When the teacher is the bully

May 15, 2012 at 4:00 p.m. ET

We've come a long way to understanding and dealing with the bully on the playground or on the school bus and even the classroom. But what if the bully in the classroom isn't who you think it is? What if the teacher is the bully?

Many have seen the viral internet video by the father who wired his autistic child to record bullying in the classroom — by the teaching staff. The very people who should have been protecting the child and preventing bullying were the ones demeaning the student. Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. Teacher-student bullying happens more than schools would like to admit.

Not just special needs

Bullying by the teacher doesn't just happen to special needs kids. It happens to average and high-achieving students, too, elementary school through high school. When a child of any age or ability level is singled out for demeaning attention by a teacher who feels threatened or resentful, it’s wrong, and it may be bullying. School is supposed to be a safe place.

Power plays

Just like the playground, bullying is not the victim‘s fault. It's about the bully‘s issues. However, the teacher-student relationship has an inherently unique dynamic: the teacher has tremendous power over the student's learning environment, evaluations and activities. In addition, because teachers are supposed to be preventing bullying, not engaging in it, it can be too easy not to name it for what it is.

Listen to your child

Talk often with your child about school, and listen carefully to what is communicated about the classroom. Don‘t dismiss comments or feelings, and look for out-of-proportion emotional responses to school-related issues.

Constructive coaching and reassurance

Depending on your child's age, you may be able to coach him through constructive responses to classroom events, concurrently with your efforts to intervene. Reassure your child that you support him and will do all you can to resolve the situation.

Talk to the teacher

If you suspect an issue, try talking to the teacher in a non-confrontational manner first. Parent and bullying expert, Beverly Flaxington suggests that when you speak with the teacher, "convey the child's perspective. At the same time you must seek understanding of the teacher's position, too." Yes, Mamma Bear, this will be hard, but do try to have an open dialogue and work toward a constructive outcome before showing your claws.

Document, document, document

Meticulously document everything related to the bullying: dates and times, what your child reports, observations, feelings, communications with the teacher and so on. Tactfully talk to other parents, if appropriate, and learn as much as you can about the classroom environment. Documentation should, according to Flaxington, “stick to objective information.”

Take it higher

If your efforts to resolve the situation directly with the teacher fail, take concerns up the school administration ladder. Ask for additional observers in the classroom and a resolution plan. File a formal complaint if necessary. Follow up and follow through, constructively and persistently, for the best outcome for your child.

Bullying in any manner is bad enough, but when it’s the teacher doing the bullying, it’s even more of challenge. Be careful, thoughtful and tenacious as you work to resolve the situation. Your child deserves a safe, supportive, bully-free classroom.

More on bullying

How a bully can change your life
Why do kids bully?
7 Bullying resources for parents