Violence in the workplace can lead to teachers changing jobs or in the worst case, disappearing entirely from working life, researcher says.
Violence in the workplace can lead to teachers changing jobs or in the worst case, disappearing entirely from working life, researcher says.

Teachers are exposed to considerable violence and threats at work

Studies show that being exposed to violence and threats increases the risk of psychological problems and illness, a researcher says. In the worst case, these teachers could disappear from working life.

Teachers and staff at primary schools and after-school activity programmes are attending courses to learn how to deal with violent situations, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK reports. Several private companies offer such courses to municipalities.

Findings from the survey

Teachers answered three questions about violence and threats at the workplace:

"During the last 12 months, have you been exposed to violence at the workplace that led to visible marks on your body or bodily injuries?"

  • Primary school teachers – 1 in 10
  • Kindergarten and school assistants – 7.3 per cent
  • Kindergarten teachers – 4.2 per cent
  • Secondary school teachers – 1.2 per cent

"During the last 12 months, have you been exposed to violence in the workplace that did not result in visible marks?"

  • Primary school teachers – 1 in 5
  • Kindergarten and school assistants – 1 in 10
  • Kindergarten teachers – 5 per cent
  • Secondary school teachers – 4.5 per cent

"Have you been subjected to threats at work that were so serious that you were scared?"

  • Primary school teachers – 5 per cent
  • Kindergarten and school assistants – 4 per cent
  • Secondary school teachers – 2 per cent
  • Kindergarten teachers rarely experience threats.

The figures are based on the living conditions survey on the work environment, which is conducted every three years in Norway.

11,000 people took part in the survey, and it is representative of the entire country.

One in four primary school teachers has been exposed to violence or threats in the workplace in the past year, according to figures from Statistics Norway's living conditions survey on the work environment.

“Teachers are exposed to considerable violence and threats at work,” says Eirik Degerud, a researcher at Norway’s National Institute of Occupational Health (STAMI).

One in ten teachers suffered visible marks or injuries

Degerud has analysed the figures from Statistics Norway, focusing specifically on the issues of violence against teachers.

One in ten teachers experienced violence that led to visible marks or bodily injuries. And five per cent experienced threats that were serious enough to make them scared, according to the figures on STAMI's website (link in Norwegian).

Degerud is concerned about the consequences that violence and threats could have for both teachers and the workplace.

“Looking at Norwegian and international research, you can see a connection between being exposed to violence and threats and the risk of developing psychological problems and illnesses like post-traumatic stress,” he says.

This in turn has consequences for the workplace.

“Mental health problems and physical injuries due to violence are reasons why people stay away from work,” he says. 

“This can lead to people changing jobs, not feeling safe in the workplace and, in the worst case, disappearing completely from working life.”

Degerud points out that children and adolescents are not fully cognitively developed and are also not yet experts at regulating their emotions.

“They experience a lot of frustration, and when children are frustrated, they sometimes resort to hitting, biting, kicking, throwing things, or threatening others,” Degerud says. 

Threats and violence

Retired researcher Børge Skåland finds the figures from STAMI alarming.

He mentions a report from SINTEF that shows even higher figures, where 56 per cent of teachers in Trondheim municipality were exposed to violence and threats over the course of one year.

Skåland has previously researched violence against teachers and conducted in-depth interviews with people who have experienced threats or physical violence from pupils.

Researcher Eirik Degerud presented the grim figures at a meeting during the annual political festival Arendalsuka earlier this autumn.
Researcher Eirik Degerud presented the grim figures at a meeting during the annual political festival Arendalsuka earlier this autumn.

Threats can include comments like ‘something will happen to you if you don't give me a passing grade’ or ‘I know where you live’, Skåland tells sciencenorway.no. 

He talks about teachers who have been hit in the head with iron pipes and kicked in the temples and ribs by pupils of primary school age.

“This behaviour has led to a lack of joy in teaching, insecurity in one’s role as teacher, loss of personal safety, sleep difficulties, and physical unrest,” Skåland says.

Violence and threats in four professions

The figures on violence and threats from the living conditions survey on the work environment are available for four different occupational groups:

  • Primary and lower secondary school teachers, in grades 1 through 10.
  • Teachers at upper secondary schools, university colleges, vocational teachers, and special education teachers.
  • Kindergarten teachers, who are preschool teachers.
  • Kindergarten or school assistants.

Position of power as a teacher

Skåland points to several possible causes of violence in schools. One of them is that teachers are in a position of power in relation to the students.

“Pupils are required to carry out school work that is intended for their learning,” he says.

In addition, children have lower impulse control than adults, and the emotional life of children and teenagers is volatile, with major mood swings.

“This is natural, but it can have major consequences for educators in a teaching situation,” says Skåland.

He thinks that a specific section in the Norwegian Education Act from 2017 could have something to do with this issue as well.

“The violation clause, more precisely Chapter 9A-5, states that schools have a duty to investigate if they become aware that a teacher has insulted a pupil through bullying, violence, discrimination, or harassment,” he says. 

“The Act specifically states that if the students' and the teacher's experiences differ, the students have the power to define the situation."

Lack of consequences

Skåland gives the example of parents who complain about teachers to the county governor. This happened in Alver municipality, where two conflicts between a teacher and student ended with an investigation and settlements, as reported in Utdanningsnytt (link in Norwegian).

Skåland believes this is yet another example of schools and parents not sufficiently considering the teacher's interpretation or version of events.

Henriette Selnæs, regional leader of the Rogaland Union of School Employees, believes that the lack of consequences is one of the reasons for violence and threats.

“We have been deprived of all forms of disciplinary measures in the classroom for unacceptable behaviour,” she tells NRK (link in Norwegian). 

Concerned about teacher shortages

“There's every reason to be concerned about recruitment,” Skåland says. "It's a shame, because teaching can be a particularly rewarding and meaningful profession."

He has experience as a teacher in primary school, special education, and upper secondary school.

Norway may find itself with a shortage of teachers in the coming years. Primary school will lack 5,800 qualified teachers by 2040, according to 2018 figures from Statistics Norway.

Børge Skåland is a former associate professor at OsloMet. He has also worked as a primary school teacher.
Børge Skåland is a former associate professor at OsloMet. He has also worked as a primary school teacher.

Many teachers would not even recommend that their own children follow in their career footsteps, according to a study from the University of Agder.

Concerned about future of the teaching profession

Skåland believes that studies, media, and experiences from former teachers paint a bleak picture of an unsustainable working situation.

Nevertheless, he thinks the signals from former Education Minister Tonje Brænna give reason for optimism.

“Brænna shows an emerging understanding that school is also a place for educators, not just students,” he says.

"She creates belief that the teacher's work situation and legal protection will be given more consideration."

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Translated by Ingrid P. Nuse

Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

Reference:

Fakta om arbeidsmiljøet innen undervisning – grunnskole (Facts about the working environment within teaching – primary school), Info sheet from STAMI, 2023.

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