26 Jun 2020

'Kicked, hit, slapped and bitten' - Quarter of primary school teachers feel unsafe in class - survey

7:19 am on 26 June 2020

Rising violence in primary schools has reached the point where one-in-four teachers feel unsafe in their own classroom - double the figure three years earlier, a national survey shows.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The Council for Educational Research study found 24 percent of primary teachers reported sometimes feeling unsafe in their classrooms last year, up from 12 percent in 2016, while 1 percent often felt unsafe, the same figure as 2016.

In addition, 23 percent felt unsafe in their school grounds occasionally last year, up from 11 percent in 2016, and 2 percent frequently felt unsafe, up from 1 percent.

The report said 25 percent of teachers often experienced serious disruption from children in their classroom, up from 17 percent in 2016, most teachers (77 percent) dealt with at least one incident of extreme behaviour last year, and most (69 percent) wanted more help to manage such behaviour.

It said teachers in lower decile schools were more likely to experience disruption, but there were no decile-based differences for feeling unsafe.

The survey, which runs every three years, found children's wellbeing and mental health was one of the top problems for primary school principals, alongside IT costs but behind funding and the amount that is expected to schools.

The results were based on survey responses from 145 principals, 620 teachers, 126 school trustees, and 395 parents in 2019. NZCER said the response rate was the lowest since the surveys began in 1989 and the maximum margin of error for principals' responses was 8.1 percent and 3.9 percent for teachers' responses.

The president of the Educational Institute, Liam Rutherford, said the survey results reinforced reports from the union's members about violence from their pupils.

"We're getting the entire spectrum, all the way from language and defiance all the way through to being kicked, hit, slapped, bitten. These are the realities for a large proportion of our teachers," he said.

Rutherford said teachers needed to be able to spend more time with their pupils so they could develop good relationships and avoid misbehaviour.

Principals' Federation president Perry Rush said he was currently visiting hundreds of principals throughout the country, and they had been telling him that severe behaviour was their biggest worry.

He said the problem appeared to be caused by an increase in the number of children coming from violent homes.

"We have significant challenges in this modern age with young people who are experiencing crisis or trauma in their lives for a range of different reasons. We're seeing the effect of that trauma and crisis in classrooms and we do not have sufficient resource to deploy to deal with it," Rush said.

"We're seeing young people who are exhibiting behaviours that are violent, we're seeing young people melt down in classrooms, we're seeing young people that are disrupting other students around them and in some instances we're seeing teachers and other students who are being hurt physically hurt and of course emotionally harmed by actions in classrooms."

Rush said schools needed trained counsellors and others who could help children deal with the trauma in their lives.

"It's clear that the resources in schools are not being matched to the need that we're seeing through the school gate, so this needs quick resolution."

Auckland Primary Principals' Association president Heath McNeil said principals were reporting more problems with five-year-olds.

"There's been a growing awareness of the self-regulation skills that some of the children are coming in with, or the lack of that self-regulation," he said.

"That's often borne out with the kicking, scratching, biting sort of behaviour. I think that's an areas where we've seen it grow."

He said said the increase in teachers feeling unsafe was also likely to be due in part to the rules that restricted physical intervention when children misbehaved.

"There's a lack of control over the situation, so there's sort of anxiety particularly if the child has a history of these sorts of incidents. As a teacher you're conscious of what could develop and sometimes you're hamstrung by the legislation."

'I always was on edge'

Tim has been teaching for 12 years and last year was among the 24 percent of primary school teachers who sometimes felt unsafe in their own classrooms.

The cause was an 11-year-old boy from a violent background who came to the school after moving from another area.

Tim told RNZ that despite the school's best efforts the boy was liable to lose his temper and throw things, punch walls, or hit other children.

"I always was on edge and having to keep an eye on him always, all the time during the school day because anything was likely to happen at any moment," he said.

On one occasion Tim found himself trying to prevent the boy from harming another child after he provoked a fight in class.

"He was in such a worked up state that I had to restrain him because it seemed like if he got loose, he was going to hunt down this other boy, no matter what, grabbing whatever weapon he could find along the way," he said.

"He was in a state where he was not able to calm down, he was seeing red, really and he was struggling to listen to anything that was being said to him by me or by anyone, he couldn't process anything, he'd just lost ability to control that part of himself because of how worked up he was and how angry he was."

Tim said even with the help of two other teachers and the school's principal he could not calm the boy and eventually the police were called to assist and handcuffed the boy.

"When he had the handcuffs on him, he eventually calmed down after a few minutes and we could talk to him and he was able to talk back."

He said such incidents could make him question his career choice, but he had no intention of leaving teaching.

"For the most part I really enjoy what I do and I want to be able to make a difference, especially for those sorts of kids who may not get a positive influence or a positive adult interaction possibly in other part of their lives," he said.

Modern classrooms

Nearly 40 percent of the teachers responding to the survey said they taught some or all of the time in so-called modern or innovative learning environments - open-plan buildings that house several classes of students at once and have discrete rooms and spaces for small group work.

Of that group, 62 percent said they enjoyed teaching in those buildings, 28 percent were neutral, and 55 percent said it had improved their teaching while 28 percent were neutral.

"But 78 percent of the teachers thought that some students find innovative learning environments overwhelming," the report said.

Teachers' comments about the buildings included:

  • "It's not the space/room that determines purposeful, focused learning. It's the quality of the teaching and learning."
  • "Too many opportunities for distraction, too noisy, poor listening environments."
  • "Many students become self-regulated learners very quickly. Some students don't become self-regulated learners quickly."

Principals under stress

The survey found 90 percent of principals enjoyed their jobs, but they were more tired and stressed than in previous years.

It said 59 percent reported high or extremely high stress levels, up from 47 percent in 2016 and 37 percent in 2010.

In addition, a quarter of principals said they had problems with tiredness, up from eight percent in 2016.

The lead researcher, Cathy Wylie, said the survey showed schools were making more effort to improve education for Māori students.

They were also paying more attention to their pupils' physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

However, she said it was disturbing that more principals (74 percent) said too much was being asked of schools.

She said the survey also showed that good teaching practices were not sufficiently widespread.

"Some of the ways that teachers work together that we know from research are really good for teaching and for learning, we're not seeing any progress in them and we're also seeing quite a substantial minority who don't experience what I would think of as really good practices," she said.

"So we're not seeing any progress in some of the ways of working in schools that could really make a difference."

Wylie said teachers who worked in "team teaching" groups, were more positive about their work than teachers who did not.

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