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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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In Their Own Words: Teachers Bullied by Colleagues

"When I came back one day after lunch, the warehouse people had axed the reading loft [on the principal's orders] . . . This was only the beginning . . . He stripped away everything that made my room unique . . . I want out." - Teacher

"I would take the dog for a walk and cry in the dark." - Australian Teacher

We’re used to media reports about children and teachers who bully students. A more hidden fact of school life is the extent to which teachers suffer at the hands of cruel colleagues and administrators. One in three teachers claim they have been bullied at work. In Part I of a two-part post on the subject, I will share the voices of teachers who describe being bullied by colleagues. Part II will discuss solutions.

The Targets

The following must be present for negative actions to be labeled bullying, writes Clemson University Professor Kimberly Frazier:

  1. An imbalance of power between the perpetrator and victim
  2. Systematic and long term attacks
  3. Those being bullied finding it difficult to defend or retaliate against those inflicting the bullying behavior

Bullied teachers are not professional victims. "A typical target is conscientious, competent and well liked by colleagues, pupils and parents," according to TESConnect. The principal of a popular instructor bullied her for months. "Jan" told me that his most creative ploy was to make her sit in the lobby adjoining his office while he pretended to talk on the phone with a parent complaining about her professional skills.

Later, Jan asked, "Who criticized me?"

"She wants to remain anonymous."

"What was the specific complaint?"

"She wants me to keep that confidential, in case you trace the comment back to her."

"That's not fair!"

"You're lucky to have me talk through this with you. Some principals wouldn't be so helpful."

Where power inequalities manifest, bullying is more likely to occur. As a university supervisor in three different states, I pulled several secondary English interns out of their placements and had them finish student teaching in alternative settings when their clinical teachers crossed the line.

Of the nine veteran and novice teachers I interviewed, only two reported the incidents to authorities, fearing that they might lose their job or simply not be perceived as credible. I've made minor changes to the stories to safeguard the authors' identities.

Marsha's Story

Marsha and Samantha co-planned middle grades language arts. Samantha was the team leader, the spouse of the assistant principal and influential at the school. At first, their professional relationship was friendly. And then . . .

Every time we sat down to plan, Samantha would push all of the more time-consuming and less interesting work on me. When I started to out-perform her, she began to resent me. She would regularly make condescending and deprecating comments in front of students, parents and colleagues. She would steal my lesson plans on the day that I was planning on doing them.
As the team leader, Samantha was supposed to go to liaison meetings and report back with information from the administration, but she would often purposefully "forget" to tell me, and I would look incompetent. She would take my personally created resources and pass them off as hers in front of our superiors. When we were together with the students, she interrupted me, second-guessed my information, and questioned my authority. Students would ask a question and she would directly contradict my answer. I thought I was paranoid, but when I walked in on Samantha and a colleague talking about me, I realized that her behavior was intentionally directed at me.
During special events like field day or the team talent show, she would literally sit in the back while we wrangled students and ran the event. Whenever administrators came in, Samantha would act like she was running everything and pretend she had coordinated the whole thing.
She made me feel like I was less than a person and a useless teacher. As a new instructor, I kept my mouth shut and tried not to make waves. The bullying lasted for two years. I dreaded going into work. I would sit in my car and work up the courage to walk in the building . . .

Shanequa's Story

My first year, I was assigned a mentor who would report every mistake I made to the assistant principal instead of offering me help. When I asked for advice, she would go straight to the office. The only teacher in the building who assisted me with classroom management was directed not to help me during planning because "we taught different content." I was discouraged from trying new ideas or technology that differed from what the teacher with the highest test scores used. Later, the AP was promoted to principal, and he still treats me as if I am completely incompetent, regardless of my high evaluations and (unofficial) leadership and social capital.

Jennifer's Story

A violent high school student lived across the street from the school in a house with firearms. One day, after several outbursts, he threatened his teacher. Jennifer's coworkers failed to support her.

"Man, I wish I had my shotgun right now." I was stunned (as was the class). I told him to get in the hallway and that I was going to have to write him up. In the hallway, he flew into a violent rage. I ran back into my room, closed the door, and called the administration. It took four hours to get him to the front office. The whole time, he yelled, "Just let me get home!"
He was charged with communicating a threat and disorderly conduct. But because he was labeled EC and had reached his ten-day suspension limit from previous infractions, he returned to school after only one day of suspension.
The student continued to harass me. He stared at me in the library and in the hallway. He came into my classroom, just looking, and he continued to make threatening comments. I pleaded with my administrators to make him leave. But the parents did not want him moved and threatened to sue. They brought a lawyer to IEP meetings, which I was never told about until later. The school was very interested in sweeping the whole thing under the rug. They actively prevented me from attending meetings about the issue and even suggested that I transfer to another high school if I felt unsafe.
The day he came into my classroom while I was alone during my planning period was my last day at Ridge High School. He never did anything physical to me, but I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and experienced a level of anxiety that you could not imagine. The thought of returning to work literally made me feel like I would pass out. I got along really well with my colleagues but was surprised that many of them turned their backs on me when I left. My very close friends supported me, but many others didn't. I guess I felt a little bullied by them, too, in the end. I left a lot of unfinished work behind, but it still really hurt my feelings that I didn't receive their support.
I felt so betrayed for being virtually forced to leave just so that the school could avoid a lawsuit and appease crazy parents. I have shared this story with the EC chair, the Superintendent, the School Board, and the State School Board, but they have not been concerned. The fact that they would let me leave (a hard-working teacher who put in seven good years) to keep a violent student really shook my whole identity. Teaching is who I am. I felt like I was missing an appendage during the months that I was out of work.

Matt's Story

As a new teacher, I encountered a bully -- my department chair -- though at the time, it never occurred to me to attach a label to the two years of misery and dread I experienced. Because Benton didn’t look like Keyser Söze in his pressed Dockers and polo shirts, and because he could light up a room with boyish charm, the act of trying to figure out when and how he would publicly excoriate me for following his exact instructions was crazy making.
When my friends advised me to ignore him, I said, "You focus on work, knowing there's an invisible cobra loose somewhere in your office." Every weekday morning, I would pull into the parking lot at the school building and listen to Alanis Morrisette's Uninvited CD repeatedly until I could slow my breathing and pretend I was unperturbed. When another bullied colleague and I both quit at the same time, the school asked us to give exit interviews. Based on those conversations, the chair was terminated. That happened years ago. I still feel guilty; my brain can't fathom anyone being that inappropriate. It's easier for me to go to an emotional place where I'm the one to blame.

Symptoms and Remedies

The aforementioned stories involved weeks and months of lost productivity, and feelings of depression and betrayal, all because of the bully's methods:

  • Ridicule
  • Exclusion
  • Aggression
  • Abuse of power
  • Assigning inappropriate or overwhelming tasks
  • Hiding information with a result of poor performance
  • Shaming

In Part II, this blog will discuss strategies for making teachers less vulnerable to aggressive workplace behaviors. If you'd like to share your stories or address the individuals who generously contributed above, please make use of the comment thread below.

Alternatively, send your story to me directly at toddfinley@gmail.com, and I'll post them for you in the comment section to keep your identity private.

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