Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Types of Bullying in schools

This is a follow up post on workplace bullying done by S. By now, my readers will know that the focus of my blog posts have been about education (occupational hazard, admittedly) so I hope to shed some light into the issue of bullying in Singapore schools. I will discuss the 4 types of bullying I have observed.

Type 1. Students bullying Students

A local survey done in 2006 has reported that 1 in 4 children are victims of bullying. Bullying amongst students is a problem as old as education itself and is undoubtedly a prevalent issue that exists not just in Singapore but in schools worldwide.

Happily, however, the awareness of student bullying is pretty high in Singapore. The Singapore Children's Society and schools regularly conduct anti-bullying campaigns to educate the masses. There are also helplines (1800-221-4444) and counseling platforms for bullies and victims alike. So to all student bully victims, I will tell you that you are not alone and there are platforms to help you. Don't suffer in silence!

Help for bully victims (and bullies) exist. Don't suffer in silence.

Type 2. Teachers bullying Students / Abuse of Teacher Authority

Refer to examples here and here. As much as we educators like to deny it, teacher prejudice and abuse of authority are very real issues. As a child growing up in Singapore, I have been called stupid by my Chinese teacher and labelled untalented by the choir mistress. (Both are not really justified in hindsight - I was simply quite behind in the learning of Chinese compared to my peers at that time, and too lazy to practice the choir songs on my own. But anyhoo, this is not about me.) As an educator, I do occasionally hear private remarks from teachers about marking down students they 'do not like' and read of instances where teachers throw objects at students in class. Some of you may also remember back in 2005, the case of the 'Mad RJC tutor' who called her student a 'sly, crafty, old rat' for submitting a shoddy assignment, which caused an online sensation.

Is this teacher bullying her student?

If you are a teacher reading this you could be thinking: hello, whose side are you on? Well, I am not taking sides. If you are feeling guilty, it may do you well to reflect on your past words and actions to your students. Our words and actions towards the kids under our charge can either tear them down or build them up. It is a tremendous (and scary) responsibility. 

To put things in perspective, I do sense that this particular type of teacher bullying is becoming less of a problem in schools today than it is compared to the past. That's largely because, unlike 20-30 years ago, the modern-day Singaporean parent is better educated, better informed and generally plays a more active role partnering schools in the education of their kids. Empowered with knowledge, the 21st century parent has become more critical of the education system and more defensive of their own parenting. This brings me to the next type of bullying in schools.

Type 3. Parents/Students bullying Teachers

The education landscape has shifted greatly in the past decade with a rapidly evolving demographic of Singaporean parents and students. Teachers are becoming increasingly vulnerable to verbal abuse from students online as well as written complaints from parents to the Principal/MOE. Teachers who have been in service for more than 10 years often shake their heads and reminisce about the good old days when parents trusted the teacher's discretion in educating their kids. 现在的孩子越来越难教 It is getting increasingly difficult to teach these days. We are under heavy scrutiny for our actions and our professionalism is questioned at every turn by increasingly demanding parents. Last year, a simple act such as cutting a student's hair can cause a police report to be filed against the offending teacher... Good grief.

Cutting your students' hair can get you into trouble. Teachers, beware.

Is there any way to protect our teachers from parent / student bullying? Of course, the most logical way is to get the higher authorities/MOE to intervene, which has worked in some instances. I'm not sure if my fellow teachers agree, but in my observation, most Singapore teachers choose the option of suffering in silence or complain to friends/colleagues for sympathy. Refer to Type 1- It's so ironic that the advice we give our students is often lost on ourselves.

In the world of harsh realities as an adult, there are many complex issues with no (easy) solutions. Both action or inaction often have different repercussions. Take the following example:

Mrs Lim* (not her real name) has been teaching for more than 10 years. She transferred to a new school this year. After a recent common test, she received a handwritten hate note (in ugly handwriting, admittedly, to retain anonymity) from a student in her pigeonhole, with vulgarities condemning her for setting a couple of very difficult questions that almost nobody knew how to do. Over the week after the test, she continued to receive these anonymous notes in different handwriting, some with threats of complaints to Principal/Ministry for her cardinal sin of setting those difficult questions. With the various handwriting in the notes, she wasn't sure how many students were involved in this hate campaign towards her. 

After a few days, Mrs Lim finally decided to alert her Head of Department (HOD) of the notes and asked for advice to handle the matter according to school policy. Her HOD's primary concern was with the students' emotional hurt experienced and Mrs Lim was asked to apologize to her classes for setting those questions and also assuring them that the test is fair. Mrs Lim was appalled. What about her own emotions? These 'difficult' questions were vetted and approved by the HOD and now she needed to apologize? Undeterred, she plucked up her courage to approach a more senior authority in the school for advice. When she showed the hate notes, the senior officer warned that a formal complaint through Principal/MOE will not look good on her record as a new teacher to the school and again, the message of closure to all her students was reiterated to her. Mrs Lim was also told that nothing can be done officially if the notes are anonymous. In short, swallow the insults and move on. Placate the students and make sure they don't complain. Never mind that the student used vulgarities and accused you falsely because it is irrelevant.

What should Mrs Lim do? Take further action to complain to even higher authorities and as warned, potentially lose her credibility/job over this matter? Or do nothing and live with her grievance and potentially subject herself to further accusations?

What should Mrs Lim do?

Parents always ask teachers to empathize with them... I wonder if they know it cuts both ways.

Type 4. Principals/Head of Departments/Teachers bullying other Teachers

This is the worst type of bullying I have observed in schools. When I have conversations with friends working in the private sector and they complain about co-worker/boss- bullying, they are stunned when I reveal that the same types of atrocities happen in a school environment among the staff. The most common assumption that employees in the private sector have of teachers is that we face minimal collegial issues because school is a nurturing and safe environment. I wish I could say so - but it isn't. Supervisor/collegial bullying is rampant in the school environment - research has shown that more than 90% of teachers feel they have been bullied by other staff members.

School is a nurturing environment? Not so, for teachers.

This article here is a very good example of supervisor bullying that happens in a school context. As I read it, I was deeply affected because my teacher friends and I have undergone a very similar situation as Sarah* (mentioned in the article) when we were junior teachers. During that difficult time, I asked my Principal and a senior colleague I trusted as to why the school system did not consider adopting the 360 degree feedback model for the school middle management. This model was nothing new and pretty established in the private sector (MNCs etc).The idea was pretty straightforward in my naïve mind - managers needed feedback from their staff to truly assess their leadership competencies, in the same way that a classroom teacher needed feedback from students to ensure their lessons remained engaging and relevant. (I should probably contextualize by mentioning that the system of student feedback was already well-established in my school then.) So basically if ordinary teachers could receive 360 degree feedback, why couldn't the school leaders and middle management be subject to the same?

The response given to me was this : It was tried a few years before I joined the school. When the survey was conducted anonymously to draw out genuine responses from the staff, there was a sizeable volume of negative feedback generated. When the school leaders and HODs were confronted, they were more concerned about finding out which individual gave the negative feedback instead of improving from the feedback given.

During those trying days, I genuinely felt that the Singapore education sector was in the Dark Ages. A good friend of mine who works at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) once revealed to me privately that a good 20-30% of the patients at IMH are from the teaching profession... Not difficult to see why.

At the end of the day...?

As a realist, I am fully aware that because of the inherent flaws in human nature, workplace bullying issues will never be eradicated. It is simply unfortunate that a 'nurturing and safe environment' like a school can be an equally hostile place to work in. With teachers being placed at the very bottom of the school hierarchy, teaching has become an increasingly unpopular profession. The government's solution to this (so far as I can see), is to give out more and more teaching scholarships as well as cash incentives. How can this be sustainable?

Teachers have become like Army recruits... Bottom of the hierarchy.

On a parting note, if you are wondering what happened to Mrs Lim* and how she is doing now -  She has since resigned and joined a private school. Good for her. No point staying in a school that does not stand on her side when she has done no wrong IMO.

Perhaps the teaching sages out there, with their many years of teaching experience and wisdom, could share their insights. Feel free to drop a comment or share your story.

- A


  1. I was quite surprised and shocked when I heard that the 360 degree feedback (or equivalent) wasn't practiced at A's school.

    Even the Navy has mechanisms to capture feedback from even the ground level, and I do sense things changing for the better over there. But of course in my case, it's way too little, way too late.

    Credit where credit is due, though.


  2. even as a lowly medical student in England, we do 360 feedback for consultants we've been under- and vice versa. obviously, their feedback to us are not anonymous but our feedback to theirs is. not sure if it's a country-culture thing or just a teaching profession thing.


  3. I think if parents don't teach children to respect teachers, children will lose respect for teachers, and for parents too.

    Parents can't tell their children to respect them right? It wouldn't sound credible. In the case of rebellious children, it will only make the situation worse. Our education, and teachers, are important in conveying this message.

    However, if parents teach children to disrespect teachers, and our education system neglects the important lesson of teaching children respect for their parents, then there will be trouble coming up for our society.

  4. As a former victim of a bully teacher more than 20 years ago, I want to say thanks for bringing this issue up. Teachers who bully do exist yet not many people want to talk about it. It breaks my heart whenever I hear of students being subjected to abuse by the teachers. If you are interested in a similar topic, do read this: http://whatsaysyou.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/the-bully-teacher-who-got-away-with-it/

  5. Thanks for sharing Mrs Lim's story that I could definitely identify with as well as the type 3 and 4 bullying. I'm sure Mrs Lim is much happier now that she is not longer under the mercy of any disrepectful immature students nor the authority could threaten her in anyway, anymore! How to keep the sanity of a teacher going is the greatest challenge for the teaching professionals in this modern age. I don't know much about how the good old days of a teacher's life was like decade/s ago but I remember as a student back then, we held great respect for our teachers and treated them like 'God' - every comment from them is so valuable and important for us as we knew that they are the ones who educate us and we were and now still grateful for their teaching. But right now, what has happened to the education scene? A total change of respect among the students, parents and even the MOE is not going to support their own teachers, perhaps that explains why so many teachers swallow up their own pride of not approaching MOE even if they knew that they are in the right because parents and students are now seen as the 'customers' in education who they can't afford to offend! Ever heard from someone in the HQ that MOE will keep on using high salary as a way of attracting more teachers even though they knew that many will quit but that will be in 3 years time when the bond is over, another batch will be the willing lamb to be 'slaughtered' because of the high remuneration and attractive benefits - long holidays. So the recruitment now will be mainly for the newbies and chances for the ex-teachers to re-join is very slim because the newbies will be the fresh graduates, foreigners, mid-career job-seekers who are too 'fresh' to show any form of 'rebellious' act to the system yet. Sad isn't it?... How the Singapore education system has evolved over these times and wonder what's the true calling of a teacher nowadays? Have we inevitably become a slave to this education system for the sake of Singapore to prosper economically as evident by so many injustice treatment that surface out from the hidden closet in the education landscape nowadays?