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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Solutions for Teachers Bullied by Colleagues

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 (20)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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

Thank you for commenting, Debora. It's hard to explain, to someone who has never experienced it, how shattering bullying is to someone's self-efficacy.

LitLady13's picture
LitLady13
6-8 Literacy Coach from Little Rock, Arkansas

I have been bullied for the better part of 6 years. "It comes with the territory," is often the response I received from my administration. This was/is not acceptable to me. It is difficult to deal with on a daily basis and I am a veteran teacher. Learning ways to "respond" to bullies is priceless. I love the scenarios you presented. I am a mentor for several new teachers and I will share this information with them as soon as possible. This information will assist me as I begin working with new teachers next year and it will reinforce my work for this year.

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

Hi LitLady,

Thank you for taking the time to comment on this blog and sharing your story. There is something empowering about just naming the simple truth of what has occurred as a way of making these patterns stop.

ComputerM's picture

It never occurred to me that what I was experiencing from my administration was a form of bullying. That certainly puts things into perspective. Thanks for this "....and this is what you do about it" post.

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

I was encouraged to become a teacher instead of retiring about 5 years ago, because there weren't enough math and science teachers. But I found it nearly impossible to find the Internship teaching position I needed to participate in my credential program, despite excellent references from those who saw me teach - and 14 years previous teaching experience. I was placed in a student teaching position with a much younger alpha male teacher who was very popular in the school. Unfortunately his "drill and kill" procedural methods and my "reasoning and sense making in groups" methods conflicted so much that he wouldn't let me teach (I confused the students, he said, or 'I can't believe you did that' (in front of students) and finally requested that I be fired from my student teaching, putting me behind my class a whole year. I feel that I have somehow been blacklisted by talking behind my back, probably from a particular faculty member at the credentialing program. I teach subjects with few other credentialed teachers (physics and chemistry) but still others get jobs and I sit and wait (and get older!) It is very painful. (And I have students loans to pay, too,)

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.

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