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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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- 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 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!

Cade Adello's picture

Help. I have been in teaching for around 8 years. And in work force for over 25 years and have never, and I mean never seen anything like what I have seen over past several years. I never knew one fellow employee / colleague could make a job so miserable. (I am a specials teacher with additional teaching duties.) I work with a teacher that was a friend before I began employment at this specific place. The adm is wonderful(have had the priv. to work with them side by side on projects to help school) I have always gotten along with everyone! But I have never ever met a person that was this egotistical, critical, and very condescending. Just when you think this person is going to be nice, watch out! They will nail you with an unwarranted criticism out of the blue. I mind my own business, do my job. Does not work. I have seen this person seek me out to criticize. I do not understand how a "fellow teacher" can be so aggressive. I have come to find out, that there has been a history here, even before I came. Even when this individual has been confronted, I have seen cruel retaliation. This individual has come to my classroom many times in the morning and will start out OK, but will say some of the most horrible things about others, as well as criticize. I now lock my door, so I can get work done and so that my day will not be ruined. And so that I do not have to be associated with some of the things that have been said. Almost as if this person has started their own sidebar admin! Constantly questions on how you are doing your job, and will take every opportunity to take credit, even for things in my classroom. I know this must be hard to believe. But it is very much true.

Jen Madrid's picture

I quit teaching due to a similar situation. I am now tutoring after much soul searching. Nothing is worth the price of your happiness.

Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA's picture
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA
Advocate, Lawyer, Teacher and Founder of Beyond Tutoring

Hi Cade,

First off, it is so hard to be gaslighted or bullied by a colleague and I definitely know how it feels. I had a colleague once who undermined me at every turn and was constantly complaining to our mutual boss about me and my work ethic. I will tell you how I handled it: I documented every time she did something critical or undermining and asked myself: what are the concrete steps I can take to protect myself so I can do a good job? Then with those in mind I spoke to my boss about how we can these this necessary steps happen. These steps didn't have much to do with the retaliatory person, so the person didn't seek me out further. All in all, it was a good lesson in people management and asserting myself in a positive but firm way.

Good luck and let us know when it resolves. I will be thinking of you.

Cade Adello's picture

If your situation was this close to mine. I can understand why - I just hate the fact someone would have to do this to clear space for a bully.

J.Ferrer's picture

Hi Katie,

I also know how it feels as a few years ago I won't say exactly where, but i worked for a state of Texas agency and
the assistant supervisor began to bully me and others in the office. I also kept a record and when I felt like it was too
much, I brought it up to the supervisor and explained the situation. At first, she tried to pass it off as him just being
a prankster and didne\'t mean any harm. I immediately told her that it was not funny and it was getting in the way of
my performance at work and did not appreciate it especially since I had stated to him that I did not appreciate it. I did
tell her that if nothing was done about the situation, I was going to go up in the chain of command and provide who
ever I spoke with with all the notes I had. It did stop immediately and I did not feel any retaliation whatsoever. Luckily
I left soon after and was glad I never returned. Sometimes you have to put your foot down and not let anyone put you down
or make fun of you no matter what position they hold. I'm glad you were able to resolve your problem with that bully.

RomanAcleaf's picture

In a nut shell: I just quit having my staff use the PLC format during meetings. (For reasons closely related to colleague "bullying")
Fact 1: People rarely followed the "norms" (chiefly; waiting their turn to talk, and giving all comments equal weight).
Fact 2: The norms put people who "adhered to the norms" at a disadvantage to the more "bullie-esque" style coworkers.
Fact 3: When a person interrupts a speaker, they are indirectly saying two things; A) I am done listening to you - I no longer believe anything you are saying is valuable to me or the group, and B) My thoughts/opinions are better than yours.

We will still have staff meetings, but I can't be responsible (as a principal) for placing people in situations (i.e.; Professional Learning Community format) where those that follow the rules are exploited by those who disregard them. My next step/idea is to have a "Sergeant-At-Arms" who is responsible for interrupting the interrupters.

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