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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

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Assistant Editor (Contractor) and Blogger
Blogger 2014

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.

(1)
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

Myrna Martinez's picture

I resigned after seven years, because the environment was toxic. The culture of the school, I discovered after several years, was that of control and belittlement. I watched so many good teachers leave. Finally, the environment began to take a toll on my health, emotionally and physically. I began questioning if I had made the right career choice. Summer has been very relaxing. I am still looking for a new school and I am nervous about starting over, but I miss working with children. It was a difficult thing to do, but I keep telling myself it was the right thing to do.

Camilia's picture
Camilia
EC-6 Generalist

I have heard the horror stories from one of the ladies in my Sunday school class she is a permanent sub at school and it's her first yea,r the people on her team are mean and spiteful towards her! What advice can you give her, or me for future references!

patsy's picture
patsy
Retired elementary teacher

Sometimes it is the older teachers who are bullied and ridiculed by the younger teachers. I went back to school at 40 and earned a Bachelor's, Master's, and National Board Certification. After 17 years though I left teaching due to the harrassment of other teachers. Administration was no help because they supported the younger teachers they had hired, not older teachers who had been around. This principal has experienced teachers leave every year due to the toxic atmosphere. She had 17 non-tenured teachers this year. Why do people act this way?

Ryan's picture

Bonnie:
I am in the same position and remarkably the same thing happened to me. I am a career changer, female and was put with an alpha male teacher for my first student teaching assignment. This guy was the principal's pet, and of course it didn't hurt that he was young and handsome, and that she was an older bitter woman. Anyway, I was fired from student teaching for I am not sure what, but my school couldnt do anything. I was also behind my class by a year. This guy is now the principal of the school (with an online degree and NO principal experience and she moved to another school within the district), There are three schools in the district and remarkably, two principals left to make room for these two. There is alot of politics in the school system, and actually I miss corporate America and might go back due to this bully and his master bully.

school counselor's picture

About 10 years ago I was working as a school counselor and I watched an intelligent & dedicated assistant principal as he had a "melt down" one day as the result of being bullied by his superior the principal of the high school.

He snapped one day and he lost it.

I am interested in helping prevent this kind of thing and this is not something we were taught when I went to college in the 1980's.

I am looking for books, articles, resources, etc to read to further my knowledge in this area.

Thanks,
John

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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