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

Tim...Sorry to hear that. So sorry. You know, sometimes when I'm walking down the hall I'm so deep in thought (I do my best thinking while moving- jogging, walking, etc..) I sometimes forget to say hi. I know some colleagues that didn't know me well thought I was being rude until they figured me out or I just told them. My closest friends give me a high five or pat on the back because they know when my feet are moving my brain is moving even faster. This doesn't doesn't sound like what's happening in your case, but there's always next year to try again, right?


school counselor's picture

Tim - Is this as simple as "you two had a personality conflict"

Could it be solved by sitting down and a third party walking you two through a discussion just of factual issues and events "when this happened I felt ________"

I believe what you are describing is very common and happens at every school, in every building, and at every job site: humans have conflict when we have to work together.

When we're rested, feeling good, etc we can handle things.

But when we eventually get tired, stress sets in, things go wrong, people make mistakes, then things are going to fall apart.

Every day and everywhere people get cross wise and voices get louder and things turn into a shouting match or "strong words are spoken' and people go on about their business and they feel shame, guilt, etc

Things have gotten pretty bad.

By that I mean you and the rest of us walk through the doors every morning and we are supposed to be there to focus 100% of our energy and our attention on our job.

And yet we encounter these issues and as humans we have a need to try to figure out what is wrong and what is the root cause and who is to blame and our work suffers.

I would like to hear more about what you went through and what you think could have been done and should have been done by your administrators, management, etc to ensure that you have a stable and comfortable place to work - as opposed to the initial stages of a hostile work environment.

Tim Swain's picture

Thanks for your responses Gaetan and "school counselor."

We did sit down on the last day of school with a third party. I thought this would help. When the only thing that came out of his mouth were lies it really made it worse and made me almost sick. It hurt worse.

My new tactic is to get to know everyone else in the school really well and go from there.

Tim Swain's picture

Oh and there was no personal conflict. Except the fact that I'm semi-religious, but not a serious Christian like many are in my school. The first thing that was asked to me on the first day is, Are you a Christian?" It totally threw me for a loop.

Cade Adello's picture

Tim. To say I feel your pain would be an understatement!
And it seems like the summer mos - when we have time to reflect
It Hits!!

This is what i was going to write earlier - but had trouble with Internet
(The only thing that will happen as a result of meeting and a third party is that retaliation will probably be the result. Tim, it sounds like you are trying to do a good job, and you have moved in on someone's territory per say. And you are probably well liked.)

The actions being portrayed are not that of a Christian, but a person that has little maturity. I am a strong Christian - and this is not Christ like.
There is a Proverb that says it is better to meet a bear robbed of her whelps, than to meet a fool in his folly.

There is nothing worse than when you are trying to do what is right - and you have someone passively aggressive throwing hidden punches - and people try to get you to "work it out".

Believe you me - I have been through it with several individuals - one in particular for several years now. And frustrations are at an all time high. But real people will be able to see thru this. that has happened with me - and it has given me strength to see that others notice!

Hang in there. We can do this!

school counselor's picture

tim this is a book about emotional intelligence in the workplace

in the book the author states that our goal should be to have "good relationships" with everyone we work with and it's in our best interests and it's to our advantage to put forth the effort to form good relationships with each and every person we work with and that we benefit!

I just finished this past year dealing with several "horrible" co-workers and I hated them

This stuff is VERY difficult

Here's the book

Tim Swain's picture

Thanks Cade. You are so right, when we have time to think and reflect it hits me even more. I even think about things that I never remember during the school year. The incidents that bugged me during the school year become much more vivid. The conflicts I didn't have time to think about that were rude, I now stew over and it infuriates me.

And then my mentor who got us in the same room to try to work "whatever" out. Is that going to make things five times worse? How could I say that that will help. I can't.

Tim Swain's picture

Exactly. I see that in the meetings in my school and it seems that the principal doesn't even have time to talk before she gets interrupted. I'm thinking, "You're interrupting the principal, and if you interrupt the person who heads the school how can anyone else get any thought across?"

Cade Adello's picture

Thanx for the response.
Unfortunately society has been brainwashed into "fixing the victim"
rather than dealing with the bully. The concept should I say of a bullied
student going for help, then getting into trouble to - then when students
don't go for help, adm and some teachers wonder why.

We had pro dev this past year on some self help book on what teachers can do
better to mentally help themselves with classes that constantly misbehave. Once
again - this is barking up the wrong tree. Give the teachers more support in dealing
with discipline problems in the classroom.

Oh, and by the way, the principal is probably intimidated themselves by his person. I
have seen it a lot.

Tim Swain's picture

Cade both responses were helpful. Yes, I don't need help on how to help myself mentally with classes that misbehave. I was in a district for 12 years with students that had nothing to loose, and acted out almost everyday. I remember one large student who came to school with a DOC band around his ankle who was a real problem. Now, I have no problems with student behavior, but problems with teachers who withhold anything verbal and purposely ignore. Isn't it supposed to be that way with students and not teachers? Make a formal complaint? What is that going to do?

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