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 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’re 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’re 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?
  • 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.

Focus on What You Can Control

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 don’t intend to involve them right away. Consulting a lawyer for legal advice or a psychologist for emotional support is another option.

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 30-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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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.

Verlander'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?

Socraticea's picture

Call me Sox. Those of us who have been bullied by colleagues have learned a hard lesson about the avocation we have chosen. Teaching was supposed to be the job I kept until retirement in my latter years, but the stress of being pushed out of the classroom caused physical problems that caused me to be hospitalized. So I quit to save my life. Let me remind you that there are school systems into which certain people do not fit. I was placed in one where the teachers attacked me daily because I "complained" that some of my students had to sit on the floor because there weren't enough desks, that the textbooks were out of date, that I had to buy my own paper to photocopy lessons from the internet and the library, that colleagues were putting threatening "jokes" to my mailbox. Right up to the end of my teaching stint in that system I was the "different" one because I spoke up for my students. I was an advocate for the brilliant ones who were overlooked because of race, national origin, or color, as well as a supportive adult for those who had missed the foundations earlier in their education and needed to catch-up in order to move forward. I'm not patting myself on the back, the hundreds of students who stay in contact with me years after my retirement have told me how much my presence in their educational journey has meant to them. I admired them as individuals, for their differences and saw the potential in all of them for better lives. For the greater good, I choose to continue to "talk funny" and "not be a team player" if the team sees working with children as a job and Bill Gates' foundation as Nirvana.

Student Teacher's picture

As a current student in urban education, I am aware of the issues and signs to look for with bullying in the classroom. However, I must say that teachers bullying other teachers has hypocrisy written all over it and goes against any principles that a teacher should stand for. This article is a bit concerning to me as I will be entering the classroom this coming school year and am open to coaching and critique, I never imagine bullying from colleagues could be a possibility. Hoping that this is not the case for me, I will make sure to take the advise from the article and comments, should I become a victim of bullying. Additionally, I will also make sure to try and reach out and work together with colleagues as a team who support and encourage one another for the better of the community.

Verlander's picture

"Student teacher," I definitely would not start out your year thinking that being bullied could happen anytime. Being bullied in a 20-30 year teaching timeframe may be something you come across. I never had any of this from co-workers until now, what is my 14th year in public schools. Do not think you will get along with every principal you come across by any means. As I said, many principals for some reason do not think they have to get along with the staff. Their job, I guess, is to get along with the administration. Some people may consider that they are bullied by principals. Though maddening, I took negativity from principals with a grain of salt.

Verlander's picture

Sox, you are correct. Some teachers may not belong in certain places. I don't necessarily believe that is the case here. For one reason just like companies wanting young "kids" to start right out of college for "x" corporation, the same is with school districts. It was very hard for me to get this position since I'm in my 50's. If I didn't have some association with one or two of the staff I wouldn't of gotten the job. Nor would anyone else for that matter. Yes, in the first district I taught in, the books were out of date, the copy machine never worked and it was maddening. But students sitting on the floor and buying your own paper--at that point you're not responsible. If you're young enough get out. If not how unfortunate.

Cade Adello's picture

I am reading these comments, and I see something in common. And that is the fact that we care!! Unfortunately, there are those that take advantage of this. They are thieves. "Collectors of one's peace of mind". And I have yet to understand this. Because these people know that you do care, they will sneak their hidden punches in, because they know that teachers who do care, care enough about the kids, so as to not react in defense for wanting to set a good example for young minds. (Unfortunately, this can impair classroom management.) That has been one of my frustrations. Sox, it looks like you actually cared enough to think of students as individuals, and not numbers for the state per say. Bravo! and you, in this case, were actually the team player. Show me a person who complains about the students, and not for the students, and in most cases - I'll show u a Bully!

Verlander's picture

Agree, Cade. Being one of the first to come in and one of the last out of the elementary building, couldn't the staff see that I care? Not that I was doing it to please anyone except me. I don't know if I was the best teacher in the district, but I know there were few that were more committed.

Verlander's picture

Many of the teachers who really didn't know me were not really social with me, and yes they had a lot on their mind. I finally came to that as a reasoning for 90% of the teachers that were fairly anti-social. It's odd, in my previous 13 years as a teacher, a good stress reliever would be talking to staff throughout the day. Now some do that and others just do not.?

jessica King's picture
jessica King
2nd grade Catholic School teacher in Charleston, South Carolina

Thank you for this post it could not have come at a better time for me. I have a 3rd grade teacher who blames me for the reason her students "can't do anything" for her. The administration and this teacher forget all the wonderful work displayed in the hall the previous year and now even as I cite and give actual research supporting my teaching in small groups I am still bullied. My mother is the one who first used the term bully for how I've been treated these past few years and this post supports that. How sad is it that we can't collaborate and support each other? We berate and blame. Sadly, I love teaching in a Catholic school and there aren't many other options out there for me right now. It feels good I am not alone.

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