EIS to take on staffroom bullies

19th December 1997 at 00:00
Misuse of power may be the biggest source of stress among teachers, reports Seonag MacKinnon

The education officials' jaws were hanging open. You could tell they just couldn't believe what they were hearing," says James MacLean, one of 10 teachers who went to report their head for bullying staff. During the meeting at the education authority offices several teachers were in tears (see below).

The plaintiffs were so numerous and varied - old, young, male, female - that officials could not just conclude that this was a case of experienced teachers set in their ways or young rebels clashing with the head. Unless they acted promptly, the authority would lose a significant number of teachers from a single primary school and have a major scandal on its hands.

This is not an isolated case. The Educational Institute of Scotland believes that bullying in the workplace may account for more than half of all stress-related illness among teachers. A report to be released by the union later this month will reveal that it handles more than 200 cases a year.

Ken Wimbor, assistant secretary of the EIS, believes this is just the tip of the iceberg, as many teachers never make a formal complaint. The union wants more teachers to speak out and is urging all 32 councils to draw up policies to tackle the problem.

A visiting specialist primary teacher told The TES Scotland she was baffled why teachers at one school put up with a head who routinely criticised them in front of pupils and crept up on them to monitor their conversations or evaluate their lessons. "It was such a joyless place. You were always looking over your shoulder and staff were frequently in tears at the latest humiliation or demand for something in triplicate. He was referred to as a Nazi."

In a booklet called Bullying at Work: How to Tackle It, the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union says that victims of bullying often fail to complain for fear they will not be believed or will face reprisal, perhaps even dismissal. They also fear that the complaint will be dismissed as trivial or as evidence of an inability to cope.

Sometimes they do not know who to complain to or are afraid that senior management will take the aggressor's side. Frequently they will have no witnesses to produce as there were none around, or witnesses may be reluctant to get involved in case they become the next victims. Men can be particularly reluctant to complain because it seems less than macho to have a problem.

Lack of confidence in education authorities may be another reason why staff suffer in silence. In the two cases above, the head was eventually eased out by the education authority without having to go through disciplinary procedures.

One teacher in the central belt who took a complaint to her education authority was allegedly told that dealing openly with the aggressor through a disciplinary hearing was out of the question, as the authority would not wash its dirty linen in public and would never admit that it had made a mistake in appointing a headteacher.

Colin MacKay, assistant secretary of the EIS in Edinburgh, says there are weaknesses to this approach."The cost implications are considerable if people leave the profession early. Justice should also be seen to be done to encourage others to speak out."

The EIS wants councils to formulate proactive policies on bullying and take action before morale breaks down. Often teachers are on the point of collapse before they seek help. By that time relations between aggressor and victim may have completely broken down.

The union stresses that headteachers who normally have no training in people management are often unaware that they are bullying, and they are not always the aggressors. It can be a principal teacher or even a strong-minded unpromoted teacher pushing around a less forceful head.

Headteachers themselves come under pressure from the authorities who in turn are under pressure from the government, which is pressurising them to raise standards.

One headteacher shed light on the blurred line between firm management and bullying when she told The TES Scotland of her frustration in dealing with a member of staff: "Short of putting a bomb under her, there is no way of shaking her out of her complacency and low expectations of her class."

Peter Roberts, of the former Lothian Region's counselling service for teachers, also has sympathy for heads. Dr Roberts points out that what some staff feel is deeply upsetting bullying is, in the eyes of their colleagues, merely unprofessional behaviour which does not affect them emotionally.

Summing up, he says: "There is a lot of this sort of behaviour about, but only a very small minority of heads are vicious inborn bullies. Better training for heads is without a doubt the answer."

Bullying in the Workplace guidelines are available from the Educational Institute of Scotland. For information on the union's legal helpline, and a stress, bereavement and victimisation helpline, contact Ken Wimbor on 0131 225 6244. Dr Peter Roberts can be contacted at Counselling Consultancy and Innovative Stress Management (01506 842270).

How to tell if there's a meanie about

The EIS identifies the following as examples of bullying behaviour:

* Intimidating or aggressive behaviour.

* Setting impossible deadlines or workloads.

* Disparaging remarks, often in front of others.

* Constantly changing objectives.

* Blocking of promotion or opportunities for staff development.

* Taking credit for others' initiatives and achievements.

* Constantly changing someone's responsibilities.

* Isolating certain individuals, thereby limiting consultation on important issues.

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