Yes, Some Teachers Are Bullies

In yesterday’s post, “Can Teachers Be Bullies?” we learned that obese children and youth are often bullied by teachers who use the power vested in them to unreasonably and unfairly manipulate, disparage, humiliate, and punish students. We speculated on why some teachers are bullies, wondering if it is because they themselves were bullied.

Peter Fonagy, Ph.D., says yes. Teachers who make overweight kids’ lives miserable were often treated badly themselves as children — not necessarily for weight issues, but bullies have never run short of excuses. Dr. Fonagy says,

If your early experiences lead you to expect that people will not reason, but respond to force, then you are at risk of recreating this situation in your classroom.

A number of factors could be involved. The teaching profession is no bed of roses. Like everyone else, teachers have difficulties with their spouses, kids, and parents. They have health problems, financial shortfalls, self-esteem issues, substance-abuse problems, and all the other typical human woes.

Of course there is no excuse for picking on students, but plenty of accumulated free-floating unhappiness is out there, waiting to be passed along to the next generation. Katherine Kam wrote for WebMD,

A student may remind them of someone they dislike. Or, in a surprising reversal of the “teacher’s pet” syndrome, insecure teachers may bully bright students out of envy.

And before anyone has a chance to mount the high horse of righteousness, absorb this: Between male and female teachers, by their own admission, the potential to engage in bullying behavior is equally shared.

Back in 2006, Dr. Fonagy and Dr. Stuart Twemlow published, in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, their report of a study based on an anonymous survey of 116 elementary teachers from seven different schools. Forty-five percent of the respondents admitted to having bullied at least one student. That’s almost half!

The researchers did point out that in many schools, some students are so aggressive and belligerent that educators are concerned for their own physical safety — so they put up a tough front as a preventive measure. In many cases, this involves preemptive bullying.

According to Dr. Twemlow, the majority of bullying teachers fall into the former victim category, and tend more toward absenteeism and avoidance, dealing with disciplinary matters by making referrals to their principals. Only a small minority are truly sadistic types who derive twisted pleasure from hurting the feelings of students. In an ideal world, he says, there would be a way to screen out the “nightmare teachers” who thrive on their power to cause psychological damage.

The good news is that the former victim types are more amenable to interventions, like additional training in classroom management. The article we are referencing here also includes hints usable by parents and students, for dealing with bullying teachers.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Nearly half of elementary school teachers admit to bullying,”, 06/28/06
Source: “Teachers Who Bully,”, 2006
Photo credit: fsse8info on Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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