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Genuine bullying in the staffroom is still very, very rare

Many schools are terrible places to work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean teachers are being bullied

Ofsted needs to stop bullying teachers and become a positive force for school improvement, writes one head of department

Many schools are terrible places to work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean teachers are being bullied

A rash of stories about stressful and unpleasant working relationships between teachers and managers demands, to use the kind of language that teachers will understand, an “intervention”.

It really beggars belief that in 2018, teachers routinely report working relationships they would never wish on the children they teach. If these stories are to be believed, then far too many teachers and school leaders are routine hypocrites, half the time teaching children to be civil to each other, while mistreating their own colleagues. It paints a less than impressive picture. Grown men and women settling petty playground spats and squabbles, before settling down in front of a computer screen to put the boot in some unfortunate colleague.

To be successful an intervention has to change things, so that’s what I’m seriously aiming to achieve, by focusing on just two things experience has taught me about schools and teachers, in pretty much any country I’ve ever worked in.

The first is that far too many teachers use one particularly explosive word, a word that as professional teachers they should be extraordinarily cautious about ever deploying. Yet it gets used as though butter wouldn’t melt in its firing pin. That word is "bullying". It’s even become mawkishly fashionable for public figures to use the word to claim victim status.

There is no agreed legal definition of bullying in the workplace or anywhere else. Crying “bully” at the first sign of kindergarten fisticuffs, or because a senior manager has criticised the quality of a colleague’s teaching, helps neither toddler nor teacher because it reduces something that is actually quite rare and deeply damaging, to the mundane. Anyone who has accumulated real experience of it, and understands what it takes to put an end to it, will know this.

Bullying is characterised by a profound loathing of the victim. It is deeply and poisonously personal. It can have varied causes that Freudians, Jungians and bully apologists can fight over as much as they wish, but in my experience it stems from just two: fear and envy. Contrary to the popular public school mythology that sees it as something secret and hidden, it’s more often a matter of community and context as it is personal. A real bully never acts alone. Coercing others to join in, either wittingly or unwittingly, is par for the course because the entire mission is to destroy the victim’s status and credibility within the peer group or community. What’s the point of causing all that pain and hurt if no one else sees it? What a waste of effort and talent?

Bullies are also almost eye-wateringly tenacious. What they do they repeat, and their ability to focus is Olympian. Don’t ever fall for that cruel and offensively foolish notion that sitting them down to talk with their victim will in some miraculous way staunch the bleeding. Bullies are like alcoholics. Sincerely reciting the Serenity Prayer is the best they can ever hope for. There are only two ways to defeat them. You either expose and outgun them communally, or you create a situation where they can never have contact with their victim.

None of this seems to me to apply to the kind of work-related, weak management practice and generally poor adult behaviour that the current rash of news stories about teachers being badly treated in schools seems to indicate.

Which takes me to the second thing I want to focus on. Schools are anachronistically hierarchical workplaces. However much business-think or marketing vocabulary has filtered through into them in recent years, through changes like academisation and school business managers, they remain fiercely structured around the idea that a teacher moves up through a management structure, based around an idea of seniority. Lots of people have voiced the obvious concern that this system mitigates against the best classroom teachers. Such teachers often have no interest in management nor progression, yet they are never rewarded for staying in the classroom doing a superb job, which those who manage them are paid to deliver.

This isn’t to say that hierarchies don’t exist outside schools. They do, but good businesses have far more flexibility than schools. They discuss people’s training needs with them and align them with business goals. They differentiate between departments and utilise team structures for short periods, again to match business goals. Many business leaders genuinely care about how their employees feel about where they work, which is why they put time and money into entering competitions that rank the best companies to work for. This kind of creative use of incentive and time is alien to most schools and most school leaders.

Add to that what the timetable does to every teacher’s working day, forcing contact with colleagues into brief periods snatched between the core job, and what you get is a breeding ground for personal friction and bruising professional relationships.

Like lots of people I imagine, I’ve read some depressingly sad and unedifying accounts recently of teachers’ experiences working in struggling schools under weak managers, but none have merited what I would describe as bullying. That’s still, fortunately, a rare malignancy in most schools, however poorly those working in them feel they are treated.

So if we want to see things improve in schools and hear less about teachers' lives being ruined by aggressive or hypercritical colleagues, we all need to stop using "bullying" to describe things which aren’t, and school leaders need to seriously explore better ways to bring the flexibility that good businesses to work for practice, into schools. 

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more of his columns, view his back catalogue

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