The day my life changed - I couldn't admit I was being bullied

23rd April 2010 at 01:00
But seeking help was the first step to facing up to - and overcoming - her predicament

I had been head of department at a London secondary school for a few years and thought everything was fine. That changed when my boss, one of the many assistant heads, called me into her office at the start of the last academic year. I thought we had a mutually supportive relationship, but she started shouting at me. Actually, screaming would be a better word.

She said I had failed to do a catalogue of things in my department. This was a shock because nothing had ever been flagged up as a problem. I later discovered someone outside my department had complained to the head, saying that if things didn't change we could be in trouble with Ofsted. Instead of talking it through with me, the head shouted at my line manager, who subsequently shouted at me.

Before I knew it, a consultant from the local authority was thrust upon me. The head told me how fortunate we were to have this expertise, but it was disruptive.

The consultant ignored or denied any good practice that was in place and reported to the head a string of things I had apparently failed to address.

I felt I was in a soundproof space where nothing I said had any resonance. It left me feeling hopeless - in the most literal sense.

The consultant wreaked havoc in my department. He played off members of staff against each other, reversed my decisions and called meetings when he knew I wasn't free. At best, he misconstrued what people said. At worst, he lied.

I contacted my union, who brought in a representative from outside. They were useful at first, but their interest waned when they realised it would take more than a quick fix to resolve the situation.

I was depressed for the best part of a year. I couldn't understand what I was doing wrong: my feedback had always been good and I had always hit my targets.

I started to have sleepless nights and panic attacks and I struggled to function. I felt I was heading towards a nervous breakdown.

At that point, I started to see a counsellor - the best decision I have ever made. Through the sessions, I developed survival skills and started to look on my experience as a learning opportunity.

I also learnt to accept that I was being bullied. It is hard to admit that relationships of trust are sometimes misplaced, but it is necessary if you are going to progress. I eventually learnt to control my reaction. I identified what the bullies wanted and indulged them by doing it - or appearing to.

After months of trying to come to grips with the situation, the consultant disappeared overnight. Slowly, I was able to rebuild the department.

I have learnt to look at an organisation's psychological health when applying for jobs. The way a school functions can encourage bullying. In mine, it was directed at me, but it wasn't about me: it was about a dysfunctional organisation that was quick to accuse but slow to discuss. A lot of my colleagues suffered similar things.

In a way, this has equipped me for taking on more responsibility. It has given me an insight into and the ability to cope with difficult situations with humour. I got two good references from my more supportive colleagues and have moved to a better job.

Looking back, I realise that I didn't fit in at the school. Now I follow my intuition. If something feels wrong, I would go immediately.

It bothers me that I had to move while the perpetrators stayed. But I couldn't stay in an environment where you couldn't have a conversation in the staffroom for fear of being spied on.

The turning point was acknowledging that I was being bullied and getting outside help. I don't think I could have pulled through without that.

As told to Hannah Frankel. Do you have an experience to share? Email

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