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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.

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Sean M. Brooks's picture

Where reporting to a Union Official becomes difficult is when the Union is in the back pocket of the school district. I've witnessed this first hand as factual reports are made in writing and the teacher whom reports these abuses at the hands of the administrators or teachers is removed from the building and the bullying environment. Instead of removing or firing those who are guilty, they remove those whom reported the abuse from the abusive building and supervisors.

Jana DuLaney's picture

I wish I had known about this forum when I was teaching... being a new teacher is hard enough without other administrators having their OWN agenda or dealing with the 'good ole boy' system. Coaches should NEVER accept a job as principals IF all they want to do is be still out on the field. Most of them do it for the money. Otherwise, they get other people to do their job for them - students KNOW more than some people give them credit and they act accordingly.

Jana DuLaney's picture

What good does this do??? Seriously...reminds me of an article I just read where a student recorded on her cell phone - a teacher bullying a student. The girl recording and reporting the bullying and SHE was suspended from school because she reported it. She thought she was doing the right thing. I think she did. I think the teacher and administration should have been suspended personally.

Janet's picture

This happens in many schools. It gets worse when the bully "professional" is backed up by his/her enablers. In the past, you could count on other teachers stepping forward to defend the victim, but in my current school, this doesn't happen. The enablers ease their conscience by coming to the victim and telling the victim how horrible the bully is. I have seen many teachers leave my school because the victim becomes so isolated and afraid. I wonder how one talks to the enablers. In my experience, the bullies don't change, but I have hopes that the enablers might become braver and see that their approach ruins the whole community spirit of caring. What conversations should take place? The principal turns a blind eye, or favors the bullies. The union hears from the bullies and the enablers, and without being in the situation comes to the wrong conclusions. At the moment, three teachers are being poorly treated. Two are trying to leave. By my count, they are the 7-9th person to leave the school under these conditions. What to do?

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Teaching Middle School 'Technology, Engineering & Design' in Northfield, NJ

Janet, that's a tough situation. How invested are you at this school? Sounds like you're very committed to its success (and its kids) and don't want to leave. And of course it sounds like you care, a lot. You said, "I wonder how one talks to the enablers." Seems pretty straightforward: you converse with them the way you are doing here, calmly, rationally. See how they feel. I'll bet they'll agree with you and say with resignation "there's nothing anyone can do." At that point, sadly, you have two options. Stay and tune it out, or leave. Sounds awfully black-and-white, but, sometimes, it is what it is.

Should you decide to stay (please do!) my advice is to fill your day with the brightness and positive things going on in your classroom and elsewhere. Make a list - seriously - of all the good stuff. It's easy to focus on the negative. To heck with that - focus on the light! It won't solve the problem but will make dealing with it easier!

Hope this helps!


Lois's picture
Social Studies/LA/Special Ed teacher from NJ

How does one handle situations in a non union school with a supervisor who makes it difficult to approach for help/advice?

Scott Bedley @scotteach's picture
Scott Bedley @scotteach
Teacher, Creator, Un-Maker, Foodie, Global School Play Day

Lois - I think it's a challenging situation. So many things are out of our control as educators. The way I would approach this situation is to assess the needs of the site. Then using an expanded professional learning community (PLN) to seek help/advice from can get you started. I'm so thankful for the people I've connected with online who give me ideas and perspective. Build that community of support. Count me as someone you can turn to in times of need. connect with me @scotteach and or @bedleybros.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Hi Lois!

I agree- developing a professional learning network of your own, on sites like this one, or through Twitter chats, for example (Here's a list and schedule- https://sites.google.com/site/twittereducationchats/education-chat-calendar) can help you find the support and ask the questions you need answered from folks without feeling judged or in jeopardy.

I sit on our district's professional development committee as a parent representative, and I'm amazed how many times it seems like teachers are reluctant to speak up in front of administrators about issues that simply don't make any sense whatsoever. Sometimes I feel my job there is to break the ice and say what's on everyone's mind but they just don't want to bring it up. We were recently looking at mentoring programs between teachers, and not many folks were signing up- because they were largely afraid of talking about their challenges in any sort of public way, even if it meant getting help. The irony here is that this is exactly how kids often feel with teachers in the classroom- afraid to ask for help because they are afraid of looking dumb or like they don't understand.
I hope you can find a way to approach the administrator in a constructive way and say something like "I really admire your experience and expertise in this area- I had a few questions to help guide me, and I was wondering if you could guide me to resources?" Sometimes this both acknowledges the Administrator's "power" while asking him to point you in a good direction- they may decide to offer more direct help, or simply point you to resources- either way, you are better off than before.

Let us know how it's going.

5threadingssi's picture

This isn't my first year teacher nor is it my first year as being an advocate for children. This year I started working at a charter school no contract. The clincher to my accepting this position as 5th grade in Texas is STAAR SSI year you must have exemplary pass rate was lesson plan and resource autonomy. The year began just fine I do my best to keep my head down and do my job effectively not attempting to make waves or trying to shine as other teachers do not particularly appreciate that. Two partner teams lead teacher paired with a veteran online teacher. I'm paired with a novice, I myself am a novice but strong and confident in my abilities. As the year progresses the lead teacher is constantly head butting with my partner as they are same content, but soon begins head butting with her partner as students have chosen their favorites. Newbie speaks up and defends students against an individual who systematically berates them. All information i hear is secondhand as they are not my partners and I have no contact with students. Said newbie rises up against lead gets fired for bullshit reason. Newbie made some mistakes but was offered no help. My partner relishes in a brief reprieve as lead teachers focus set on someone else. Partnerships dissolved and departmentalization created. I thrived with all students parents coworkers, lead teacher generally doesn't like the relationship and reporte I have with students and parents. Consistently calls parents of my class evil, ugly vicious with hidden agenda. 2nd semester students from her homeroom constantly in my class. She leaves early asks me to review test not my content but I'm strong in all subjects I review with students to which I find an error in grading of all tests in my homeroom. I tell students go check with said teacher the following day to seek clarification. Next day students return to my homeroom crying stating she refused to review her particular exam as she was distracted at one point seeking clarification. Student was inconsolable it took awhile to get her to quiet down reported that she was signaled out humiliated in front of another class. I went to counselor as I had seen what direct intervention had resulted into termination. This teacher has a reputation that precedes her as this controversial relationship consistent altercations with parents in an effort to shorten this... My principal has received negative emails from said lead teacher with nothing to back it up. My evaluation was exceeds expectations in every area my pass rate was 90% there have been nothing but compliments of my teaching style and admiration from parents and students as well as colleagues. Said lead teacher the exact opposite last complaint one that was actually addressed to me was something frivolous pertaining to books, admin separates us, meaning new grade level new everything for me telling us that if we don't get along with new teams, termination. But I feel the ever watchful eye is on me... Every move second guessed...now I'm being asked for scope and sequence to aligned my autonomy lost, they want a formula followed.

school counselor's picture

About 15 years ago I worked as a teacher (counselor) in a high school and I watched as a colleague filed a union grievance against a supervisor - administrator who had big ego but just was not talented & knowledgeable in "the trenches" of what it was like and what was required.

The result was there was a lot of stress and tension for those two people to be in the same room together or even the same building together and it really hurt the group of people trying to function as a team.

But I think it did put that supervisor on notice and she did back off and she did change her behaviors.

This is an extreme solution - after all else has failed.

There is a technique in business where an outside "hosts" a group of people working together and the outsider leads a discussion geared toward addressing issues that people are not otherwise comfortable talking about.

Goal is to make a better work environment (not attack each other etc)

Good luck!

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