Bystander to a bullying head

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
Laura Peters recalls an intimidatory headteacher whose excesses could have been tamed by modern procedures

Staffroom bullies are an embarrassment to the teaching profession. Contributing to high absenteeism and turnover of staff, such bullying has an adverse effect on the whole-school ethos and ultimately the victim'steacher's performance in the classroom.

School policies preach that bullying is wrong in any form and encourage pupils to come forward and report incidents. But the unequal distribution of power in the staffroom makes the transfer of this practice to teachers difficult.

Initiatives by educational authorities to eliminate staffroom bullying should recognise that teachers are less likely to come forward when the bully is a senior, promoted member of staff who has the facility to make their working life utterly miserable. The appointment of an ombudsman could be beneficial to this process.

As role models, teachers must, at all times, exert towards their peers the type of behaviour that they desire from their pupils. Yet some would claim that it is unfair to expect teachers to be on higher moral ground and exempt from a phenomenon that exists in other professional workplaces.

In my 20 years of primary teaching I have come across only one bully in the staffroom. When I met her, she had been a headteacher for a couple of years, and I was one of "her" five new probationers. In a single-streamed primary, I should have wondered why there were so many new teachers at this school.

The reason soon became clear. Rather than nurture and encourage her keen young staff, she worked us like dogs, exerted her power at all times and never gave us recognition for our efforts and performance. She held her completion of our probationary reports like a noose over our heads. She intimidated several of my colleagues over a number of years and, to my knowledge, was never reported. The high rate of teacher mobility in her school was the only indication that there was trouble in this workplace.

Had procedures been in place that supported teachers trying to overcome bullying by their superior, some of her victims would not have given up on the teaching profession and her school would have been a happier establishment. Recalling her twisted antics still sends shivers down my spine when I remember her treatment of two particular colleagues.

The first occurred one day as I was accompanying my class through the dining hall. A senior class was noisily crowding round the door. Like a thunderbolt from the sky, my headteacher assertively walked over and yelled, not at the children for behaving so badly, but at their class teacher, for failing to control her class.

The teacher concerned was experienced, highly motivated and efficient, and always willing to share her knowledge with probationer teachers. New to the school, she had recently returned to work from a serious illness. My headteacher's behaviour was the worst display of a lack of compassion I have ever seen.

I vividly remember my colleague's response to this public humiliation. In front of her class and mine, she turned scarlet, and broke down in tears.

I stood in embarrassed silence: my support consisted of a sympathetic grimace. The notion of taking this further never occurred to me. I was just relieved that I was not the focus of my headteacher's attention. Had there been a more positive ethos to combat bullying in the workplace, I would have realised that, like it or not, I was involved and had to act accordingly. This class teacher left the school that session and never returned to teaching.

The second colleague was a "star" teacher whose probationary report had been completed in glowing terms by the head. Her reward for exercising exceptional teaching skills in the infant and junior departments was being allocated a P6-7 class that consisted entirely of disruptive, disaffected and undisciplined children.

To her credit, the teacher met her challenge gallantly. She searched for suitable resources, always worked in her class at lunchtimes, and asked colleagues for additional support.

The arrival in the class of a pupil who had been excluded from two previous schools for anti-social behaviour was the catalyst for the inevitable confrontation that followed. After this pupil had installed himself as leader of the pack, and become adept at hurling furniture at his teacher, my colleague went to the head. She had become more scared of what this pupil was going to do to her next than of her possible wrath. On receiving no sympathy or support, she emphatically requested that the pupil be moved to another class. She then became the focus of the headteacher's malice.

Where possible, the head excluded her from all school matters and encouraged colleagues to follow her behaviour. She ignored her in face-to-face situations, spoke about her to other teachers and never asked about her progress with this difficult class. This exclusion policy continued throughout the session. The teacher continued to work with the same dedication, despite her low morale. Saved by the transfer system, she became a "star" in her next school and successfully developed her teaching career.

With no opportunity to transfer within schools, and poor employment opportunities, teachers who are currently at the receiving end of bullying have little choice but to tolerate their situation and confide in a friend. Had procedures been in place, guaranteeing me no ramifications, perhaps I would have been more than just a bystander, minding my own interests and stepped forward to bullyproof my school from the very top.

Bullying in the Workplace guidelines are available from the Educational Institute of Scotland, tel: 0131 225 6244

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