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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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My last blog post shared stories from teachers who have been traumatized by administrators and fellow instructors. Today's post introduces strategies to counteract bullies' go-to move: rhetorical evisceration disguised as "helpful" critique. Don't think that the hostility will simply dissipate over time. Bullies are serial antagonists and need to be stopped before their harassment calcifies into a pattern.

Be warned that having a heart-to-heart with the victimizer might not work, but there are other alternatives. Before describing what strategies to try, the section below will discuss practices that backfire.

What You Should Avoid

Bullies are in the business of intimidation. If you are a target, you'll undoubtedly feel unsettled, confused, angry and anxious. In this state, you might impulsively try to placate aggressors by being more complimentary, but this only rewards their harassment. Bullies regard praise as obsequiousness. It grows their power and undermines yours.

Secondly, constructing inferences about the tangled motivations of the bully wastes your intuition. Trying to figure him out won't relieve your confusion. Instead, focus on what you can control; concentrate on keeping your headspace clear and rationale. Play your own game.

Counteracting Verbal Aggression

Short of imitating the menacing Estuary English accent of Jason Statham ("figah" for figure, "baht" for but), you can give yourself more agency by imagining dialogue with bullies as a serious game of racquetball. If the bully shoots a rhetorical volley at you, return it definitively with a kill shot so that the bully can't continue to dominate the interaction. More precisely, don't extend an argument.

Avoid the following:

Bully: "Your students don’t learn a thing."
You: "Yes they do."
Bully: "That’s not what they tell me."
You: "Who says that? "
Bully: "They all say that. You just aren’t paying attention."

Try this rejoinder:

Bully: "Your students don’t learn a thing."
You: "I don’t see it that way.”

Any version of "I don't see it that way" shuts down a conversation. If you are interacting with an administrator prone to vague disparagements, put them on the defensive.

Try the following:

Bully: "You aren't a team player."
You: "To help me understand and remember your critique, would you prefer to write up the criticism in an email, or should I just record you with my smartphone?"

This reminds the administrative bully that you can share inappropriate criticism with her superior, your lawyer or your union. If the bully rejects those two offers (and she probably will), listen carefully to the complaints and take notes. Ask for specifics:

  • Give me an example of . . .
  • What behaviors are you asking me to change?

Later, hand her a memorandum of understanding with as many direct quotes as possible. Ask her to sign the memo. A record of belittlement may help you develop a case against her later.

Acting "As If . . ."

When I was a new teacher, my principal grew incensed that, in my role as a member of a committee managing a school-wide project, I had identified critical problems with his pet initiative. For several weeks, multiple confrontations ensued in which he attempted to discredit me. I grew weary and raw from the siege. When an emergency committee meeting was announced, I knew I'd be attacked. Racked with anxiety, I called my twin brother, Scott, to help me calm down.

"Instead of bracing for a showdown," Scott said, "enjoy interacting with your adversary. Have fun being you, being there." My panic disappeared instantly.

Instead of trying to predict how I might be humiliated, Scott reminded me to focus on who I was: someone who likes people and wanted the project to succeed. At the meeting, while my principal attacked me, I sat unperturbed. Then I interrupted him.

"You sound angry," I said, giving him a puzzled look.

"I'm not!" he snapped. His neck flushed bright purple with embarrassment in front of the dozen administrators and teachers in attendance. For the rest of the meeting, he never looked in my direction or addressed me again.

Reaching Out

Sadly, bullying can reach a level of malevolence where serious action is required. In these cases, Tim Field, author of Bully in Sight, suggests that you contact a union representative, even if you do not intend to involve them right away. Consulting a lawyer for legal advice or psychologist for emotional support are other options.

School districts can actively address bullying by collecting anonymous information about its prevalence, followed by professional development and the creation of safe channels to report abuse.

Brilliant teachers are empathic shamans who inhabit the communal psyche of thirty-some learners and thread the gaps between skills and affinities. While most observers regard this poignant ability with awe, the bully's instinct is to attack and puncture the fragile skin of civility.

Our message to bullied teachers must be unequivocal. We will protect your emotional health. We need you.

Comments (25)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Rebecca Ver Heul's picture
Rebecca Ver Heul
Fifth grade educator from Monroe, Iowa.

I've seen new teachers bullied by older teachers in our profession. I try to diffuse the situation and support the new teachers. We are in a business of lifting students up but forget we need to do that with our peers.

Emily's picture

Thank you so much for raising awareness about this issue. I love your practical advice for teachers dealing with bullies, particularly your personal example in which your brother reminded you not to lose your spirit. I think, too, that it's important to know when enough is enough. When the administrators are the bullies, it creates a toxic environment for both teachers and students. Sometimes, leaving is empowering.

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

Emily, I think you are right about environments that are toxic. Sometimes, you have to leave.

...And my brother really did bail me out. It sure helps when someone finds just the right words to remind us who we are. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

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

Hi Rebecca,

Like you, my wife is a 5th grade teacher (and an angel). She says that finding a note from me in the morning during a hard week saves her. Take care, Monroe, Iowa!

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Thanks for bringing this up. At times bullying is part of the school culture. One school site I worked at had a one-third turnover of teachers every year. More than once, I wished I was among that one-third. It takes a great deal of personal strength to do the right thing in those circumstances, but the kids will suffer if we aren't doing our best or allowed to do our best. Positive changes can happen even if it takes action we'd rather avoid. I really liked your suggested response, 'I don't see it that way.' Good start. Then find support in a higher level or union. It's mandatory if we all are going to improve the school experience for ourselves and our students.

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

Hi Melanie,
This says it all: "The kids will suffer if we aren't doing our best or allowed to do our best." Thank you for commenting.

Dave's picture
Dave
Eighth Grade History Teacher from Kansas

Thanks for the article. I have wrestled with a couple bullies in my tenure. One was a co-worker who would undermine me in front of students and colleagues. The saving grace was that this was a habit for her, and, when I when I gave the administrator my resignation (I wasn't going to work in an unsafe place), the administrator created a new position for me on another team. It didn't solve all of the issues, but gave me enough breathing room to deal with occasional flare ups.

Debora Wondercheck's picture
Debora Wondercheck
Executive Director, Founder of Arts & Learning Conservatory

In work space bullying enters whenever their is politics between the office members , it just lowers your confidence and mind stability ,these things appear very cheap in this level of maturity , a big thanks to you for sharing all this with us because how to fight with this is the question and the answer is your blog.

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Deuie's picture

My experience was similar to yours, Bonnie. Unfortunately age discrimination seems to play a role in the challenge of trying something new after 50 (and+). That along with bullying from the very department head and administrator who could have been a major source of support has made the second career path even more challenging than I anticipated. The idea that as an experienced second career educator I am somehow not capable of learning, have nothing to offer a school, and my own life experience is irrelevant saddens me, but I keep plugging away. Students need teachers who have passion, skills, insight, flexibility and persistence!

Cathy Mackenzie's picture
Cathy Mackenzie
Primary New Zealand

Been down this road before and think i may be going down it again. The worst bit for me at the moment is trying to tell someone what is going on and 'knowing' that it sounds like you are at fault or that it sounds pathetic, liek you are making mountains out of molehills. I wonder if this feeling is part of the scenario. right now i dont know who to talk to , or what to do. I feel like I am caught between a rock and a hard place. Do you know how silly it is to say your Principal is with holding information? Information by the way that sets you up for failure. sigh

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