Is violence against teachers being normalized?


TORONTO, Sept. 2, 2021 – Workplace violence against female elementary school teachers by some of their students is often dismissed or diminished despite serious injury and emotional harm, says the lead author of a new paper out of York University.

That’s because the issue is often invisible, complex, intertwined, messy and insidious, say co-authors York University Assistant Professor Tuulia Law of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies and Professor Chris Bruckert of the University Ottawa.

They are quick to point out that the students are also victims here, as so many cuts to school resources mean supports for students are seldom available. Without them, some students lash out at teachers, often causing serious injury such as concussions. They say there is mounting evidence that student violence against Canadian educators is a pervasive problem, yet it’s not being taken seriously.

“It’s frightening, the kinds of things elementary school teachers in Ontario are experiencing and many of the teachers felt blamed for the violence by the school’s administrators for a lack of skills or competencies, or even caring,” says Law. “They often reported facing questions that asked things like — ‘what did you do to create the problem’?” The response to the violence is gendered.

This kind of workplace violence isn’t typically covered by the traditional violence-against-women contextual framing, which usually includes sexual assault and domestic violence.

“Teachers are being told by their administrators that this is the new normal. This is teaching today. Teachers are seeing it become routine, and they are outraged,” says Bruckert.

Bruckert surveyed the prevalence of student violence against 70 Ontario teachers from kindergarten to Grade 8 to get an understanding of the situation.
Together they looked at how the dominant framing of violence against women silences their voices and proliferates a one-dimensional image of the lone female victim. The authors say it’s time to move beyond this image. They explore a new way of looking at the issue through a wider framework that could help make the violence more visible and change how it’s dealt with.

“It allows us to see elements and factors leading to, causing and culminating in violence that women experience that we wouldn’t see in the traditional smaller framing. It’s really a zooming out to better see things like structural violence, like symbolic violence — things that are happening at the level of social structures and ideas, and broader systems as well as violence happening in contexts that we don’t again associate with a traditional framing of violence against women,” says Law.

“Workplace violence could be something that is happening through how the workplace is organized. It could be happening through organizational culture. It could be happening through various superiors or peers, through men as well as from other women.”

Female teachers experienced higher levels of violence than their male counterparts and more reprisals.

“We talk a lot about sexual harassment in the workplace as if that’s the only kind of gendered violence that’s occurring,” says Bruckert. “I don’t think we can talk about workplace violence without talking about gender.”

Next steps?

More front-end resources are needed to support children and prevent these situations in the first place. Budgets have been squeezed so there is less testing of students at the beginning of school, and fewer supports to help them in class and in managing their behaviour.

“Decisions happening at the political and bureaucratic level over time, can culminate in very harmful effects so in the end it is experienced as violence,” says Law.
The researchers’ expanded framework, however, can be applied to other workplaces as a way to more deeply, expansively and comprehensively see what’s happening with gendered violence. This is particularly important in predominantly female occupations, such as health care, law, and social and community services.
The paper was published in the journal Alternate Routes as part of their current themed issue: Work for Change.


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