Time to face up to workplace bullying in schools – Guardian Teach Blog

The following article was published on the Guardian Teach Network blog.

It was 3.45 on a Friday afternoon. The tears came almost as soon as the bell sounded and quickly became those choking sobs that prevent words from coming out, let alone making sense.

She sat at one of the desks where the PSHE lesson on bullying had just taken place and allowed the emotions to take over. It was clear that she had been holding them in for some time and the lesson content had triggered a reaction.

Sarah was being bullied and had been for some time.

When the right moment came, the teacher spoke in gentle but firm tones “Sarah, no one should have to go through this – let’s you and I go speak to the head now”.

Sarah blinked for a moment. Considered the offer and then declined. The risk was too great. Her tormentor was very popular in the school and the head would never believe her. It was too risky. No, she would say nothing and just make the best of it.

If Sarah had been one of the children taught in the lesson that afternoon, the teacher who suggested going to the head would have had a duty of care to report the incident that caused the tears. Instead, her colleague and friend was forced to contribute to the growing wall of silence that falls when a teacher admits they are being bullied.

Sarah declined all offers of taking the problem further and when she left the school to teach elsewhere, she never mentioned it again. Even now that it’s all behind her, she is reluctant to give any details other than “a difference of opinion” between her and her then head of department.

Then there’s Alison. Alison was an NQT in the same department. Disorganised and constantly battling the stress of this new demanding job, Alison looked to her mentor for support when things got difficult, which was often and mostly accompanied by tears. When pressed for why she was finding things so difficult, Alison cited the management style of her head of department. “She constantly emails me – six or seven times a day and many more at weekends and I feel I can’t not reply but I can’t do what she’s asking me”.

Finally, there’s John. A long serving teacher in that same department. It goes without saying that he’d seen many changes over the years but increasingly the one that got him the most concerned was what seemed to be accepted as “management style” by the senior leadership team was old fashioned “bullying” to him. He’s been on the receiving end of a few conversations that have left him worrying about his future at the school and he keeps finding out changes to school policy by accident, in one incident it was a child who told him. That child happened to have a parent as a member of the PTA. It was the closest John had come to being “in the loop” for some time.

To the sceptics, the incidents described here are real and they are part of an increasingly “normal” picture of working in a modern school.

But why? How come we’re willing to strike on pensions and working conditions years into the future but won’t say anything about our treatment in the here and now?

Let’s look at Carol. She’s the head of department responsible for all those tears described above. It’s not important to know anything else about Carol other than the following: she was thrust into middle management in her NQT year due to unexpected changes in staffing. She has no industry experience and she almost failed her NQT year. One more tidbit; Carol wasn’t very well liked. She was just one of those people who didn’t quite understand that it’s not always what you say but how you say it. “You have to get to know her” was the frequent accompaniment to any grumblings. Often coming from those she gave the hardest of times to.

To say that Carol was unprepared for the pressures of managing a department is an understatement. When she found herself floundering, she reached for the only management model she knew: the mentor/mentee relationship she experienced as an NQT and the actions of her predecessor. To underline that these were both negative models may be labouring the point here but I feel I must play fair. When she became the subject of her first complaint, she asked to go on a course for new managers but was declined due to funding. The message was clear: this isn’t a priority.

One final case study from the same school. Enter Tim. A 35 year old NQT who replaces Sarah in the department described above. He has previous experience in industry and manages an amateur football team in his, now decreasing, spare time. His first experience of Carol is a curt introduction at morning briefing and a promise to look in at some point during the day. It’s not until two weeks later when they experience their first “clash of opinion”. Carol arrived at Tim’s classroom to find a number of students had been sent outside. She opened the door and called out to Tim to ask what the problem was. Tim was in the middle of explaining an activity to the class and motioned to Carol that he would be with her in one minute. It appeared to Carol as though he had not heard her so she repeated her request. The class exploded in a mix of joy and uproar depending on what they thought of Carol. Tim would later point out how that had undermined him. Carol was mortified. Tim was the first person to directly challenge her management style and although she maintained that she hadn’t done anything that bad, she could see how it could have been interpreted. She thought back to the many complaints since she had first taken up the post and wondered if the same misunderstanding had occurred.

Tim’s entry to the school marked a turning point for Carol and the department. He brought an industry standard understanding of management that had been sadly lacking and, most importantly, shared it with Carol who was keen to improve.

These case studies are real. The names have been changed along with some of the finer points but the results remain the same. The comments the Guardian Teacher Network’s teacher survey shows that most teachers are willing to move schools rather than tackle the issue head on. In some cases they leave the profession all together.

Carol was a poor manager prior to working with Tim. During the most pressurised times of the year, she made working in her department unbearable but it’s important to remember that she was unprepared for the role and didn’t receive much in the way of feedback or support from her department or senior management. It soon became commonplace to simply shrug and say ‘that’s Carol for you’ rather than try to address the issue.

The clear picture from the various surveys available seems to be two fold. Firstly, the main issue appears to be no standard way to approach the issue within the profession without getting the unions involved and secondly, that the issue itself is often a direct result from the pressures involved in managing within the school setting. From middle to senior leaders.

The solution is not for me to suggest. I am just one of many “who can”. I can say though, that in the three years I’ve been teaching so far, I’ve experienced bullying at almost every point. From mentors to management and in each case I have opted to do nothing. I can only hope as I move into management myself, I will find ways to deal with the pressures and the people with equality and respect.