Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #3: When Students Cyberbully Instructors: Threats to the Educational Process

December 1, 2014
Instructional Communication

 In years past, when students didn’t like their instructors or grades they received in classes, they might complain to friends or family members. If they were really angry, they might pursue more formal channels at their academic institutions. However, today’s disgruntled students have other options at their disposal. They can use email, social media, and other types of technology to share damaging messages that can have a serious impact on their instructors’ reputations or careers. They can cyberbully their instructors.

On the surface, this may be hard to believe. After all, aren’t instructors the ones with the power, and therefore likely to be the bullies, while their students have significantly less power, and are therefore the most obvious targets? The title of “instructor” or “professor” versus “student” also implies this type of power distribution. But in today’s classrooms, the rules dramatically change when students feel empowered to voice their displeasure with their instructors online without having to be held accountable for their actions since they often can remain anonymous or use some type of fake identity.

Instructors do not need to actually engage in problematic classroom behaviors for students to respond as if they did. It may be enough that students perceive their instructors misbehaved. In other instances, students could be retaliating against instructors’ responses or policies for actions in which the students engaged (e.g., poor attendance, not liking the grade they earned on an assignment). When students aren’t pleased with their instructors for any reason, there is nothing to stop them from creating and posting unflattering videos about their instructors on YouTube, sending derogatory emails to individuals in or outside the institution, or writing blog posts that portray their instructors in an unfavorable light to outsiders. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that when students decide to cyberbully instructors, it may have nothing to do with instructors’ competence in the classroom. Any instructor, experienced or novice, could find himself or herself a target for cyberbullying by students.

Sadly, instructors, like other targets of cyberbullying, often are unable or severely limited in their ability to defend themselves from statements made by cyberbullies. In some cases, targeted instructors might not even know they are being cyberbullied until someone brings this to their attention. Depending upon the situation, instructors may or may not know who is instigating these negative messages. In addition, once instructors become the targets of students’ cyberbullying messages, their own institutions often give them limited assistance. They might also be told by their institutions to refrain from responding in any way to these messages.

The vast majority of academic institutions do not have cyberbullying policies. If they happen to have a bullying policy, it is likely to be focused on student-to-student bullying, not student cyberbullying of instructors. The closest topic in faculty or student handbooks for addressing cyberbullying is the category of harassment, and these policies often provide little guidance for dealing with the unique features of bullying, much less cyberbullying. As a result, the voices of student cyberbullies often are the only ones heard, as instructors’ voices frequently are muted in the process.

It is not surprising that instructors who have been cyberbullied by students are affected professionally and personally. Most are likely to change how they teach, feel less confident when they are in the classroom, and experience lower levels of job satisfaction. It is also common for targeted instructors to experience significant emotional, psychological, and/or physical stress. Yet, because the wounds inflicted by student cyberbullies are often non-physical, it is hard for others to know how to provide support for those targeted. Nor do most realize the cumulative effects of cyberbullying. If targeted instructors do not have well-established support networks to help them cope, the stress they experience could be excessive. Thus, in some instances, instructors may change institutions or leave the profession entirely.

Sadly, organizations don’t have a strong track record when it comes to addressing bullying in the workplace. The majority of organizations historically have done little to stop workplace bullying, often denying or ignoring that these actions take place. Ironically, what ends up happening is that targets are often told to “develop a thicker skin” rather than the organizations actually confronting the bullies and addressing the problematic behaviors.

Academic institutions may be overlooking the effects that students’ cyberbullying of instructors has on others at the institution. Colleagues of the targeted instructors may feel they could be next. If fellow instructors are scheduled to have the same students in future classes, it could have an impact on their own instructional practices. Furthermore, if the academic leadership at an institution does not appear to provide public support for those targeted instructors, this could send potentially devastating messages to the larger campus community. The absence of any supportive public statement for targeted instructors may suggest their institution does not value or support its faculty and staff. It also implies that somehow the instructors are to blame. The absence of any public acknowledgement also may unintentionally condone students’ cyberbullying of instructors.

As a society, we struggle with the dynamics of bullying. It would be so much simpler if we could just say that (a) targets did something to warrant being bullied, (b) only weak individuals are targets for bullies, or (c) being bullied will somehow make targets stronger individuals, implying that targets have some type of character flaw. But none of these claims need apply when it comes to students’ cyberbullying of instructors. In short, instructors may have done nothing to justify being cyberbullied by students. They may be engaged, highly competent instructors at their institutions.

Addressing the cyberbullying of instructors is not an easy endeavor. But without policies, procedures, and consequences for bullies to balance the potential onslaught of negative messages sent by students towards their instructors, we run the risk of negatively influencing who might choose to pursue the teaching profession. Or we may unintentionally influence how long some of our most qualified and experienced instructors are likely to stay in the classroom.

By no means should this suggest that instructors are perfect. Students may have sound reasons for responding to instructors’ inappropriate actions. However, most institutions have policies in place to address these concerns, whether they pertain to grade appeal processes or grievance procedures. When students make the conscious decision to cyberbully instructors, these actions cross the line. There should be zero tolerance for such behaviors.

About the author (s)

Sally Vogl-Bauer

Blackhawk Technical College