidences of violence against teachers was surprisingly more difficult than I anticipated. Short of contacting every district/government department/country, I present here what I was able to find.
As hard as I tried, I couldn’t find country-wide statistics for Australia. This was supported by one report I read, stating “Although there are no national statistics on student caused teacher injuries, media reports show that assaults and injuries suffered by teachers are increasing.”
A quick Google search found that in Western Australia alone, 595 physical attacks by students against teachers were reported in 2017, a number which has tripled since 2014. According to the State School Teachers Union, teachers are experiencing more extreme violence, and from younger students, than ever before.
I contacted the Australian Government Department of Education and Training to ask for statistics at a national level and received the following response:
“The Australian Government takes the issue of violence, bullying and harassment in schools seriously. All students, teachers and principals have the right to feel safe at school.
It is unacceptable that our hard-working teachers and school leaders can face threats and, at times, actual violence in the course of their work. Likewise, it’s unacceptable and concerning that students, parents and other members of the community have perpetrated such acts on teachers and other school staff.
State and territory governments, as well as non-government education authorities are responsible for ensuring that appropriate measures are in place so teachers and school staff can carry out their work, educating our future generations in safe environments.
We always recommend teachers and principals follow the procedures that are in place at their school and contact their local education authority and/or local police if they are concerned about their safety within the workplace. If someone is in immediate danger, it is recommended that police and health services in the local area are contacted.
The Prime Minister and Minister Birmingham wrote to all schools to encourage students and families to take part in the National Day of Action (NDA) Against Bullying and Violence, which saw a record 1.97 million people participate on 16 March. It is worth noting the NDA is not solely about student safety, and that teachers and principals deserve a violence and bullying free environment at school as well.
State and territory based Education Departments will be best placed to provide you with data on the incidence of violence against teachers and school leaders.”
The fact that there are no national statistics indicates to me that there is no one looking at this issue on a national level. Each state department is responsible for schools within their jurisdiction; as is appropriate, I suppose, given that we run a state-based education system. But I feel it should be escalated beyond state control and looked at holistically from a national perspective.
While there are no statistics focusing on classroom teachers, a recent survey of Australian school leaders has found that 43% of principals in public schools experienced physical violence from students and about 8% from parents, and 53% experienced threats of physical violence from students and parents. That is just the principals, who don’t necessarily deal with the students on a daily basis – I can only imagine that the rates for classroom teachers are even higher.
A 2014 US study by McMahon et al found these startling statistics: “Participants included 2,998 kindergarten through 12th‐grade (K‐12) teachers from 48 states who completed an anonymous web‐based survey assessing their experiences with victimization. Results revealed that 80% of teachers reported at least one victimization, and of these teachers, 94% reported being victimized by students. Nearly three‐fourths of all teachers experienced at least one harassment offense, more than half experienced property offenses, and 44% reported physical attacks. ” Let me repeat that for emphasis – 44% of 2,998 teachers experienced physical attacks. That’s 1,319 teachers from this study alone.
According to the American Psychological Association “From 1997-2001 (PDF, 800KB) 1.3 million nonfatal crimes (including 473,000 violent crimes) were committed against America’s teachers.”
An article written by Jackson Lucas points out that “There is very limited research into violence against teachers, and what research has been done often contradicts official statistics. This would imply incidences of violence against teachers are not being reported and therefore resources are not being made available to address the problem.” He also points out that the cost of victimisation is costing the US upwards of $2 billion annually. So even if you are only looking at it from a money point of view, it’s a problem.
Within the UK, this article showcases the horrifying statistics of violence against teachers up until the year 2014. Rather than rehashing the main points here, I strongly encourage you to head over and read it for yourself. According to this article, “Over the six year period analysed – 2009-10 to 2015-16 – there were an average of 8,000 attacks every 12 months in schools (primary and secondary) that left staff with physical injuries.”
Lucas (from an article mentioned above) also found the following statistics about violence against teachers in other countries, and the legal consequences:
“In Israel, for example, a nationwide survey revealed that 73% of teachers had suffered a victimization experience in 2017 using the APA’s criteria of teachers being attacked in schools. The 8% year-on-year escalation prompted the state’s legislators to introduce an amendment to the penal code that will increase the punishment for violence against teachers to five years imprisonment.
Argentina had a similar problem with increasing violence against teachers until the country passed a law classifying any attack on a teacher as aggravated assault. Students and parents found guilty of violence against teachers will now be subject to 25% longer jail sentences or 25% larger fines than if a similar offense had been committed against anybody else.”
One study by Ervasti et al in Finland compared incidences of violence between male and female teachers in both mainstream and special-education settings. “…male special education teachers were 3 times more likely to be exposed to mental abuse, and 5 times more likely to be exposed to physical violence when compared to their male colleagues in general education. Although female special educators were also at an increased risk of mental abuse and physical violence compared to their female general teacher colleagues, their odds ratios for such an encounter were smaller (2‐ and 3‐fold, respectively) than those of male special education teachers.” As might be suspected, they also discovered “The school‐level variance of physical violence toward teachers was large, which indicates that while most schools have little physical violence toward teachers, schools do exist in which teachers’ exposure to violence is common.”
It cannot be denied that violence against teachers, in any form, has long lasting and significant effects.
Effects such as anxiety, stress, anger, physical injuries, loss of income, even a change in profession.
From my discussions with teachers about this issue, the healing process after such an occurrence depends heavily on how the situation is dealt with by the school. Teachers who felt well supported by the senior leadership teams were less likely to be harbouring severely negative emotions. My own experience with an intimidation event was hard enough to deal with, but when I didn’t feel supported appropriately by the school, it was enough to cement my desire to leave that school.
I believe delving into the effects of violence against teachers could be a PhD or Masters topic all on its own, so I was very surprised at how difficult it has been to find research covering this subject.
Of course there is literature relating to the effects of violence in general, but I wanted it to be specific for the effects on teachers who experience violence within the workplace.
What little I did find I will outline below, but I feel like the fact that this broad topic hasn’t been well researched is cause for concern.
Burnout and Leaving the School/Profession
Teacher burnout is a well-known phenomenon. Every beginner teacher knows the statistics – most burnout happens within the first 5 years of working in the profession. It is almost a relief and cause for celebration when you reach the 5-year mark and are still interested in and happy to be a teacher.
The impact that student- or parent-directed violence against teachers has on the rate of burnout is not a large area of study. I personally feel it should be, as one of my own incidences of violence against me by students almost drove me to leave the profession, as I’m sure it has done for many.
Curran et al looked into this aspect with nearly 110,000 teachers. They found that when teachers were victimised, or perceived to be victimised, it predicted an increased probability of those teachers either leaving the school or leaving the profession altogether. They also found that if the school promoted resilience at a school-wide level, it lessened the likelihood of teachers leaving because of victimisation.
Galand et al also suggests that victimisation and violence could have an impact on the decision to remain in the profession, but this desire can be lessened with a greater focus on teacher well-being. McMahon et all found “lack of administrator support negatively impacts teachers at multiple levels, including teachers’ feelings (individual); challenges associated with addressing issues related to students, parents, and other perpetrators (interpersonal); and school systems and policies (organizational).”
Looking at the study which focused on principals in Australia, it reports that principals are experiencing 1.6 times the rate of burnout and 1.7 times the rate of stress compared to the general population. I believe the rates for classroom teachers would be much higher.
A 2017 Finnish study by Cluschkoff et al looked into something I hadn’t considered before; how violence against teachers affects their sleep. Their finding are not surprising in the least – there is an increase in sleep disturbances. Of course there would be, with the layer of stress such incidences add to an already stressful occupation. The study did find, however, that if teachers are treated with justice it can moderate the association between the violence and the sleep disturbances. The authors stress that while preventative measures are of course important, promoting justice is just as important.
Looking at the same study on principals in Australia, it reports that principals are experiencing sleeping troubles at 2.2 times the rate of the general population.
And, well, that’s it. Those are the 4 articles I could find that explicitly focused on and discussed the impacts and effects that violence has on the teachers who experience it. I had thought this section would be the largest out of this article, and yet here it is, almost the smallest…
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, violent incidences are not always reported.
According to one study from the US “20 percent [of educators] never informed an administrator about the incident, approximately 14 percent did not tell a co-worker and nearly 24 percent kept the news from family.”
The student is going through a rough time…
In regards to the reasons why teachers don’t report violence, Robert Smol mentions “The excuses are many, but some of the most common ones I have heard include knowledge or hearsay that the student is going through a difficult time at home.”
This indicates that the teachers themselves are brushing off the violence as an expected, sometimes even acceptable, behaviour due to the student’s circumstances.
Martinez et al found that behavioural self-blame was associated with a higher rate of multiple victimisation incidences from students. This to me suggests that teachers are taking some of the blame onto themselves.
In other instances it’s the senior leadership using this excuse on behalf of the student – I have heard this excuse myself when I’ve been sworn at or dealt with a very difficult student. Like their home life somehow mitigates my right to a safe workplace.
Lack of support
Smol’s comment of “the disciplinary brick wall that was once the principal’s office is now not much more than a speed bump” seems awfully accurate in a lot of incidences mentioned in my last article. Many teachers feel they aren’t being supported by their school, which is no doubt driving the ‘suck it up’ attitude that’s being encouraged which in turn leads to a lack of reporting.
As mentioned by Smol, teachers are often actually encouraged by their senior leadership to ‘let it go’ or to not report. As per the Canadian study mentioned above, a staggering 25% of teachers were told not to report their incidence to the police. It absolutely horrifies me that teachers are being told to cover it up. It amounts to being told that their safety and well-being is less important than whatever reason is behind the cover-up.
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, Martinez et al found that “teachers who reported less administrative support were more likely to report multiple forms of violence by students”
It saddens me that teachers are not getting the support they need in order to feel confident reporting violent incidences. The fact that so many go unreported is such a layered, complex problem that truly needs to be investigated and addressed. There is no way anything will improve otherwise.
As far as I can see, there has been no research into what consequences are effective when dealing with violence against teachers. While it would indeed be a very subjective topic, hinging entirely on the situation and people involved, it saddens me that no one has tried to investigate this side of the issue.
What consequences are appropriate really does depend on the school, demographic, and type of incident. A consequence that is deemed appropriate in one instance may not work in another. It does, however, desperately need to be fair and consistent, and above all, present.
As seen in my previous article, consequences for instances of violence are extremely varied, and occasional non-existent. Sometimes they even vary within the same school, often depending on the member of senior leadership who is dealing with the issue at the time, or the student involved.
Knowing that the consequence for violence is not consistent or fair, or knowing that the behaviour might be explained away, is extremely diminishing and demoralising for the teachers.
I’ve witnessed teachers being openly questioned and second-guessed by the senior leadership who are supposed to support them, sometimes even right in front of the perpetrator. Being told that they are over-reacting, or that they should have handled the situation differently. All this does is say to the student that they can get away with it, and that the teacher is in the wrong – there are so many problems with this that I won’t even get started.
I cannot stress enough the importance of consistent, fair, present, real consequences for students who enact violence of any form against a teacher.
Prevention is by far the best way to deal with violence against teachers. Every country has policies and plans in place that are supposed to help prevent violence (not just against teachers, but within schools altogether). Whether they are effective or not is beyond the scope of this article to discuss, purely because each area is so different, and again I saw a gaping hole in the research.
While there are currently very few studies that look into preventing violence against teachers specifically, there are some that look at violence in general among school students.
Kapa et al found that an “authoritative school environment, characterised by high structure and support, has been associated with lower rates of victimisation.” They suggest ensuring teachers and administrators all enforce school rules to help reduce rates of violence against teachers, but everyone needs to be on the same page for this to work.
Robinson and Clay looked into the state of anxiety in teachers, and how this might affect their ability to identify violence warning signs in students. “The findings indicate that teachers who experience higher levels of state anxiety when confronted with warning signs of potential violence are better able to identify low‐severity warning signs than do their less anxious counterparts, without over‐identifying nonthreatening information as potential warning signs.”
Karcher found that students who engaged in violence behaviours were more likely to experience a feeling of disconnection from their teachers, and suggests this disconnection could be a target for preventing violence in schools. I wonder if the feeling of disconnection is stronger when a student victimises a teacher. Perhaps if that connection could be improved in general, we might see a decline in violence against teachers?
Interestingly, a pilot study in the US has shown that an artificial intelligence program can predict the risk at which a student will commit violence within their school, and “is as accurate as a team of child and adolescent psychiatrists, including a forensic psychiatrist”. “The machine learning algorithm that the researchers developed achieved an accuracy rate of 91.02 percent, considered excellent, when using interview content to predict risk of school violence. The rate increased to 91.45 percent when demographic and socioeconomic data were added.” While more research is needed, this is a promising step towards a new tool for predicting, and therefore possibly preventing, violent incidences. While this was looking at violence within schools in general, that certainly would be extended to violence specifically against teachers.
It is worth looking into the prevention strategies your own school has in place – I don’t mean general behaviour management, I mean look and see if there is anything within your school documentation that is specifically about violence.
Overall, I am disappointed and concerned about the lack of research into violence against teachers. I truly feel it is a topic that needs thorough and expansive research so that policies can be as effective as possible and teachers can feel better supported and more safe in their workplace.
Perhaps this is an area I could do a PhD or Masters in for my own peace of mind, and to expand the extremely lacking literature on this extremely important topic.
If you know of any research that I has missed, please pass it along so I can review it and update this article.
About the Author:
Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys blogging about her experiences, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine. Emily is currently on maternity leave with her first child. You can read more teaching articles from Emily here, or about her life as a new mum over at Actual Mums.