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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.

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