George Lucas Educational Foundation
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"When I came back one day after lunch, the warehouse people had axed the reading loft [on the principal's orders] . . . This was only the beginning . . . He stripped away everything that made my room unique . . . I want out." - Teacher

"I would take the dog for a walk and cry in the dark." - Australian Teacher

We’re used to media reports about children and teachers who bully students. A more hidden fact of school life is the extent to which teachers suffer at the hands of cruel colleagues and administrators. One in three teachers claim they have been bullied at work. In Part I of a two-part post on the subject, I will share the voices of teachers who describe being bullied by colleagues. Part II will discuss solutions.

The Targets

The following must be present for negative actions to be labeled bullying, writes Clemson University Professor Kimberly Frazier:

  1. An imbalance of power between the perpetrator and victim
  2. Systematic and long term attacks
  3. Those being bullied finding it difficult to defend or retaliate against those inflicting the bullying behavior

Bullied teachers are not professional victims. "A typical target is conscientious, competent and well liked by colleagues, pupils and parents," according to TESConnect. The principal of a popular instructor bullied her for months. "Jan" told me that his most creative ploy was to make her sit in the lobby adjoining his office while he pretended to talk on the phone with a parent complaining about her professional skills.

Later, Jan asked, "Who criticized me?"

"She wants to remain anonymous."

"What was the specific complaint?"

"She wants me to keep that confidential, in case you trace the comment back to her."

"That's not fair!"

"You're lucky to have me talk through this with you. Some principals wouldn't be so helpful."

Where power inequalities manifest, bullying is more likely to occur. As a university supervisor in three different states, I pulled several secondary English interns out of their placements and had them finish student teaching in alternative settings when their clinical teachers crossed the line.

Of the nine veteran and novice teachers I interviewed, only two reported the incidents to authorities, fearing that they might lose their job or simply not be perceived as credible. I've made minor changes to the stories to safeguard the authors' identities.

Marsha's Story

Marsha and Samantha co-planned middle grades language arts. Samantha was the team leader, the spouse of the assistant principal and influential at the school. At first, their professional relationship was friendly. And then . . .

Every time we sat down to plan, Samantha would push all of the more time-consuming and less interesting work on me. When I started to out-perform her, she began to resent me. She would regularly make condescending and deprecating comments in front of students, parents and colleagues. She would steal my lesson plans on the day that I was planning on doing them.
As the team leader, Samantha was supposed to go to liaison meetings and report back with information from the administration, but she would often purposefully "forget" to tell me, and I would look incompetent. She would take my personally created resources and pass them off as hers in front of our superiors. When we were together with the students, she interrupted me, second-guessed my information, and questioned my authority. Students would ask a question and she would directly contradict my answer. I thought I was paranoid, but when I walked in on Samantha and a colleague talking about me, I realized that her behavior was intentionally directed at me.
During special events like field day or the team talent show, she would literally sit in the back while we wrangled students and ran the event. Whenever administrators came in, Samantha would act like she was running everything and pretend she had coordinated the whole thing.
She made me feel like I was less than a person and a useless teacher. As a new instructor, I kept my mouth shut and tried not to make waves. The bullying lasted for two years. I dreaded going into work. I would sit in my car and work up the courage to walk in the building . . .

Shanequa's Story

My first year, I was assigned a mentor who would report every mistake I made to the assistant principal instead of offering me help. When I asked for advice, she would go straight to the office. The only teacher in the building who assisted me with classroom management was directed not to help me during planning because "we taught different content." I was discouraged from trying new ideas or technology that differed from what the teacher with the highest test scores used. Later, the AP was promoted to principal, and he still treats me as if I am completely incompetent, regardless of my high evaluations and (unofficial) leadership and social capital.

Jennifer's Story

A violent high school student lived across the street from the school in a house with firearms. One day, after several outbursts, he threatened his teacher. Jennifer's coworkers failed to support her.

"Man, I wish I had my shotgun right now." I was stunned (as was the class). I told him to get in the hallway and that I was going to have to write him up. In the hallway, he flew into a violent rage. I ran back into my room, closed the door, and called the administration. It took four hours to get him to the front office. The whole time, he yelled, "Just let me get home!"
He was charged with communicating a threat and disorderly conduct. But because he was labeled EC and had reached his ten-day suspension limit from previous infractions, he returned to school after only one day of suspension.
The student continued to harass me. He stared at me in the library and in the hallway. He came into my classroom, just looking, and he continued to make threatening comments. I pleaded with my administrators to make him leave. But the parents did not want him moved and threatened to sue. They brought a lawyer to IEP meetings, which I was never told about until later. The school was very interested in sweeping the whole thing under the rug. They actively prevented me from attending meetings about the issue and even suggested that I transfer to another high school if I felt unsafe.
The day he came into my classroom while I was alone during my planning period was my last day at Ridge High School. He never did anything physical to me, but I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and experienced a level of anxiety that you could not imagine. The thought of returning to work literally made me feel like I would pass out. I got along really well with my colleagues but was surprised that many of them turned their backs on me when I left. My very close friends supported me, but many others didn't. I guess I felt a little bullied by them, too, in the end. I left a lot of unfinished work behind, but it still really hurt my feelings that I didn't receive their support.
I felt so betrayed for being virtually forced to leave just so that the school could avoid a lawsuit and appease crazy parents. I have shared this story with the EC chair, the Superintendent, the School Board, and the State School Board, but they have not been concerned. The fact that they would let me leave (a hard-working teacher who put in seven good years) to keep a violent student really shook my whole identity. Teaching is who I am. I felt like I was missing an appendage during the months that I was out of work.

Matt's Story

As a new teacher, I encountered a bully -- my department chair -- though at the time, it never occurred to me to attach a label to the two years of misery and dread I experienced. Because Benton didn’t look like Keyser Söze in his pressed Dockers and polo shirts, and because he could light up a room with boyish charm, the act of trying to figure out when and how he would publicly excoriate me for following his exact instructions was crazy making.
When my friends advised me to ignore him, I said, "You focus on work, knowing there's an invisible cobra loose somewhere in your office." Every weekday morning, I would pull into the parking lot at the school building and listen to Alanis Morrisette's Uninvited CD repeatedly until I could slow my breathing and pretend I was unperturbed. When another bullied colleague and I both quit at the same time, the school asked us to give exit interviews. Based on those conversations, the chair was terminated. That happened years ago. I still feel guilty; my brain can't fathom anyone being that inappropriate. It's easier for me to go to an emotional place where I'm the one to blame.

Symptoms and Remedies

The aforementioned stories involved weeks and months of lost productivity, and feelings of depression and betrayal, all because of the bully's methods:

  • Ridicule
  • Exclusion
  • Aggression
  • Abuse of power
  • Assigning inappropriate or overwhelming tasks
  • Hiding information with a result of poor performance
  • Shaming

In Part II, this blog will discuss strategies for making teachers less vulnerable to aggressive workplace behaviors. If you'd like to share your stories or address the individuals who generously contributed above, please make use of the comment thread below.

Alternatively, send your story to me directly at toddfinley@gmail.com, and I'll post them for you in the comment section to keep your identity private.

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John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Stephanie, I'm so sorry you are having this sort of experience. If you reported these issues in writing or email to your superiors I suggest that you include the dates of reporting in your letter to the school board. Also, do you have a teacher's union? If so, please get in touch with the president to share your experiences. Please know that not all districts are like this. Perhaps there is another school district that might benefit from your skill set at some point when you feel ready. I wish you all the best.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Stephanie, I echo what John says. Years ago, I experienced a form of bullying from another teacher, and when I mentioned it to my principal, he suggested I talk to my union. That was the best advice - the union let me know that I needed to make sure the bully knew that I had talked to them and that he needed to stop (I needed to be clear about what his actions were). He was one of those who confused bullying with "just kidding - can't you take a joke?", and he needed to know explicitly what he was doing that was wrong. It was really hard for me to be honest with him, but I knew that if our conversation didn't go well, I could ask a union rep to meet with him with me. Fortunately, after a couple confrontations, he got the message and stopped. I'm so sorry that this has pushed you to the point of resigning. I wish you wouldn't wait until the last minute to let them know -- by putting them in a position of not being able to hire the best, you will end up hurting the students but not the admin. as much.

Veteran teacher's picture

I am a teacher with decades of experience. I have never experienced such a toxic school environment as I have now at my current school. We have no union so I can't approach anyone about this situation. But for the past 5 years or so I have had to deal with 2 co-workers who are a pain. One simply is lazy and crabs about everyone and everything and if you disagree, she repeats falsehoods about you to whomever will listen. The other co-worker is more dangerous and toxic to me or whomever she goes after. The bottom line is it is her way or the highway. You never know what will set her off. She goes right to the principal and the principal simply gives into whatever she wants and finds a way to keep her off her back. Unfortunately, she also complains to anyone who listens and it is not the truth except by what she feels is the truth. So I have had to deal with innuendo and viscious gossip for years now. Now the gossip goes to the admin. staff and everything is taken as true. She gossips and complains and picks and chooses whomever she is against and there is no stopping it. My nature is calm, keep to myself as I want to steer clear of her, but perhaps that was the wrong move over the years as now I have to deal with all this terrible gossip about anything she wants to tell, mostly about my teaching. She does get her way from admin. to the extent that it is useless to do anything other than stay neutral and away as much as possible. There is nobody I can talk to about this. I am also much older than her and when you are near retirement by several years, it doesn't help to have a younger one complaining. There is no respect. I am seriously thinking about switching schools just to get away from this mess. Is there anything I can do to make it better for myself? It is such a waste of time to deal with this mess each school year.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Veteran teacher....Sorry you're in such a mess. However, it sounds like you're handling it probably the best way possible. Sometimes you do need to switch schools. It happens. But I can hear the distress in your writing that you don't want to do that especially so close to retirement. Maybe she'll change over the summer? There's always hope, right?

Gaetan

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Veteran teacher, I agree with Gaetan that you seem to be doing all you can. Perhaps you could reach out to her and try to befriend her out of school and see what happens? Do you have any hobbies in common that might connect her to you and lessen the impact of what is clearly bullying behavior? If not, is there any way you can switch schools within the district so your salary and employment continuity stays intact being this close to retirement? Good luck and let us know how it goes and if you need any more support.

Triciarox's picture

A few years ago, I was offered a job working at a private Montessori school. I was so excited at the opportunity to work in my own classroom with older students having come from a preschool background with a shared classroom. It is a small, family run business that didn't pay well, but supposedly had high staff retention and a successful curriculum. The abuse started on day one, in front of my coworkers and parents. I was humiliated, talked down to, yelled at, and falsely accused of calling one of my students a bad name. After having one too many eye rolls directed at me by the administration, I asked to speak to my supervisor in private and ended up quitting a few minutes into our conversation. It was clear to me that I was going to end up taking nothing but abuse from this school if I chose to stay on. Looking back, there were red flags everywhere, but I chose to ignore them because thinking it was just my nerves and lack of experience. After I left, I researched the school online and read some horror stories from parents about how their children were being treated and how they've observed similar behavior directed at other teachers. I was fortunate enough to be able to walk away from this job and find something better, but I know there are many teachers out there who have to suffer through workplace bullying and don't have any recourse.

Verlander's picture

John,
I kept trying to talk to the person that wouldn't let me into their world, thus the other 95% of the other teachers in the school. I kept saying today is the day where he will understand and see from my conversation and painted smiles to him, that I should be his buddy. They (bullies) don't really care. The more you try to cozy up to them, the more power they have.

Verlander's picture

Triciarox,
Where do people, especially employed by a school have the desire to not be cordial to everyone that is in the district? As I've mentioned and you know school staff should be the front line on not doing any bullying to anyone at any time. IT'S THEIR JOB after all! But there are bad people in every profession I suppose.

Triciarox's picture

Hi, Verlander. I honestly think it was all about the money in my situation. Since the school I worked at is private, they can hire who they want and only take in whoever pays the tuition. There is a misconception that private schools are better. I can't figure it out, tough. Maybe because teachers are in charge of their classes all day that mentality extends to co-workers as well. I've dealt with nicer people working in retail.

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