While it's typically tragedies like Virginia Tech and Columbine that make headlines, there's a more pervasive violence trend in American schools: violence against teachers. In fact, 7 percent of U.S. teachers are victims of school violence every year.
The psychological distress and injury that teachers face are significant, often resulting in their being less productive in class or leaving the profession altogether. Their students also have more behavioral problems and difficulty learning.
"In the end, everyone suffers from teacher victimization," Rutgers University professor of school psychology Linda A. Reddy, PhD, told attendees at an APA 2009 Annual Convention symposium.
As a first step toward prevention, she said, this national problem warrants the establishment of a national registry that tracks incidents of violence directed at teachers and the development of practical screening, monitoring and measurement tools for K–12 school personnel. Reddy is a member of an APA task force that is developing resources aimed at helping teachers cope with and prevent violence in the classroom.
Teacher victimization is complex and multidimensional, and little research has been conducted on what causes students to attack instructors, said task force chair Dorothy Espelage, PhD, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. But by drawing on research that has documented associations between school engagement and aggressive classroom behaviors, psychologists can begin to understand how and why it happens.
For example, in a 2003 University of Maryland study, researchers administered surveys to a nationally representative sample of 254 secondary schools, asking teachers whether they had been subjected to obscene remarks or threats by students, had been physically attacked or if their personal property had ever been damaged or stolen. The researchers found that there was less violence against teachers in schools where students felt connected and where staff worked as a team. They also found that teachers were more likely to be assaulted at schools in impoverished neighborhoods.
"If we're going to impact teacher victimization, we need to move beyond the confines of the school and beyond pointing the finger at the aggressive student," Espelage said.
Student and teacher communication also plays a significant role in aggression, said Ohio State University educational psychology professor Eric Anderman, PhD. One common problem emerges, for example, when students transition to middle school: Their relationships with teachers change because they don't always get the individual attention and support they need. At that time, schools often shift their concentration from encouraging students to enjoy learning to caring only about grades, performance and ability.
"If schools were less focused on extrinsic outcomes and more focused on mastery and helping kids get involved and interested in learning, [students] would be less likely to get bored or angry and lash out against teachers," he said.
He also emphasized the need for psychologists to help teachers avoid prematurely judging students because these biases may negatively affect interactions with students.
Teachers can also help prevent students from jumping to the conclusion that they received a bad grade because the teacher hates them, for example, by providing specific comments on incorrect answers, discussing the grade with them or even allowing them to retake a test.
"Instead of using their grade books each week to write notes about how bad a kid is or whether they've done their homework, teachers should ask themselves, 'Did I say something nice to each kid this week about their learning?'" Anderman suggested.
In collaboration with the National Education Association, the task force, staffed by the APA Education Directorate's Center for Psychology in Schools and Education, is now culling its research and recommendations for a white paper and Web-based brochure for teachers. These resources will also inform education policy with regard to school management, parent and community involvement, classroom climate, and teaching and learning.
"We are going to see the impact of this [partnership] for years to come in terms of teachers staying on the job and being happier," said Abraham H. Jones, EdD, a special education resource teacher for the NEA.
Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.