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The Quick Q&A: how to identify and tackle workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is a significant problem in teaching, argues this science teacher. He details how to spot it and what to do about it

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Workplace bullying is a significant problem in teaching, argues this science teacher. He details how to spot it and what to do about it

Shouldn’t teachers know better than to bully each other?

Perhaps, but bullying occurs in all walks of life and in most environments. Teaching is not immune.

When you say bullying, what exactly are we talking about...

Bullying is an intentional, repeated act in a relationship where there is an imbalance of power. I believe that the primary reason for bullying in schools, overtly or covertly, is due to pressure: the pressure to achieve government targets is usually at the heart of the repeated and persistent negative behaviour characterised in bullying. Bullying normally involves an abuse of power, so it may be instigated by those above you in position. For more on the psychology of bullying, listen to this Tes Podagogy podcast.

So how do so many teachers find themselves in this terrible situation?

Well, it is commonly, but not always, because of their "rebelliousness". Some school leaders simply do not like being challenged. Teachers may perceive the leader's ideas as poor or their demands as untenable and the teacher will then speak up against them, be it in front of an audience or just through gossiping. Teachers who regularly challenge school leaders can be seen as problematic, particularly if they are supported by others. Often teachers will want to challenge school leaders, but won’t, and what follows is this: the teacher who does speak up inspires others to do the same, thus multiplying the school leaders’ problems. The leaders will then, to put it crudely, cut off the head of the snake.

OK – what type of behaviours and actions does a bullied teacher end up suffering?

In secondary schools, the most favoured strategy applied by school leaders to bully their staff is through timetabling. At a particular school, for example, teachers were "encouraged" to do Saturday revision sessions for their GCSE groups. These were paid, but still a morally repugnant request in my opinion – given a teachers’ existing workload. Teachers who did not do the sessions were deprived of Year 11 classes the following year – and in some cases, even their own classroom. One bullied teacher was teaching in 20 different classrooms, not a single lesson was in the same room.

Excessive or malicious scrutiny are also weapons of choice. A "rebellious" teacher once became a target and the headteacher would randomly come into his lessons, check a couple of books, frown, and then walk away mute, thereby keeping the teacher on edge.

Another teacher reported that a deputy headteacher would speak to underachieving pupils in his class and ask leading questions such as "is your lack of progress due to Sir’s poor teaching?"

That sounds pretty horrific. How do you stop it happening?

When dealing with the potential for or the reality of workplace bullying, an important principle comes to mind: prevention is better than cure.

I’m not advocating that we all tread on eggshells around our school leaders, fearing that even the slightest mishap will destroy our careers. It is better to challenge them from a position of power. Your best protection is being an excellent teacher with a passion for the classroom. Challenging school leaders will be a whole lot easier if leaders already respect you.

We also need to ensure we do not act alone. If you decide that it is unacceptable for staff to be coerced into school on a Saturday, then make sure you have the backing of other staff through words and action. There is no glory in martyrdom.  

And if you are that excellent teacher and you do get support, but nothing changes?

On occasion, the above may not be sufficient. Whatever the reason, it may even be personal, bullying may still find its way to you.

If you find yourself in this unfortunate circumstance, first, memorise the statement, "Sorry, I’ve got a such a terrible memory, do you mind dropping me an email?" Depending on how far you push it, the bully will cleverly deny everything.

Second, for the sake of your wellbeing, it is important that you don’t suffer in silence: speak to your union representative, who will advise you on your specific situation.

If you do decide to report it to the headteacher – unless of course if the bully is the headteacher – it is important that you manage your expectations, things will not move quickly and investigations will be thorough. 

Overall, always seek the advice of your union and ensure you also have emotional support from colleagues, family, friends or organisations such as the Samaritans (call them on 116123).

Always speak up if you think you are being bullied: we need to call out bullying and stamp it out whenever it arises. 

Omar Akbar is a science teacher and author of The Unofficial Teacher’s Manual: What they don’t teach you at training college

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