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South African Journal of Education

On-line version ISSN 2076-3433
Print version ISSN 0256-0100

S. Afr. j. educ. vol.30 n.2 Pretoria Jan. 2010




Exploring a secondary school educator's experiences of school violence: a case study



Suzanne Bester*; Alfred du Plessis**




In an increasingly violent society, South African secondary school educators often need to manage violent learners. In the context of a challenging and uniquely South African educational environment, managing this escalating violence often leaves educators battling to cope with increasing demands for learner performance in the midst of an inherited culture of violence and intimidation that spills over into the classroom. We attempt to explore, from an interpretive perspective, the experiences of an educator in a violence-affected educational setting. This includes the educator's perceptions of the causes, nature and results of violence. The article also unveils the educator's emotional experience and her perceptions of what contributes to the violence.

Keywords: bio-ecological systems theory; educator; learners; violence/school violence



Introduction and problem statement

How does an educator experience violence in a secondary school? Attempting to answer this important question is our primary focus in this article. A deeper understanding of educator experiences is necessary in order to

• enhance the effectiveness of educator support

• develop and streamline educational policies

• focus on further educational research.

Although through the years, theoretical assumptions of the causes of violence have shifted from the more traditional theories that mainly address a one- or two-dimensional view on violence towards more integrative and comprehensive theories (DeKeseredy & Perry, 2006) such as the bio-ecological systems theory, current literature is limited with regard to the exploration of educators' experiences of violence. Despite all the widespread and thorough attention that current literature is giving to the pressing issues related to school violence, it is often more focused on intervention strategies (Kingery & Coggeshall, 2001; Speaker & Petersen, 2000) than on the plight of the educator experiencing the violence. Karcher (2004:7), when suggesting developmental intervention by educators feels that central to this is the tenet that by helping youths establish a balance of connectedness to school, family, and friends, they will become less likely to engage in violent behaviour. Connectedness is also referred to in some of the literature as school coherence that is influenced by the educator's support and perceptions of danger within the school environment (Bowen, Richman, Brewster & Bowen, 1998:274).

A vast quantity of risk and protective factors for school violence can be accessed throughout the literature. For example, Lynch and Cicchetti (1997: 83-84) suggest that a protective factor would be for an adolescent to identify strongly with his parents and educators; May (2004:237) sees it as a risk factor when students bring weapons to school for self-protection, and Lupton-Smith (2004:137) feels that a protective measure at school would be to teach all students how to negotiate, mediate and manage conflict constructively.

Literature further frequently advises educators on how best to handle themselves, the learners and their parents, in order to be effective in combating violence at school level. Since they are expected to create a secure school environment, doing so will also serve their profession. Emphasis is often placed on understanding the context of the learner and on knowing what could reasonably be expected of them (Watson, Poda, Miller, Rice & West, 1990:75). A secure environment is described by Oosthuizen and Roos (2003: 39) as a place where a learner conforms to the school rules.

In terms of a learner displaying violent behaviour at school, it is important to consider the comprehensive view of interrelated factors influencing both the perpetrator and the victim of violence. The bio-ecological systemic environment of the specific educator will also influence the experience of the educator. Astor, Pitner and Duncan (1996:340) regard the bio-ecological systems theory as an important frame of reference for mental health consultants in helping educators generate effective school-based responses to school violence.



From a qualitative interpretive perspective of inquiry, the researcher conducted fairly unstructured interviews with an educator to pursue the primary research question: What are the experiences of an educator with regard to violence in a secondary school? Furthermore, theme analysis, a recursive literature review and member checking were used in an attempt to enhance the quality of the data.


The educator and school violence

Few people will argue against the statement that school violence has a devastating effect on a school system. Recently, there seems to have been an increase in the reported number of serious incidents of school violence in South African schools. South African learners are victimised at a rate of 160 learners per 1,000, a figure that is significantly higher than for example in the United States, where the latest statistical data yields a rate of 57 learners per 1,000 who fall victim to comparative forms of school violence (Burton, 2008:2).

The media often focus on the explicit details of violent incidents in schools and capitalize on the sensation these incidents create. Very rarely do they focus on the vulnerability of educators in coping with the overflow of violent symptoms from society into our schools. In some schools, educators have complained that since 1999 the Department of Education (DoE) has not supported their efforts to rid schools of troublemakers who they have attempted to expel on reasonable grounds. This situation led to a court case against the DoE (Bezuidenhout, 1999).

The DoE (2002) recognises the reality, responsibility and influence of the education system within the community at large and seems to accept the important role it has to play. The primary tasks of schools are to act as institutions of teaching and learning and therefore they have to take into consideration and manage those elements that negatively affect their primary task. This is often done under the slogan of a zero-tolerance policy. Osborne (2004:67) makes the comment that people in positions to effect change (such as educators) are not always well trained to deal with issues like school violence. They need to be informed by experts on the ramifications of proposed remedies, such as schools contemplating the implementation of zero-tolerance rules, the installation of metal detectors, the erosion of student privacy through random locker searches, and the creation of a more restrictive (jail like) environment. The call is made for researchers and experts in the education field to provide thoughtful and informed comments on the likely ramifications of implementing these strategies.

How to strike a balance between the important educational demands, violent societal influences and dedication to the perceived educational calling, requires that we seriously contemplate educators' experiences of violence, particularly in the secondary school environment where adolescents are negotiating their often-tumultuous journey towards adulthood.



Using an interpretive paradigm, the researchers attempted to understand the feelings, experiences, social situations and phenomena of violence as it occurs in the 'real world' of the educator, as a central axiom of interpretive research is to interpret data within the context (Terre Blance & Kelly, 1999:127). The epistemology of interpretivism is to know the world of human action and to understand the subjective meanings of the action to the actors. Therefore, the researchers attempted to get an insider's perspective into the experiences of the educator about violence (Schwandt, 2007:152). The researchers needed to stay true to the nature of the interpretive approach appreciating that how people know reality can differ greatly (Smit, 2001:69).

During the inquiry into the experiences of learner violence by a secondary school educator, the researchers chose a qualitative data collection strategy which consisted of unstructured interviews to compile a rich case study by obtaining first-hand data from the participant.


Interviews and observations

Interviews with the participant were conducted outside the school in a neutral context in the form of face-to-face unstructured interviews. Several general research questions were constructed in advance. Posing open-ended questions during the interview shielded the participant from feeling pressurised through the presumption of any specific answer (Terre Blance & Kelly, 1999:130). Questions and rephrasing were used in order to facilitate a clear communication and understanding between the researchers and the participant.

The following general questions were asked during the interview in order to provide direction to the interview process:

• What are your experiences with regard to violence as a secondary school educator as displayed by your learners?

• How often do you experience incidents of violence in your school environment?

• To whom is the violence usually directed?

• In what way do you feel personally affected by school violence?

• How do you perceive the effect of violent incidents in the school?

• How do these violent incidents affect the classroom dynamics?

• How has school violence affected you with regard to personal safety?

• How did your experiences of violence influence the way you handle conflict in the school environment?

• In your experience as an educator over many years, what is your perception of the current disciplinary system in addressing school violence?

• How do you think school violence is influencing the way you manage your classroom?

• What are the challenges you have to deal with at school that can be linked to school violence?

• What professional training have you received in order to be able to deal with the violence that you are experiencing at school?

• What was the nature of this training that you received?

The interview procedure was as follows:

Session 1: During this session the participant discussed her experiences regarding school violence. The discussion resulted from applying open-ended questions.

Session 2: The researchers discussed the findings of the research with the participant to ensure the credibility of the study and to ensure that the participant could indicate her satisfaction with the level of anonymity promised to her.

Observation took place in a naturalistic way while the interviews were being conducted, according to Terre Blance and Kelly (1999:134). 'Interacting with people in a naturalistic way makes it possible to understand their world "from the inside out" '.


Educator's profile

The selection criteria for the participant included female educators experienced in teaching secondary school learners from Grade 8 to Grade 12, who had been exposed in some way to the influence of learner violence in secondary schools. One participant was selected for the in-depth exploration of the research problem.

The educator was selected through a combination of convenient and purposeful sampling strategies.



Data analysis

Informed by authors such as Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2002:475-483) and Punch (2005:195-209) the researchers selectively analysed aspects of the human actions and events that illustrated recurring themes from the interviews. The researchers attempted to go beyond descriptive analysis and add a theoretical dimension. The interviews were transcribed and concepts were coded. The concepts were categorised into higher order concepts and then, through Axial (or theoretical) coding, connections were discovered between the thematic concepts.

Data were interpreted from a constructivist framework. The participant was encouraged to participate in the data interpretation, and to check that data interpretation were accurate and in accordance with her experiences.

The data analysis unfolded as a continuous process, starting from the initial meeting with the educator as a potential participant. Other potential participants were eliminated from the research due to the lack of depth of their experience compared to that of the chosen participant, as was revealed during the informal conversations we had leading up to the start of the research process.

All interviews were transcribed and then studied several times in conjunction with the corresponding non-verbal clues given by the participant. Field notes provided further guidance during the data-analysis process, supporting the process of dividing the data into identifiable themes. During the process, the results were verified continuously by means of audio and visual recordings of the interviews, which proved very helpful as a means of ensuring data quality. This also provided the opportunity to follow a process by which the different themes could be compared and relations between the different themes could be studied, so as to become aware of patterns that could be categorised. In this way, the data could be synthesised in new ways, to make interpretation substantive within the unique research context.

Three processes were followed to ensure effective data control. First, the participant verified the data results to prevent misinterpretation of meaning or misrepresentation of the content or context of the collected data. Second, data results were compared with existing literature, to identify similarities or discrepancies that might call for further verification, including the possibility of further research in future. Last, data verification took place by following a process whereby data results were monitored by a supervising researcher.

A summary of the main data categories and the sub-categories is presented in Figure 1. Fifty themes with regard to school violence were identified as forming part of the experiences of the secondary school educator. Through the data analysis process those themes were grouped under main categories. Figure 1 presents the summary of the analysis. It also gives an indication of the perceived frequency with which the specific theme presented itself during the data-collection process.



Further explication of how the authors arrived at the various categories and sub-categories, as summarised in Figure 1, is presented in Table 2. Table 2 attempts to give an indication of how the authors went about analysing the data and give the reader some insight into the verbatim experiences as expressed by the participant. The data in Table 2 form the basis from which the findings are discussed.


Discussion of findings

Causes of school violence

The results of this study indicate that the educator perceived the main causes of violence to be: academic tension, not repercussions for behaviour and violence modelled by society. This is linked to the traditional perception that violence may have an institutional origin. According to Keller and Tapasak (2004:105), the relationship between academic underachievement and antisocial behaviour, particularly aggression, is well established.

Retaliation against provocation and bullying at school are further contributing factors leading to violence. This result is also clearly supported by literature. Gerler (2004:4) views physical violence at school often to be the product of irrational, overblown retaliation to verbal abuse. The media also recently reported an alleged perpetrator of violence as being the victim of bullying over an extended period of time (Beeld, 2008).

According to the educator, other factors such as gangsterism, alcohol use, gambling and prejudiced behaviour in the form of xenophobic threats and sexism at school also play a role in causing school violence. She was not able to identify with certainty gangs in the school setting, yet was able to confirm an unwanted connectivity between certain learners. Kodluboy (2004:195) remarks that school systems are prone to ambivalence about or outright denial of gang presence or the significance of gang presence in the schools. In his view, the primary significance of gang membership for schools is that gang members represent a significant subgroup of students who are more likely to be at risk and to present risk to other students than the general adolescent population. According to his study, the rate of violent offences for gang members is three times higher than for non-gang delinquents (Kodluboy, 2004: 210). His view could not be confirmed by this case study.

Reddington (2007:97) suggests that the alcohol, drugs, and delinquency connection runs through all categories of crimes. In a study conducted by him, the majority of youths arrested for either violent crimes or property crimes were involved in the use of some substance at the time of the crime. This would also seem to hold true for the situations reported in this article.

There would seem to be a gap in the current literature when considering the influence of gambling on school-related violence. No clear evidence of this was found in literature.

As far as gender-related violence is concerned, Mills (2001:3) acknowledges the fact in his article that for many boys being 'tough' was their understanding of what it was to be male. In a patriarchal society, aggressive play by boys towards girls was often described as 'typical' or 'boys will be boys' behaviour and such behaviour was even encouraged. It was the acceptance of this behaviour as being normal that was most damaging in the school environment. It was this use by boys of aggression to gain power and to dominate, which was intimidating and threatening to girls and undermined their whole experience of school. The results of this study suggest that it is also a culture-specific phenomenon that might call for further research. A study conducted at the University of Jerusalem indicated that having a higher percentage of girls in class lowers the level of class disruption and violence (S.A. Jewish Report, 2008).

Recently, South Africa has been the centre of xenophobic attacks. It is therefore not surprising that this is also mentioned as a possible contributor to school violence. Fredericks (2008) confirms this view by reporting on similarly disturbing xenophobic attacks on teachers in schools in the Western Cape. Van Zyl (2008) reports on the link between xenophobia and a lack of emphasis on South Africa's history in schools, and thus not cultivating a sense of pride in learners. The theory of inequality is but one possible way of explaining this type of violence.

The teacher's experiences of the nature of violence

The nature of violence at school is primarily experienced as a struggle for power that is gained through physical force, including intimidation, threats and violation of rules. According to Mills (2001:1), petty violence and jockeying for position in the form of pushing and shoving, makes the lives of many teachers in schools miserable.

It must be noted that although the educator as participant did have personal experience of violence towards her, the focus of questioning was not to explore this but rather her general perception of violence at school.

Violence is perceived to be on the increase and more and more directed at the educator as an authority figure, than before. Cangelosi (1988:280-283) suggests four reasons a student may choose to abuse a teacher physically. First, students may feel backed into a corner and feel that striking out at the teacher is the only way to maintain 'face' with peers. Second, the teacher may be in the position of being an accessible target for the student at a moment when the student is reacting angrily. Third, the student may attempt to exert control over authorities, win favour with peers, seek revenge on the one in authority, or relieve boredom, by carrying out a prank that endangers the wellbeing of a teacher. Last, the student may feel obliged to defend himself against the perceived danger that the teacher poses. According to the reported results, the educator experienced violence as occurring in order to exert control over authorities and to win favour with peers as the most common reasons for the violence.

The teacher's emotional experience of violence

The teacher in this study indicated that she reacts to violence with an overwhelming sense of negativity towards the learners, especially those who are seen as perpetrators of violence. The negativity takes the form of ignoring the learners. There is also a lack of motivation to assist learners within the learning environment. Astor et al. (1996:345) mentioned that negative social attribution cycles between peers, teachers, and highly aggressive children may contribute to the perpetuation of violence in the school setting. Feeling overwhelmed by this might in fact contribute to violence. Osher, VanAcker, Morrison, Gable, Dwyer and Quinn (2004:17) remark that if a teacher, feeling overwhelmed by a large class, uses a stern or loud voice to call a child's name, that child is likely to internalise the communication as rejection, criticism, failure, and punishment. This might then contribute to the learner reacting violently.

Symptoms of trauma are clearly seen in the verbatim responses, especially through anger experienced towards the learner. In the analysed data, feelings of disgust and revenge could be identified. The following emotional responses can be linked to the traumatising effect of the school violence: a perception of fear, a low self-worth and a feeling of immense guilt in the way she is responding to the violence. Walsh (1998:29) warns that a traumatic incident like school violence can cause major organisational disruption and individual distress in the workplace and that comprehensive management is required to maintain the function of both the organisation and the individual. The results have further shown that the educator experiences the general inability of the educational support systems to support teachers. This perceived failure is specifically in connection with discipline and the enforcement of acceptable practices in the classroom and on the school grounds.

It was found that despite the many negative perceptions, the educator perceived teaching as a calling and experienced it as a life mission, attributing personal purpose as being connected to a deeper, spiritual meaning. The expressed resilience contributed to perseverance in the teaching profession, despite difficult circumstances.

The teacher's experiences of the factors contributing to violence

The poor support from school as well as community systems, together with an inconsistent disciplinary style that teachers use in the classroom, are perceived as the main contributing factors to the escalating violence in the school context. This influences conflict management and contributes further to violence. Rademeyer (2008c) remarks that the general perception of educators is that there is a lack of support from the provincial educational departments. A recent incident is mentioned in which the provincial government's refusal to expel learners from a school was overturned by the high court. Mahlangu (Rademeyer, 2008c) mentions that the inconsistency in the disciplinary system can be seen in practice because some schools negotiate with misbehaving learners, while others try to expel them.

The media influences teachers in two ways that contribute to their increased experience of violence: First, it makes them reluctant to deal with or expose violence, as many schools are afraid they may end up on the front pages of the newspapers. Teachers who do stand up against troublemakers are often regarded in the media as violators of children's rights. Often, such teachers were only doing the job of enforcing school rules and acting against troublemakers (Rademeyer, 2008b). As a result of this, teachers do not act, and this can be perceived as an even worse scenario.

Second, the media has contributed to making more teachers aware of violence at schools. It would seem that such reporting contributes to teachers collaboratively sharing the similar experiences, and rapidly magnifying the perception of increased violence.

Poor conflict management strategies are reported and a feeling of not being adequately equipped to deal with violence at school. Keller and Tapasak (2004:105) remark that the application of effective teaching skills (including conflict management) serves a dual purpose. It prevents feelings of frustration with learning, fear of failure and other possible academically-related antecedents to aggression and violence.

Conflict management should, therefore, start long before conflict has time to present itself (Striepling-Goldstein, 2004:29). Keller and Tapasak (2004: 111) suggest that since problems associated with violence and teaching can be highly complex, teachers must be flexible and creative problem solvers.

The teacher's experiences of the results of violence

Teacher burnout and the lack of interest among young people in pursuing a teaching career result directly from the violence experienced at school. Oosthuizen (as cited in Rademeyer, 2008a) is of the opinion that due to the extent of discipline problems in our schools, teachers are in dire need of help.

The teacher's experiences of preventative strategies

It is asserted that cultural awareness, knowledge and understanding referred to in this study as cultural wisdom, may contribute to the prevention of violence at school and, more specifically, in the class environment.

Humour can 'funnily enough' also contribute to preventing violence from escalating, as it serves to release tension. Some teachers might be able to use this as an effective strategy for preventing violence. Rademeyer (2008c) mentions that although humour can prevent a difficult situation from getting out of hand, teachers must avoid sarcasm as that has the opposite effect on a situation.


Concluding comments

The aim of this study was to gain an insight into the experiences of a secondary school educator with regard to violence at her school. The main limitation of this study is the sample size in that it reports on the experiences of only one educator who finds herself in a very specific context and emotional state. Nevertheless, the authors of this article are of the opinion that it provides a rich description of the subjective experiences of an educator and gives an insight into the complexities of the various nuances violence creates in her school system. Perhaps the potential solution to understanding a dysfunctional school system afflicted with incidents of violence could be unlocked by gaining insight into and understanding of the experiences of those individuals who daily traverse the system.

The results of this study indicated that the educator experienced violence in her school as a harsh reality that affected her functioning as an educator on many levels. The educator identified various causes of violence in her school and intimated that factors such as, academic tension, retaliation against intimidation and bullying, no repercussions for undesirable behaviour and violence, gangster related activities, violence in society, prejudiced behaviour, alcohol and gambling were at the heart of the problem and were major causes of violence in her school. As a result, the educator feels unsafe in her school and is fearful of those whom she aspires to educate. She expressed an urgent need for support from the school system and specifically school management and government, and expressed a need for guidance on how to deal effectively with violence in her class and school environment.

The findings of this study portray an educator who finds herself in crisis due to a perceived lack of support and because she is ill-equipped to face the new challenges of educating violent learners. It is highly relevant that we take note of the deepening crisis in our education system, which in this study is expressed through the subjective experiences of this educator. It seems important to note that this educator has a perception that perpetrators of violence in schools have become untouchable and that few consequences follow unacceptable violent behaviour. Educators need more clarity on their rights and responsibilities and on how to act in situations of violent contact with their learners. Furthermore, disciplinary support mechanisms on the part of school governance need to be investigated to clarify their effectiveness and to determine if they really accomplish what they set out to do, namely, to support educators in their complex task of maintaining discipline in our schools.

The experiences of this educator resonate with recent reports in the media on violence in schools that could potentially extrapolate her experiences to the larger educator corps. This could possibly facilitate an understanding that our educators are human beings with particular needs and limitations. They are a vulnerable group at risk of feeling de-motivated and possibly burnt-out.

This study highlights the need for further research on the phenomenon of escalating violence in schools. Further studies could include for example, comparative case studies of various educators in a variety of school environments; survey studies which could be representative of a larger population of educators; studies that could explore the relationship between violence and educator discipline styles and studies to explore the experiences of learners regarding violence in their schools.

As the researchers of this case study, we express the hope that it will contribute to a better understanding of the lived experiences of educators who are faced with educating violent learners.



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Suzanne Bester is Supervisor of clinical training at the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Pretoria. She has published widely and her research interests are in life design and psychological assessment practices.
Alfred du Plessis is a registered educational psychologist in full-time practice.




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