Bullies need professional challenge

16th June 1995 at 01:00
The recent report on this page of adult workplace abuse was the tip of the iceberg, says an unhappy onlooker.

The anonymous Talkback about workplace bullying (TES, May 26) rang bells for a lot of us at my school, where teachers have been consistently bullied for seven years. The result has been to divide and demoralise the staff room. Bullying has prevented personal and career development, and has produced dangerously high levels of stress in some people.

At least two members of staff, including a former deputy, have resigned through ill health as the result of a complete breakdown. So far this year three members of staff have been signed off for lengthy periods with stress-related illnesses. Others complain of backaches, headaches, nausea, tightening of the throat, sores that won't heal. One woman has been warned by her dentist that she is seriously damaging her teeth by grinding them in her sleep.

The staff profile is fairly typical of a large inner-city infants' school. Mostly women, many with family responsibilities, and with other worthwhile things to do outside school. The age range and the range of teaching experience is broad. They are generally people well able to cope with normal amounts of stress and pressure, and are committed to their jobs and their pupils.

So what has gone wrong? I would argue that the stress factor is abnormal and amounts to psychological terrorism.

The feelings engendered by the bully have been described to me as fearfulness, just like that inspired by the archetypal looming shadow from horror movies, and terror of being the one singled out or addressed in any way. The adult victims fear that they will be misunderstood or accused without the right of reply, that their voices will go unheard and that they will be subjected to arbitrary and illogical controls.

The worry is that although the governing body does not know the full extent of the bullying, the chair of governors and the LEA do. The LEA response has so far been to offer individual members of staff the option of using the authority's occupational health service. It may well be true that by now we are all in need of mental health counselling. That, however, is not going to change the unsatisfactory and damaging situation we are in.

Another great concern is that the experience I describe is repeated across the country in many schools. It does seem to be a growing phenomenon. But like other forms of abuse, adult bullying may always have existed but not been identified or described.

It may be that those responsible for putting into practice the massive changes in our education system themselves feel bullied and are passing it on. It may be that the macho style of management as exemplified by successive Conservative governments has had a trickle-down effect.

I do think that people who are victims of bullying at work, specifically staff bullied at school, should be encouraged to disclose their experiences and seek support. I believe the teacher unions should grasp this issue nationally by, for instance, conducting a stress audit, by asking for evidence and by using case studies. The unions should also find sharper, clearer, more immediate ways of directly intervening. As a profession we need to develop systems of empowerment and support for victims, using peer counselling, group supervision and other techniques.

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