Bully for you

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Teachers are the biggest users of helplines supporting people picked on at work. And the best tactic - standing up to the bully - is easier said than done. Sara Bubb reports

You'll be shocked to hear this trainee teacher's description of the behaviour of her mentor. "She shouted at me and said she didn't understand why on earth I decided to do a PGCE as I was 'shit at teaching'." The trainee was absolutely devastated by this. He was already feeling bad because he was not teaching very well - it was his first placement - but he was shocked by the reaction of someone who was supposed to be helping him.

There are lots of fantastic people in schools who are more than happy to share their expertise with new staff, but every now and then trainees and newly qualified teachers are on the receiving end of behaviour that is less than helpful or encouraging. This ranges from the inconsiderate to bullying, something that is not unheard of among staff in schools, as the number of cases reported to the Teacher Support Network indicates. The largest group of callers to the Bully Online website has consistently been teachers.

So how do you know whether the way you're being treated is bullying or just positive criticism? A local authority adviser comments: "I was accused of bullying when I pointed out (politely but insistently) that the pupil at the back was listening to headphones during the lesson - something missed by the teacher!"

Roy Watson-Davis, an advanced skills teacher at Blackfen school for girls in Bexley, south-east London, warns against crying wolf. "It is a great relief to clutch at the accusation of bullying, because it absolves the teacher of any responsibility for the situation, or any awareness that they're failing the pupils."

Would you class this as bullying?

"On teaching practice nobody would speak to me in the staffroom. Once I ended up in tears after a really bad lesson, but nobody asked if I was OK - not even my mentor."

Although it's clearly not a great way to treat another human being, this alone wouldn't constitute bullying.

The Stress Management Society identifies two types of bully: those who put others down to raise their own self- esteem, and those who are so overloaded or stressed that their tension leaks out as aggressive behaviour. Both may be unaware that their actions are perceived as bullying.

Tim Field, author of Bully in Sight and webmaster of Bully OnLine (see box, right) says: "Good leaders and managers include, motivate, trust and empower people; bad managers and bullies exclude, disempower, control and undermine."

You may be the last to realise that you are being bullied. You feel stressed, but attribute this to the pressures of dealing with pupils.

Often, other people notice bullying, as this teacher recounts:

"I witnessed some subtle but very effective bullying of our PGCE student last year. She was really dynamic, but all her energy was crushed by the head of department. The student would come out with some great idea or interesting discussion topic about teaching, and was either ignored or cut out of the conversation she had started herself.The student was constantly in tears and almost gave up the course."

One NQT is scared of her headteacher. She "demanded that everything in my classroom be moved around and wants me to do it on a Saturday; decided to take over as my mentor because my current one has become a friend; told me she has evidence she could fail me on (but can't show it to me); blows hot and cold so that one day she says I'm doing fine and the next I'm a terrible teacher; criticises me for things that happen in every other classroom; told other members of staff that she hasn't managed to 'break me' yet; and doesn't let me leave before 5pm".

Bullying has a destructive effect on confidence, morale and health - all things that are essential in the classroom. The bullied teacher performs less and less well. Stress can cause many physical ailments: weight loss, disrupted sleep patterns, nausea, crying fits, indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, back pains, skin complaints, ulcers, depression and panic attacks.

So, what can you do? Keep a record of incidents, noting down how you were made to feel, and what you did to address any issues raised. Speak to someone you can trust, including the Teacher Support Network and your union.

Tim Field, says: "The adult bully is often charming, verbally confident and can be adept at using language to make his or her actions seem plausible."

You may well find out you are not the only one who has suffered. Take a friend along to any meetings with the bully. If you're brave enough, confront him or her about how the behaviour affects you.

Trainees can turn to their universities, although someone who's been in this position says: "The university tutors were so scared of losing the (school) placement, they would do anything to avoid rocking the boat."

Kevin Morris, the curriculum and quality assurance co-ordinator for the teach first scheme at Canterbury Christ Church university, advises: "Take the issue head on and engage in a professional dialogue with the person concerned, using the standards around professional values and practice to support your case.

"If this doesn't work, take it to the headteacher and get the support from your university tutor so that you reach a satisfactory conclusion that will allow you to move your training forward."

Whatever you do - whether you confront the bully or just leave your job - don't put up with bullying.

Sara Bubb trains new teachers and induction tutors throughout England and Wales. Her latest book 'Helping Teachers Develop' is published by SagePaul Chapman, priced pound;15.99

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