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A Question of Conduct – How do teachers and students deal with violence and bullying in the classroom?

Bullying – also at schools – is a complex web of victims, perpetrators, and spectators. Photo: fotolia.com/Luis Louro.

Bullying – also at schools – is a complex web of victims, perpetrators, and spectators. Photo: fotolia.com/Luis Louro.

In a DFG-funded research project, Wilfried Schubarth, Professor of Education at the University of Potsdam, in close cooperation with the Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences, is studying how teachers deal with violence and bullying. The study focuses on the scope and development of violence and bullying in schools as well as on potential forms of teacher intervention. With the help of a teacher and student survey, the researchers hope to gain new insight into competency research and teacher training.

Even in the 1990s, when the topic emerged and was very present in the media, Professor Wilfried Schubarth — then a research assistant at the TU Dresden — was researching violence and bullying in schools. One insight of the study was that the situation in schools was not quite as alarming as the media tended to portray it. At the same time, certain problematic constellations became apparent, such as the interplay between lower institutions of secondary education (Hauptschulen) and social hot spots.

The issue of violence at schools is no less relevant today. Many teachers consistently work near their breaking point, suffer from depression, or are diagnosed with burnout. Aggression in the classroom is often at the heart of teachers’ exasperation. Prospective teachers, who are still highly motivated, also worry about this situation. “Many teacher trainees entering their student teaching semester ask me for some kind of handout, which tells them what to do when confronted with violence, aggression, and bullying,” explains Professor Schubarth. “What are students supposed to do with a theoretical knowledge of the forms of violence, if they don’t know how to act when students actually display violence in the classroom?!”

After Schubarth, Professor of Educational and Socialization Theory, had been confronted with these questions time and again, he decided to fully dedicate himself to the topic and pick up where his 1990s study at the TU Dresden had left off—both to be able to draw a comparison with the situation in the past and bring the research up-to-date as well as to gain new insight into teacher professionalization.

Because bullying is an interdisciplinary research topic, he decided to cooperate with psychologist Ludwig Bilz, a former researcher at the TU Dresden and professor at the Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences since 2013. “Our goal was to connect our current study with our study from back then, to be able to trace developments. The current debate surrounding teacher training and competency development really helped us. We wanted to find out which competencies teachers need in order to respond appropriately,” says Schubarth. The cooperation helped with this, too. “Professor Bilz brought the psychological expertise and in particular developed the instruments for our psychological survey. As an education researcher, I have mostly dealt with questions of school education and professionalization theory. That was a great combination, even though our cultures of communication differed, and we often got caught up in our divergent interpretations of terms,” says Schubarth.

One such ambiguous term was “competency”. While psychologists understood it more cognitively, education researchers also considered its social and interactional aspects. In their study, the researchers surveyed teachers’ competency on various levels. A person’s knowledge, motivation, and beliefs were key. To determine competency, the researchers asked with the help of questionnaires which phenomena of violence and bullying teachers were familiar with, which values they represented, and what motivated them to intervene in violent situations – or not. A crucial question is whether they wanted to see something and intervene or preferred looking the other way. In addition to teachers’ psychological and social attitudes, the survey also asked how the school administration worked, how colleagues got along, and how values were communicated within the school. “It is astonishing that up until now we have had so little information on this,” says Schubarth, who views school culture as a key starting point for improving intervention opportunities.

During the initial research phase the researchers from Potsdam and Magdeburg informed themselves about the current state of research. They realized that there is an abundance of measures—also internationally—but that most of them are preventative. “Many of these programs started at the turn of the millennium. This also had to do with the emergence of the gun rampage phenomenon at schools and the commitment of many schools to offer mediation. We don’t really know what happened to these attempts, because many initiatives fizzled out,” says Schubarth. The so-called emergency folders were also imposed and handed out by the ministry in the wake of the school shootings. Schubarth believes this was an important step because teachers who are used to acting in accordance with certain guidelines can read how to act during an emergency.

Schubarth and Bilz are conducting their study at 25 schools in grades 6-8. To ensure comparability they chose schools in Saxony, which is where the first study in the 1990s at the TU Dresden had been conducted. In choosing their sample, the researchers were careful to include schools from across Saxony’s various regions and types of schools. The earlier study had especially suffered from low teacher response rates, which is why findings on the teachers’ viewpoints on their students could not be included. The current study thus made sure to include enough teachers. “In addition to the exciting discussion with our cooperation partners from psychology, the next challenge was to get schools to participate in the survey,” says Schubarth. “Many schools are awash with questionnaires. It is also a politically charged topic. Despite the anonymity of our survey, many institutions immediately declined to participate, interestingly enough especially at the academic secondary schools, which always publicly present themselves in the best light.” The tenacity of the researchers – which also includes teams around Lars Oertel of the University Potsdam and Saskia Fischer of the Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences – has paid off; they were able to get the desired number of participating schools.

Because of the high response rate, they can now analyze data from about 2000 students and 500 teachers (90 of them classroom teachers). By surveying classroom teachers, Schubarth and his colleagues wanted to find out how well they can recognize potential perpetrator and victim roles in their classrooms. They suspect many teachers can identify perpetrators but not victims, who tend to be inconspicuous and neither are seen nor want to be seen.

“Bullying is a complicated structure of roles including perpetrators, victims, encouragers, defenders, and a large group of spectators. This structure always exists but is dynamic. Through our survey, we hope to expose possible bullying structures,” explains Schubarth.

For comparison purposes, students were asked to reconstruct and describe past cases of bullying or violence: How did they themselves act? Who were the perpetrators and who were the victims? How did the teacher deal with the situation? Was the intervention only temporary or did it solve the problem in the long run? This question was especially pertinent to cases of bullying that occurred not once but multiple times.

Soon the research team will start evaluating their data. They will emphasize the development of violence among students and teachers’ willingness to intervene, especially as compared to the 1990s. “We are particularly interested in factors contributing to teacher intervention. Are these personality traits or school-specific features? When we know which factors influence this, we can take the appropriate steps for teacher training.” The PhD projects around intervention competency – by Juliane Ulbricht’s students and trainee teachers – as well as the PhD projects on the situation of high-violence schools by Saskia Niproschke will also generate valuable insight.

The crucial prerequisites of being a teacher are not just specialized knowledge, but, above all, educational competency, communication and conflict proficiency, and self-regulation to protect oneself, Wilfried Schubarth asserts. He suspects teachers focus too much on imparting knowledge and, as a consequence, are less able to judge and influence social behavior. Especially bullying, then, often goes unnoticed, because it is not obvious violence, but a long and dynamic group process, in which a whole class or even school participates. “One strategy could be to strengthen the role of the teacher. He or she has to assume the key intervention position, recognize when bullying starts and who is pulling the strings, and review social relations in the classroom. The teacher also must not be left alone in all this and receive support from the school administration, for example through consulting with a crisis team or social workers,” Schubarth concludes. When the school administration clearly communicates certain values, when colleagues are open and willing to cooperate, and when teachers are not viewed simply as knowledge brokers, then a framework can develop, in which bullying and violence can be stopped faster and, most importantly, over the long haul. Intervention, after all, is a question of conduct.

The Researcher

Professor Wilfried Schubarth is Professor of Educational and Socialization Theory at the Department of Education at the University of Potsdam. He directs the working group “Quality of Studies” at the Center for Teacher Training and chairs the examination board teaching. He is also a member of several advisory boards, among them the “Monitor: Teacher Education in Germany.”


Universität Potsdam 
Department Erziehungswissenschaft 
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 24–25
14476 Potsdam
E-Mail: wilfried.schubarth@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Text: Sophie Jäger
Online gestellt: Agnes Bressa
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