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Teachers need our help to tackle bullying

17 September 2018
Beau Oldenburg
Beau Oldenburg

We expect an awful lot of teachers these days; not only must they create an inspiring academic climate, but they're also expected to prevent bullying in the classroom. However, they are not equipped to effectively tackle bullying. As there is very little academic knowledge about the role that teachers should play in combatting bullying, we are unable to offer them the support they need.

By Danelien van Aalst, Msc and Dr Beau Oldenburg

Bullying takes place in almost every classroom. Research has shown that bullying can have a devastating effect on its victims, thus the recent focus on this problem is commendable. The introduction of the 2015 School Safety Act (Wet Veiligheid op School) in the Netherlands made it compulsory for schools to draw up what is known as an 'anti-bullying protocol', describing how the school intends to combat bullying. In addition, increasingly more schools are implementing anti-bullying programmes which were assessed for effectiveness several years ago by the Netherlands Youth Institute (NJi).

These anti-bullying protocols and programmes give teachers a special role: seeing as they spend the most time with pupils, teachers are expected to prevent, signal and tackle any bullying as it arises in their classroom. Yet unfortunately, their efforts do not seem to be having much effect. For example, research shows that teachers don’t always recognize bullying, don’t take it seriously, or - according to their pupils - their good intentions often have the opposite effect.

Danelien van Aalst
Danelien van Aalst

This could be explained by the fact that most teachers are not sufficiently trained in how to tackle bullying. Teacher training tends to focus on curricular subjects such as languages and maths, but pays little structural attention to social safety in general and bullying in particular. These findings come from a report drafted by the School and Safety Foundation (Stichting School en Veiligheid) and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science*) . There are also differences in the way that teacher training programmes handle bullying: some programmes dedicate one or two lessons to discussing it, while others simply assume that student-teachers will learn how to deal with bullying through their practical teaching experience.

Seeing as so little is known about the role that teachers can play in tackling bullying, it’s hardly surprising that bullying is not given structural attention during teacher training programmes. Researchers from the University of Groningen recently compiled an inventory - known as a systematic review - of all the research into the role of teachers in tackling bullying. They concluded that, although we know a little about lots of factors, there simply isn’t enough basic knowledge to help teachers in their attempts to stop bullying. In other words, we don’t really know what teachers should be doing in these situations.

To summarize: we are not training teachers properly and cannot advise them about the best way to tackle bullying, and yet we still expect them to solve the problem. What we are really saying is, ‘sort it out yourself; it’s your problem’. But bullying is a problem that concerns us all, which is why it is important for us to lower our expectations of teachers. Teachers should certainly take signs of bullying seriously - they mustn’t bury their heads in the sand - but at the same time, we mustn't expect them to combat bullying single-handedly. The problem of bullying is far too complex and we still don’t know enough about it. We would do well to realize that there is no simple solution. Instead of passing the responsibility to teachers, we – schools, teachers, parents, researchers and policy-makers - should join forces to eradicate bullying as best we can. After all, bullying is a problem that affects us all, not just teachers.

*) Stichting School en Veilgheid (2015) Toegerust op sociale veiligheid - Vervolgonderzoek naar de toerusting van aankomende leraren door pabo’s en tweedegraads lerarenopleidingen op het gebied van sociale veiligheid – End report, commissioned by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.

Last modified:12 March 2020 9.23 p.m.
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