Bring the bullies to book

24th October 1997, 1:00am


Bring the bullies to book
The problem of bullying seems inextricably linked with educational establishments. The anguish it causes among children is well documented and no respectable institution would be seen without an effective policy on its prevention and redress. But what happens when the bullying is between staff members? Who is there to protect, comfort and fight for the victim as a class tutor would for a pupil?

Tim Field, of the National Workplace Bullying Advice Line, has noticed a clear increase in bullying among teachers. Teachers form the largest occupational group to suffer from workplace bullying, constituting 20 per cent of the calls to the advice line. Of these, 90 per cent involve managers bullying subordinates. Surveys by unions, universities and other organisations consistently confirm that staffroom bullying is on the increase. It appears that the school community can be a hostile place for thousands of teachers.

For new teachers, to be forewarned is to be forearmed: bullying and stress are inextricably linked, and negative stress can lead to illness. This has a devastating effect both on individual and employer; the Department of Health estimates that 3.6 per cent of national salary is paid to staff who are off work with stress-related illnesses. To say "it could never happen to me" is no longer realistic. Bullying among staff presents tortuous complications, not eased by there being no consensus of approach. This is not simply an issue to squeeze under the heading of harassment in the hope that an equal opportunities policy will cover it.

Bullying commonly consists of insidious, relentless criticism, fault-finding, humiliation, excessive work expectations, abuse of discipline and competence procedures, inappropriate forms of communication; in fact, a bully aims to exert power negatively and consistently over another person with the purpose of inciting fear and causing professional and emotional damage. Withholding recognition for performance, lack of compassion in difficult circumstances, inexcusable blocks to promotion or training, and manipulation are all forms of bullying. It is inherently destructive, and usually born out of desperate feelings of inadequacy, reflected on to another person, who will often be accused of the very flaws the bully detects in themselves. To quote Tim Field: "Those who can, do, those who can't, bully."

There is a clear difference between firm, constructive management and bullying. If, as a new entrant to the profession, there is cause to correct your conduct (which is an employer's duty), you are entitled to proper procedure. If this leaves you feeling humiliated and despondent instead of nurtured and encouraged, it is likely that some bully tactics have been employed. Good managers manage, bad ones bully.

There are obvious tell-tale signs of bullying being tolerated in an institution. High absenteeism and turnover of staff are indicative of staffroom distress, as are low morale and lack of respect for the management. Pupils pick up easily on the accepted culture of their school, and poor staff behaviour will soon be reflected in them.

Most victims of adult bullying find themselves dealing with reactive depression, hyper-vigilance, shattered confidence, anxiety and fatigue. This is perfectly normal under the circumstance s. Yet in addition, most victims agonise over the question, why me? Ironically, the answers are frequently the same as when a child is bullied: the victim is too popular, too accomplished, highlights incompetence through competence, or is incorruptible.

Workplace bullying is illegal on several grounds, with responsibility lying firmly with employers to protect staff from its ill effects. Compensation for damage to psychological health can be sought, as well as for loss of earnings and pension rights; a recent case saw an out-of-court settlement of #163;66,000 for bullying-induced stress.

If you feel that you are experiencing bullying, this action plan could enable you to avoid the career sacrifice and ill health which so many victims suffer.

As soon as you feel you have been treated inappropriately, tell a trusted friend. A second opinion will help determine whether your treatment was reasonable under the circumstances. Be clear about your duties according to your job description.

A primary school teacher in Wales took this advice and spoke to colleagues about her experiences. The response was an overwhelming expression of support from them: she received a bouquet of flowers with a card signed by all staff except her bully! This gave her confidence to fight her aggressor as she knew she was not alone.

If you and your confidant feel that bullying may be occurring, this would be a good time to attend an assertiveness course. Your professional credibility may be (falsely) under question, and your ability to stand firm, confident and calm is invaluable. Professional counselling would also be wise as it will ensure that perspective is retained. Many victims have found that the bullying invades every aspect of their lives, becoming central to their thoughts and actions. If you are in a non-maintained school, ask your local education authority for its policy on workplace bullying. Most take it very seriously (after all, it destroys good teaching), and either have a policy, or plans to devise one. Staff bullies are certainly not acting in accordance with their responsibilities as employees of a county council.

At this stage you need to formally request the help of your union and Redress, The Bullied Teachers' Support Network set up a couple of years ago.

Redress has proven to be of great value to teachers needing fast, effective intervention in order to end their suffering. While your union is undoubtedly a source of support, some teachers have found that the time it takes to get their case seen to, and the delicate balance that unions want to maintain between fighting for members and retaining a good relationship with schools, has pushed them into seeking additional help.

Regardless of your union membership, read copies of the documents produced by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, the Professional Association of Teachers (PAT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) on workplace bullying. Concerned about the dramatic increase in incidences of bullying in their caseloads, these unions have written useful guidelines. The National Union of Teachers is in the process of formulating advice material for members. In a recent report produced for PAT by the University of Surrey, just under 20 per cent of respondents indicated they had been or were being bullied at work. More than 50 per cent of those reported deterioration in physical andor mental health, and nearly 20 per cent left their job. NASUWT recognises that "for many, teaching is a terminal illness", and that "stress-related illness is the 'asbestosis' of the teacher".

The strongest advice from Redress is for new teachers to take out an insurance policy against loss of job or earnings as a result of bullying. Legal protection can be bought in its own right, or can be tacked on to house contents insurance.

Redress is successful in its work because it is aware that confidentiality can be misused to protect professional misconduct. With the individual's consent, Redress will ensure that their situation is widely known. It also has solicitors expert in both employment and education law. Redress is keen to advise on action before the situation escalates, so you need to contact them sooner rather than later. It is unfortunate that of the first 200 letters sent to Redress, 143 expressed dissatisfaction with their union's input. Remember, you are always free to change your union membership.

Other sources of good advice are The Kingston Friends Workshop Group, The National Workplace Bullying Advice Line, and the Andrea Adams Trust. You are never alone in your situation. There are many individuals and groups waiting to guide you through to a positive solution.

Another ploy is to gather support for your cause. A bully rarely strikes once, and there are probably other victims who have suffered at the hands of your aggressor. Write down all interactions you have, including dates, times and locations, and avoid being alone with your bully. Keep copies of any memos your bully sends you as well as your responses (always written), and refute all unfair claims made against you.

It is also important to monitor any changes you feel may have taken place in your work performance as a result of bullying. Keep copies of your appraisals, and Office for Standards in Education report if you have one.

While you follow these steps, be aware of your needs. Eat a good diet, and give yourself treats. This will help you retain a sense of humour which will ease the pressure on your personal relationships and your health. However, if your experiences have led to illness, visit your GP, and record exactly why your health has suffered, and who has contributed. If your GP recommends sick leave, take it; it is a sign of strength, not weakness to look after your health. You also need to record your illness in your school's accidentincident book, and complete an Accident at Work form from the Social Services department.

Your advisers will help you decide whether to take an informal approach (confronting your bully in person or writing) or a formal approach, but only you can decide whether you want to change jobs. If you consider leaving, view it positively; it could be the best career move you ever made, but make sure the LEA, governors, and management team know exactly why.

You have a right, as a new entrant to the teaching profession, to be supported at every stage, by your colleagues, your governors and LEA, and your union.

Don't let fear stop you from discussing any adverse experiences. It is this fear that sustains the bully's next attack. Expose them and challenge their behaviour, and know that you are not alone.

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