One in five teachers in the USA, who were the victims of physical or verbal violence at their schools, didn’t report the incidents to school administrators, according to a nationwide study.
The results showed that significant minorities of teachers who experienced violence also didn’t tell their colleagues (14 percent) or family (24 percent).
Only 12 percent went to a counsellor.
“You would think that the first thing a teacher would do after a violent encounter or threat would be to tell the school’s administrators, but 20 percent aren’t even doing that. That’s disturbing,” said Eric Anderman, lead author of the study and professor of educational psychology at The Ohio State University.
“Too many teachers aren’t talking to anyone about what happened.”
The study was published online this week in the journal Social Psychology of Education.
In collaboration with the American Psychological Association, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, Anderman and his colleagues surveyed 3,403 kindergartens through 12th-grade teachers from across the country. This study included the 2,505 teachers in the survey who said they were the victims of some form of violence.
Teachers were asked to describe in writing “the most upsetting incident” at school in which they were the target of students’ verbal or physical aggression or intimidation.
One-quarter of the teachers reported actual physical abuse or assault, 20 percent reported threats of physical violence and 37 percent described verbal insults, disrespectful language or inappropriate sexual advances.
Another 8 percent didn’t write about the details of the violent incident itself, but about a lack of support from school leaders and colleagues who were told about the abuse.
“That finding was very surprising to us. It was not something any of us thought we would find,” Anderman said.
The study examined how teachers reacted to the violence against them, particularly concerning how much they blamed themselves for what happened.
On a scale of 1 to 5, teachers rated how much they blamed themselves for the violent incident through statements like “They do this to me because I won’t fight back” and “I should have been more careful.”
Teachers also rated the extent to which they experienced three reactions to the incident: feeling upset, becoming angry, and feeling physical symptoms like nausea or a fast heartbeat.
Results showed that the more teachers blamed themselves for the incident, the more likely they were to report feeling anger and having unpleasant physiological responses, which in turn was related to a greater likelihood of talking to others about the incident.
“Experiencing negative emotions like anger can potentially be helpful if it leads teachers to reach out to colleagues or family. They often need help processing what they went through,” Anderman said.
But those feelings of anger triggered by self-blame also were linked to a lower likelihood that teachers contacted the parents of the student perpetrator about the incident. Some research suggests teachers are more likely to talk to parents when they feel effective at work and are more committed to their job.
“It is possible that teachers who experience violence may sometimes become less committed to teaching and feel less effective,” he said.
Anderman said he was concerned that only 12 percent of teachers spoke to a counsellor about the violent incident they experienced. The study showed that teachers who rated feeling more upset and reported higher levels of physical symptoms were the most likely to see a counsellor.
It may be that many teachers avoid seeing a counsellor because they don’t want to appear weak or ineffective, he said.
Anderman also noted that teachers were more likely to talk to their colleagues about violent incidents than with their administrators. That finding, coupled with the fact that 8 percent of participants wrote about the lack of support they felt, suggests schools need to be more effective at dealing with violence against teachers.
“Some schools may need to re-evaluate how they can support and help teachers who are victims of violence,” he said.
This work was supported by the American Psychological Association’s Center for Psychology in Schools and Education.