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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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Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)
Blogger

Dottie's Story:

I worked at the same Title I school in [withheld] for seven years with good evaluations every year by three different principals. I had constructive criticism some times, which I was glad to receive. At year eight, we had a new principal. He was pro NCLB and came from an upper class family. All the teachers were upset with NCLB and the fact that we were supposed to get all our students to pass state testing by 2014 even our special ed children. One day in passing, I asked him how this was going to be possible. He proceeded to explain to me how this was possible. I think I told him I still didn't see how. This was at the end of the year.

The next year, I was given the most difficult class I had ever had. I had children with learning disabilities, autism, emotional/behavioral problems. After a few weeks, I couldn't understand how I had some many children like this. Classroom management was a nightmare. I was told by the office secretary that he had stacked my class with behavior problems, etc. She was sure of this.

My autistic girl could not have any changes at all. I had a schedule on the board, but some times I couldn't stick to it. She would have a meltdown and run out the door. I called the school psychologist, who came right away to evaluate her. She agreed she had Asperger's. She arranged a meeting with her mother and put her on a 504. I really think it should have been an IEP, but I was grateful for the 504 and instruction of how to best serve this girl. The principal was furious with me. He told me I was not allowed to go over his head to get a child help. I had to go through a child study first. At this time, we had not been using child studies. After this, whenever I requested a child study for a child, I was refused. It didn't matter that the child was the one who was being hurt. Or, that children were being used against me. We had a time out room, and I was not allowed to use it. This helped to negate the authority I had. I wasn't supposed to send anyone to another teacher's room, but some times I did any way just to survive. Around January, I contacted the local chapter of the National Education Association. They had my local President come and meet with the Principal and his advocate from the District. My local President had very little experience negotiating. If I didn't speak up for myself, I would have had to sit there and hear what a bad teacher I was. He said I was one of the worst teachers he knew. I was given the chance to go to another school. He continued this with other teachers. Twelve teachers complained about him and received little or no help. He had teachers who became his spies. Some of them were turned on and found out how he treated us. About three years later, he tried to get a job at the District level and was told they wouldn't hire him due to all the complaints. He was hired by another District.

I went on to another Title I school for two years and had problems with a teammate. The school went through downsizing, so I was chosen to move again. I went further inner-city. I think that once you are labeled, it follows you, depending on your Principal. I retired two years early. Enough was enough. There were many children I tried to get help that truly needed to be on IEPs or 504s or had behavior/emotional problems. That is what I am most disheartened about. All of these children who are not receiving the services or help they should be getting. I could tell you more stories of children who were allowed to fall through the cracks, but I think you get the picture.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)
Blogger

-Bullied through Evaluations - [Name withheld]

I just finished my [ ] year of teaching, and by far, this one was the most stressful. Why? I have been relentlessly bullied by a principal. I am a [ ] for [ ] and am shared by two [ ] schools. I'm at Principal A's school half time and Principal B's for the other half.

To make a long story short, Principal B rated me as "needs improvement" on my annual evaluation. She specifically told me that if she does not see "tremendous improvement" in my performance from Sep-Dec, she will not renew my contract. The only thing that saved me this year was Principal A, who has a very different view. I have only received positive evaluations for the past 20 years, which encapsulates 4 schools in 4 different states. Principal B's beef was my "lack of communication with administration." I have no idea what that means, as I sent out a weekly newletter to staff to highlight the work I did with each grade level (K-5) in my pull-out classes for Math and English. She also noted my "excessive absences" as a disruption to the program, even though I kept her informed as I dealt with [medical issue]. She has called Principal A to "make sure" I was at A's building, even when I was not scheduled to be at B's building. She also called my supervisor to make sure I was in attendance at a training session, and complained that I should not be excused from her building to attend monthly department meetings. She stands at the front door of the school and makes it a point to notice my arrival by looking conspicuously at her watch. I can go on and on.

My supervisor's advice was to "kiss her *** and do whatever it takes to make her happy." [ ] is a right-to-work state, so the Association cannot help me. I have no one to go to, as B is very well connected politically. By the way, I happen to be the 4th person in 4 years to have this position. *sigh*

I'm looking forward to your next installment.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)
Blogger

"Mary's" Story -->
I am a teacher at a small, rural school. I have many years of experience. My superintendent hates me because I am fat (she views weight as a moral weakness) and, more importantly, I have graciously accepted her suggestions but not incorporated them into my teaching because...well, they suck.

She told me (during the 2009-2010 year) that I was a terrible teacher and the only positive comment she could make was I showed up to school everyday. She then pulled me out of the classroom and created an AIS (academic intervention services) position for me. I was assigned a tiny room which had been used as a storage closet. It should be noted that my students test scores during the same year I was told I couldn't teach were the highest test scores in the school, far higher than my colleagues.

I was given no direction, no job description, and no guidance for this position. Yet, during the 2010 - 2011 school year I created a program that was well-received by students and parents and showed success.

The following school year was different as my superintendent cut the TA position that provided me assistance, changed the schedule so that I was not allowed to provide students with the attention they needed, and encouraged two teachers to bully me and report to her anything I did wrong (or they perceived as wrong). By March of that year, she accused me of unprofessional behavior and demanded I sign a letter of discipline which contained accusations not based in fact and for which there was no proof. I refused to sign the letter. I was placed on paid administrative leave and kicked off the school property with the threat that I was going to be fired unless I complied.

After a series of months in which she lied to the BOE (and continued an illicit affair with the controlling BOE member), she held my personal belongings hostage and refused to let me vote in the BOE election and school budget election. A clear violation of my civil rights.

During the summer she sent me to a week long math workshop where her cohort in crime harassed and embarrassed me. I developed panic attacks and have subsequently been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I could not do the projects at the workshop because my superintendent refused me access to the materials I needed in my classroom. I was yelled at and humiliated.

I returned to work for the 2012 - 2013 school year. I was given a schedule that again prevented me from working with students. The bullying escalated immediately with the same two teachers. They would call me derogatory sexual names and would tell the students I was crazy. Despite reporting their specific behavior to administration, nothing was done. I was assigned to write detailed lesson plans and hand them in to an administrator every week. There was an expectation that the lesson plans would be 35 - 45 pages each week. They would not be returned to me until Thursday when they were due again the following day each week. At the same time, I was written up and disciplined for the most mundane or outrageous things: changing the schedule when I did not change the schedule, speaking to a child inside my classroom where other students could hear, speaking to a child outside my classroom door and abandoning my class, asking a teacher to help during a dress rehearsal for a concert by asking them to go on an errand to the main office which was just outside the auditorium doors, etc.

The main observation I received lasted twenty-six seconds before the administrator left. In December I was asked to step outside a classroom full of students and follow an administrator to the superintendents office. I was informed I could not refuse to go. When I arrived, the superintendent accused me of scaring students. I told her I did not understand. She refused to allow me to speak and informed me she was again placing me on paid administrative leave because I had too many letters of counseling in my file. I was escorted back to my classroom in front of students in the hallway. I was allowed to get my purse and coat. I was then escorted out of my classroom and out of school in front of students again.

After three months passed hearing nothing from the school, I was informed that I was required to meet with a psychiatrist to determine whether or not I was fit to teach. I complied. I was found fit to teach. I still have not been allowed to go back to work. During this time I caught my superintendent twice trying to access HIPPA protected information. My personal belongings have again Been held hostage. I requested access to these belongings and was denied. My superintendent discussed me and revealed personnel details with a substitute teacher who then was dumb enough to go and tell a close friend of mine. Month after month I have been told that I am going to be sent to 3020a (the legal process by which a teacher is tried and possibly fired). This is an expensive process. The school threatens this but does not follow through because there is no foundation for my dismissal.

Throughout this process, there has been an expectation that I would resign. I refuse to resign. The superintendent has convinced many people to retire before they wanted or to reign. Her narcissistic personality has all but destroyed my school.

The taxpayers are now fed up with her actions and are planning action of their own. I have no idea if I will be returning to work this fall. I have been cut off.

I have left out a tremendous amount of bullying details in an effort to keep this as brief as possible. I do plan to write a book about this horrific time in my life.

itzy's picture
itzy
ex-elementary teacher of seventeen years

If you would have asked me two years ago about the teaching profession I would have said it was the hardest, most rewarding experience I have ever been a part of. I would not have understood these stories, or related to them at all. I also might have doubted some of the details. Until two years ago I was quite naive! As I read through these daytime nightmares I can whole heartedly relate since I now have my own. When I went to a lawyer (no unions as we are a right to work state) I was told it would be a waste of time and money to try and fight any of it. Holding her arms out about 3 feet (like a big hug) she said this is the realm of unfair- she then closed her hands to about the width of 5 inches (maybe less- I didn't have a ruler) and said this is the realm of illegal. We obviously fall in the 31 inch "unfair but not illegal" realm.

Bonnie Yelverton's picture
Bonnie Yelverton
New job (2 years after credentialling) in Science in southern California

Good news!
I got a job! In the same district as this mentor teacher. Interestingly enough, the only administrative person from the school (and AP) is now at my new school. I was teaching math as student teacher, but now teaching science, which lends itself well to inquiry learning. The school seems to be friendly as well, so even though it's a 45 minute commute, I'm really pleased!
It shows that it's worth getting away from a bad situation if at all possible, before you get burnt out, and keep telling yourself you're right - while you continue to learn new methods as I have.
Of course not everyone has the option to just quit, but there are now online schools, etc. which might provide another option.

Ms. Smith's picture
Ms. Smith
HS English teacher

I was told during the first week of my first year teaching that my mentor was "sometimes difficult" Difficult was an understatement. She was an outright bully to me. She was so bad other teachers complained to administration about her actions. Nothing was done except that the Principal began to treat me with cold disdain. I wish I had seen this posting during that time. I had no idea how common her actions were. The best part of the year was when my students tested well on the state test and then gave me a round of loud cheers at their graduation. I didn't go back for a second year. I know I will never put up with that type of behavior again.

angelfire1712's picture

I had a wonderful special education teacher for my child who eventually quit because of the negative comments she'd receive from administration and other 'regular' teachers... I believed her because of the following. The elementary children were going on a bus field trip to the capital and they didn't really want my daughter and I going because, through my personal experience, they didn't think special needs children should be mainstreamed. The two regular male teachers who were present on the trip with their classes did the subtle bullying...by ignoring us or making a wise cracker comment to any of my serious questions and treating my daughter as if she were a ghost; I was out there alone on that one and the special ed teacher eventually quit and moved away...I did open enrollment for my daughter to get away from the neanderthal mentality of this school system also. We need better administrators and if teachers find themselves in these situations, perhaps there are parent groups they could team up with to thwart this kind of disparity.. What they're doing is trying to create a C- environment so that these less educated and less creative teachers have a job. I was saddened to see what these teachers and administrators did to this special ed teacher but happy she made the decision to leave..you have to think about yourselves...you do no one any good trying to work, especially teach, in a hostile work environment.. At one point I had thought about teaching but after going through the public school system with my child..that blew that dream out of the water permanently.

Miss Old's picture

I haven't started teaching yet, but I have a similar experience from the corporate world. One time I had a horrible manager who undermined me at every turn. I couldn't do a single thing right in his eyes, and yet nearly everyone liked me (including junior management). Eventually, I complained to the administration and he was fired. My best advice to anyone who is being bullied is this: stick to your guns. Don't let anyone convince you your treatment is somehow your fault. Don't let anything they say or do to you be taken too personally. I found it was better to persevere than start over.

Ms. Cloot's picture
Ms. Cloot
elementary

One of the best books I read to help me through this is The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry. Why do many bosses seem crazy? Because they are! People with controling, manipulative personalities crave power in a way that the rest of us don't, and they are often successful.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)
Blogger

Here is an email I received on September 25, 2014 by an educator who wishes to remain anonymous:

"I was a victim of bullying when I worked for [XXXX]. It all started when I worked for [principal's name]. He was paying students with LOW EOG scores to take the ACT. Why? Because the ACT wasn't being tracked by his school system. He also paid students with high EOG scores to take the SAT, thus artificially inflating his scores, and ensuring that he would receive a raise.

I should have known when teachers and students were telling me to "watch out" for this particular principal. He had a knack for threatening people, including telling our [XXXX] teacher that he'd be fired by any means possible unless his scores improved. Non-tenured teachers were constantly threatened with dismissal over discipline infractions. I received no less than 3 screaming rebukes after school within four months.

Luckily, I had other opportunities, and resigned. Sadly, the experience at [XXXX] still makes me a little paranoid at times. I always wonder when the axe is going to fall.

And thanks for writing this blog! Teachers need to know that they aren't suffering in silence."

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