Backstabbing in the staffroom

Low-level bullying of teachers can be as simple as feeling excluded and being ignored, says Hannah Frankel. But it can have devastating results
14th November 2008, 12:00am


Backstabbing in the staffroom

Liz, a newly qualified teacher, did not realise she was being bullied. Her complaints about her mentor, a popular and experienced senior member of staff, seemed trivial and ridiculous when she tried to describe them. She felt her mentor was being overly critical, unnecessarily abrupt and verbally aggressive. Unwilling to be labelled a troublemaker in her first term of her first teaching job, she kept quiet.

But the problem did not disappear. Seemingly innocuous incidents began to build up, chipping away at Liz’s self-confidence. It affected her health and she was on the verge of leaving her job and possibly the profession. Eventually, Liz turned to the Teacher Support Network (TSN), which was able to counsel her through it.

Experience of this so-called low-level bullying, which can range from tone of voice to constant criticism, is rife in the workplace. More than two million people consider themselves bullied at work, according to the Andrea Adams Trust, a charity dedicated to the issue. Almost 19 million working days are lost each year as a direct result, costing the UK economy about Pounds 12 billion per annum.

Under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, headteachers have a legal responsibility to prevent bullying among pupils. As such, most implement a thorough anti-bullying policy, strengthened and highlighted once a year during Anti-Bullying Week (November 17-21).

But it is a less robust picture for teachers. Although employers have a duty of care for the health and wellbeing of their staff, legislation is more focused on protection from discrimination and harassment (on the grounds of gender, race and sexual orientation) rather than bullying per se. The last attempt to introduce specific anti-bullying legislation failed to pass through the House of Commons in 2002.

“I can understand why it was dismissed,” says Bo Davis, an ex-lecturer who took her line manager to an employment tribunal for alleged bullying. “It would open the floodgates in terms of people lodging complaints.

“This is a massive issue across all levels of education. I’d go as far as calling it institutionalised. It can be devastating.”

Bo’s line manager initially welcomed her to the college. However, his behaviour soon changed. “It was subtle things,” she says. “He wouldn’t involve me in decisions or meetings that were to do with my course. He stopped speaking to me. How do you complain about little things like that?”

Bo started to blame herself and doubt her ability as a teacher - a common reaction. Her principal told her it was just a personality clash and eventually she was offered a financial settlement to leave.

Teachers struggle to present evidence when suffering from low-level bullying, especially when episodes are insidious. Shouting and tantrums are fairly easy to prove; the silent treatment is not.

Glen does not define himself as bullied at his secondary school, but he does feel isolated and ignored by colleagues. “I’m out of their clique,” he says. “I’m often left out of their staff outings and get-togethers. As much as I try chatting or getting to know them, there is always this awkward small talk feeling. They have the reputation of being extremely bitchy and backstabbing to those who aren’t in their clique, but they are very close to the head of department.”

A survey by the NASUWT union found that two-thirds of teachers and lecturers had been subjected to some form of bullying or harassment during the past two years. Of those, 73 per cent reported the incident, but no appropriate action was taken in almost half of the cases.

That lack of response becomes part of the bullying in the mind of the victim, says Charlotte Rayner, professor of human resource management at Portsmouth Business School. She has completed several research projects on workplace bullying and says that this passivity on behalf of the management consolidates growing feelings of self-doubt.

“The bullied individual is looking for support but receives no feedback,” Charlotte says. “They start to think it must be something wrong with them. The head and senior management must set the tone if a school is to create a culture where bullying is unacceptable.

“There is no fence to sit on. Either they condone bullying or they don’t. They need to make fast, informal interventions to set a clear example to everyone.”

Heads and senior members of staff need dedicated training for this to happen, says Charlotte. An excellent teacher may have no idea about how to manage staff, especially in ambiguous situations where the lines between strong management and bullying become blurred. In such cases, hostile behaviour can be mistaken for assertiveness.

There must also be clear and visible systems in place for reporting bullying among staff, just as there are for pupils. Only half of those who responded to the NASUWT survey said they knew their school or college had a procedure for reporting bullying. If all staff are consulted about a school’s anti-bullying policy, they are more likely to adhere to it.

Workload is another key battleground. Being allocated an unfair amount of additional workload and responsibility is one of the most common characteristics of low-level bullying, according to a study commissioned by the TSN in May. It found that nine out of 10 teachers believe that being given an excessive workload is the most prevalent form of victimisation.

Lisa says that there is an expectation at her secondary school to work hard for exceptionally long hours. “If I ever want to leave before 7pm, the head puts his head round the door and says: `Oh, leaving now are we?’ He makes it clear that leaving as early as 7 or 8pm is letting the side down.”

Other key types of bullying behaviour identified in the TSN survey include teachers who have their opinions ignored, who are excluded from discussions, have information withheld from them or face hostile reactions. Persistent criticism or being repeatedly reminded of errors are other frequent indicators.

This breeds a sense of unfairness among bullied teachers, says Tom Lewis, a former teacher and deputy headteacher who is now a counsellor with the TSN. One teacher will be allowed training while another is denied; one is offered flexibility to complete work, another is given impossibly short deadlines. It can feel like you are being set up to fail.

“There can be a perception that other people get away with things that the bullied individual can’t,” Tom says. “What’s expected of them or given to them is not what’s expected of or given to others. They can do nothing right.”

One teacher sums up this constant negative “drip, drip” effect on his confidence: “Whatever I do never seems to be good enough. I am constantly experiencing attempts by the headteacher to undermine me, my position, my status, value and potential. The head will openly praise a fellow colleague in front of me, before deliberately highlighting that my work is not worthy of praise.”

This is a classic bullying routine, says Charlotte, and a classic response as well. “Human nature is to compare your situation with those around you,” she says. “When you feel constantly singled out for criticism, while others around you are not, it adds to your sense of injustice and unfairness. The bullied individual is left fearful, upset and with a diminished belief in themselves, both personally and professionally.”

They also think: “Why me?” This is one of the most difficult factors for bullied individuals to digest, says Tom. “We help people recognise that being a victim is unpleasant but that the problem lies with the bully. The victim has normally done absolutely nothing wrong. It may be that the bully simply feels intimidated or is trying to exert total control.”

Bullying in schools is typically gravitational: trickling down from the senior management team. The NASUWT survey found that 20 per cent of general bullying is conducted by line managers, compared with just 10 per cent from colleagues and 15 per cent from pupils. This can be partly explained through unreasonable expectations put on school leaders, who transfer their stress on to other members of staff.

“The intense scrutiny on schools is now greater than ever and the pressures that come as a result of league tables, threats of closure and ever-increasing initiatives can be overwhelming for those in leadership positions,” says Patrick Nash, chief executive of the TSN. “As well as acting against bullying, we must reduce the pressures on school leaders in order to prevent it from happening in the first place.”

Tom Lewis has also seen examples of upward bullying, when teaching assistants, especially those who have been at the school for a long time, display an “I know better” attitude that is hard for newer teachers to confront.

Bo Davis now uses her own experience, plus her training as a life coach, to help others facing workplace bullying. “There is often a high turnover of staff when a serial bully is at work,” she says. “They may cultivate people who are useful to them, but they’ll also have left a whole trail of destruction and depression in their wake.”

Many bullied teachers end up leaving their job. Studies reveal that 25 per cent of those who experience bullying will move elsewhere. Many are too fearful to blow the whistle. They are worried their concerns will not be taken seriously or that they’ll be labelled a troublemaker for the rest of their career. The possibility of a bad reference is another real concern.

Greg, a 26-year-old newly qualified teacher, finally left his school after workplace bullying. He was prescribed anti-depressants and found work through a teaching agency. But when he started at the new school he was asked to leave and escorted from the premises. He later discovered his previous school had given him a bad reference.

Little wonder then that teachers want to leave quietly without making a fuss, says Charlotte. Vigilant heads should keep an eye on who is staying and who is going. Is the turnover in the geography department disproportionately high? Why is that? Exit interviews are a good way of monitoring the situation, but it must be strictly confidential if teachers are to be honest.

Charlotte believes a “vacuum of communication” hampers those who feel put upon at work. Through discussing any issues with the perpetrator as they materialise, problems can be nipped in the bud. It’s less easy when the victimised individual constantly blames themselves or believes they are somehow responsible for the way they are treated.

“Bullied employees often question themselves,” says Carole Spiers, founder of the Carole Spiers Group, a stress management and wellbeing consultancy. “They feel guilty and think there’s something wrong with them. They don’t always realise they’re being bullied so won’t share it with anyone or make a formal complaint.”

In such situations, the school or bully must take responsibility for reigning in unacceptable behaviour. Carol says that some bullies take pride in their fearsome reputation, while others don’t recognise themselves as aggressive or manipulative - making change less likely.

Charlotte insists it is not about being nice to colleagues, just about being decent. “You have to ask yourself: `If my significant other were sitting in the back of the room, would I be happy behaving in this way?’ If the answer is no, it’s up to you to make some significant changes.” Some names have been changed.;;


1. Unmanageable workload.

2. Opinions ignored.

3. Feeling excluded.

4. Withheld information.

5. Hostile reaction on approach.

6. Persistent criticism.

7. Repeated reminders of errors.

8. Humiliated or ridiculed.

9. Excessive monitoring.

1.0 Given work below level of competence.

Source: The Teacher Support NetworkUniversity of Glamorgan survey of 541 teachers online between January and March 2008.


In 15 years of headship I have rarely had to deal with complaints of workplace bullying. We try to create an ethos of trust and collaborative partnership here at Lewis School Pengam in south Wales. Our school’s motto declares that Every Person Matters and we try to live up to that ideal.

We’ve had isolated incidents; perhaps that’s inevitable in a large comprehensive school with a multi-disciplinary staff. However, I’d see it as a failure of my leadership if workplace bullying was seen to be a persistent or common problem. How have we created such an ethos? Transparency in decision making helps. So does our commitment to working hard to resolve personal problems. Our chair of governors is a natural conciliator with decades of experience in HR management.

Our senior managers share with him a commitment to informal resolutions to disagreements before they become serious. This permeates all aspects of relationships within the school. Our community knows this and confidence and mutual support thrive.

Dr Chris Howard is headteacher of Lewis School Pengam in Caerphilly and vice president of the National Association of Head Teachers


- Keep a diary of each occurrence, with time, dates and witnesses. If you give this to your manager, keep a copy for yourself.

- Keep all bullying letters, emails or memos as evidence.

- Speak to trusted friends or colleagues about the situation.

- If the relationship hasn’t totally broken down, talk to the perpetrator and try to find a way forward.

- If bullying persists, do not suffer in silence. Speak to another senior member of staff or your line manager - they have a responsibility to resolve the issue.

- If bullying continues, speak to your union representative. Ask them to accompany you to meetings with your manager.

- If behaviour is affecting your mental andor physical health, seek support from the Teacher Support Network, your local authority employee counselling scheme or your GP.

- Keep notes during all meetings with your manager. De-brief your union representative afterwards.

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