Sooner or later, every teacher–with blessed few exceptions– will have to deal with a bully, and not the grade seven bully stealing chips from kid lunch boxes. But an adult bully, experienced and educated, dressed in fine clothes. A fellow teacher.
This post aims to inform teachers about the reasons for bullying in teaching and offer solutions for any teacher dealing with a bully.
These are true stories of teachers bullied by other teachers or administrators. Names and minor facts have been changed to protect these teachers’ identities and protect their privacy:
Maria, The “Principal’s Pet”
Maria, a grade twelve science teacher, entered the teaching profession after ten years of work as a medical aide. Intent on sharing her passion for science with her students– her lifelong dream– Maria set to work arranging speakers for her students, hands-on science activities, and exciting simulations. Maria’s innovation soon attracted the interest of her principal, who praised Maria at the next science department meeting. Meanwhile, the other science teachers made remarks about Maria’s “principal’s pet” status. Surely, they gossiped over lunch, Maria was hired because of her good looks and was sharing more than just ideas with the principal. Over time, the gossip worsened and when Maria did go to the staffroom for lunch, she was ignored. When important information about report cards came out, she was never told. The end-of-year science department meeting came and went, and Maria was never invited. Tearful and slowly destroyed by continuous exclusion and disrespect, Maria quit teaching.
Jason, The “Broken-Hearted Loner”
Jason, a new high school math teacher, moved several provinces to begin his career. Fresh-faced and handsome, he attracted the attention of many single female staff members. However, Jason kept to himself. Not keen on the cliques and high-schoolish politics of jocks and gossip girls he witnessed in the staff room, Jason made friends with a few others on staff and largely enjoyed his own company. Rumours soon surfaced that Jason was loner, and broken-hearted over a breakup with a fiance. When questioned about his supposed breakup with his non-existent fiance, Jason replied nonchalantly that, “He was glad about the rumours because they made him seem more exciting.” Secretly, however, Jason was disgusted and distrustful. As the rumours became even more ridiculous, he made his exit plans. That summer, Jason handed in his resignation. He now works as a youth pastor.
Allison, The “Uptight”
New to a school known for its convivial atmosphere, Allison was keen to make friends with her colleagues. Soon enough, however, she realized that this supposed convivial atmosphere was synonymous with drinking and gossiping in the off hours. When she joined in on an after school social with her coworkers but drank a virgin Shirley Temple, her colleagues lambasted her for being “uptight” and goaded her on with drinks. Uncomfortable and flustered, Allison drank a beer. At school, her lack of enthusiasm for last night’s drinking seemed to have consequences. Her fellow teachers would invite each other to events in her presence, seemingly making sure to note she was not invited. At department meetings, they would exchange Secret Santa gifts while Allison awkwardly looked on. To add insult to injury, these teachers “popped in” to Allison’s classroom from time to time, to borrow “materials,” while secretly spying on her classes and sharing any details of slip-ups by text messages– usually exaggerated– to the boss. As the year came to a close and Allison hoped for a permanent teaching contract, she was told by her principal she would be let go. “You haven’t made an effort to fit in with our school culture,” he said, “you need to be more friendly.”
How Common is Bullying Among Teachers?
The stories of Maria, Jason, and Allison highlight an important but rarely discussed aspect of the teaching profession: bullying of teachers by teachers.
Last Thursday, to learn more about this taboo subject, I attended an event hosted by my union, the Alberta Teachers Association, entitled Workplace Harassment and Bullying: It Can Happen to You! During this event I learned a lot about bullying in teaching from a registered social worker, former bullying target, and founder of the Alberta Bullying Research, Resources, and Recover Centre , Linda Crockett.
Here are some facts about bullying among teachers:
- Nurses, social workers, and teachers are the most likely to bully at work.
- Between 24-46% of teachers admit to have being seriously bullied at one time.
- 89% of teachers admit to have seen staff bullying occur at their schools.
- Top-down bullying from management is most common (67-75% of the time).
While I was shocked to hear that teaching is one of the top three professions for bullying, I was not surprised. While I have not been a target of sustained bullying myself, I am aware of the gossip, cliques, and politics which inhabit some staff rooms. Over time, I have also encountered too many former teachers or current teachers repulsed by a gossip culture in their schools. While most teachers are noble and smart people, we are a large professional body and we may encounter some bullies in our careers.
What is bullying?
Bullying is a pattern of abuse over a sustained period of time, usually at least 3-6 months. It is characterized by the desire to hurt, degrade, humiliate, or isolate the target, and it can take many forms. A bully will generally employ several tactics– from exclusion, name-calling, physical assault, verbal abuse, humiliation, destruction of reputation– to bring psychological or physical harm to the target.
How do I know if I am being bullied?
Linda Crockett covers several categories of bullying for you to consider:
Psychological bullying: subtle jabs at your character; hurtful exclusions; eye-rolling; failing to speak to you you; ignoring you; micromanaging your work; passive-aggressive acts. Here is an interesting article about passive-aggressive behaviour at work.
Verbal bullying: lies, rumours, insults, false accusations, sharing of confidential information.
Physical bullying: pushing, shoving, tripping, etc.
Cyberbullying: defamation online, such as gossip on Facebook or ratemyteacher.com.
If you can say that you have been victim to at least 1-2 of these tactics over some time from a person or people on staff, then you are likely bullied. If you avoid another teacher or feel anxious in his or her presence, then that is also another sign you are being bullied. It is also possible to be bullied by a group of people; this type of bullying is called mobbing.
Why do bullies bully?
Will Bowden, a motivational speaker and best-selling author, once said that “hurt people hurt people,” and Linda Crockett confirmed that is often the case. Some bullies are indeed under incredible pressure at work, burned out, extremely insecure about their abilities, lack the training to do the job, poorly managing mental illness or addiction, previous targets of bullying, or generally frustrated in life. For these types, bullying a star a teacher or a teacher that may not stand up for him or herself is an entertaining distraction.
However, there are some bullies motivated not by pain, but by power. These bullies may be narcissists intent on climbing to the top. They may also have been so accustomed to bullying others that they are “morally disengaged”– their bullying behaviour has become so normative they see nothing wrong with what they are doing. Here’s an interesting article about narcissists at work.
What can a bullied teacher do about bullying?
There is plenty a teacher can do when bullied by other teachers or administration. Here are Linda Crockett’s suggestions:
- Document every incident of bullying. When you detect any of the signs of bullying listed above, take out your journal and put pen to paper, writing down the date, the place, who was present, what was said and done, and how you felt. Crockett suggests that you write down enough detail so that a year later, you could “recreate the incident in your head.” Do not keep any such journal in your classroom, for some teachers have had their desks searched by bullies. Opt for a journal at home, or consider using your personal email to email yourself incidents of bullying you encounter. The greatest weapon against bullying in the workplace, says Crockett, is “a written record” and “a paper trail.”
- Contact your union for information about its workplace harassment and bullying policy. Most teachers’ unions have a policy and will be ready to send someone to support you if it comes to that. Even if you do not intend to go to the union, it is still worthwhile to know what you can do in the worst case scenario.
- In the meantime, don’t sweat. Bullies take pleasure in making others feel small. Don’t give them the pleasure! Come in to school stone-faced, stoic, and even cheerful, if you can manage it. If you have a friend on staff, spend time with him or her. Tell jokes and stand tall.
- When you’re ready, confront your bully directly. If you feel safe enough, speak with the person who has offended you in private, or with a second person present. Describe in detail their behaviours and ask them to stop immediately. Be clear that you will make a formal or informal complaint if their behaviours do not change. Most bullies will back down at this point. In general, bullies do not expect confrontation.
- Document your talk with the bully. After your verbal discussion with the bully, send him or her an email detailing what you discussed. You will need evidence of this discussion should the bullying continue. Crockett recommends you end this email with the line, “if things do not change, I will begin informal or formal action.”
- If the bully fails to change, follow through and make a formal or informal complaint. Have all your documentation and emails at the ready when you approach administration and then HR with the help of your union rep. Document everything.
- Have a confidante. During this difficult time, find someone outside of work you can trust to discuss your feelings with , be it a close friend, spouse, counsellor, or workplace coach. It is important not to isolate yourself during this difficult time. As far as possible, disconnect from work at home and enjoy your own life.
- Stay strong and healthy. Put your physical and psychological health as a top priority. Eat healthy meals, take supplements, exercise, and make time for prayer or meditation. To bolster your psychological wellbeing, consider seeing a therapist. Inquire with HR to see if you have any health benefits for therapy.
What can we teachers do about bullying in our profession?
Bullying in the workplace is not a hot topic, like sexual harassment or gender or racial discrimination. However, in time and with enough sharing of stories, bullying will become just as important in the public sphere. To stop bullying in our profession, brave teachers, bullied or not, need to speak out about what they are seeing. We need to say, “I was bullied and this is what I did about it” or “I know someone who was bullied, and I won’t stand for it.” And we need to support our unions in supporting bullied teachers.
And while we wait for bullying to become a hot topic, and taboo in all schools, we must ensure we don’t become bullies ourselves. The psychoanalyst and professor of psychology Jordan Peterson wisely observed that most people, when reading Anne Frank’s diary, see themselves on the side of the good guys, the families that protected the Jews. But in fact, Peterson point out, the vast majority of people did not support or hide the Jews at the time. Statistically, you and I are more likely to be the Germans hunting down the Jews than the Germans risking their lives to protect them. Too often, Peterson says, we deny the dark aspect of our own psyches and adopt the veil of the saint. We cast the stone of blame onto others– the others we are never like— and in so doing fail to see and fight our own demons.
The challenge for us teachers, then, is to be aware of our own dark tendencies to lord power over others, to wish people harm, or to hurt with intention. Bullying begins in the most benign ways– an eye-roll here, a talking over someone there, or a word of gossip there– until we are full-blown bullies, oblivious to our own condition, pointing the finger of blame.
Let’s not be bullies. Let’s be teachers, in the truest sense of the word.
Please, share your experiences and thoughts below to help others dealing with bullying.
To your teaching success and work-life balance,
P.S. If you know a teacher who is being bullied, please send him or her this article.