Give the bullies a battle

16th April 2004 at 01:00
Refuse to be browbeaten by workplace tyrants, writes a special needs teacher

I am a special needs teacher returning to my old employment for what, I'm sure, will be a boozy, fun-filled charity quiz-night. It's so nice to walk across familiar floors, admire the wall displays and reminisce with former colleagues. So satisfying to tell them my new job comes with half the stress and twice the pay, and grin when they tell me I look great. So terrifying to think I will encounter the individual who shattered my physical and emotional well-being, destroyed my self-confidence, forced me out of my job and left me isolated and desolate.

I am questioning the wisdom of putting myself through it, but I know I need to face this demon. I want to feel empowered (though I suspect I'll just feel battered).

My story is a common one. I was subjected to an extensive period of victimisation by a workplace bully; I shook under the weight of anxiety; I collapsed at an airport; my doctor told me I was suffering from stress and depression; I was signed off work; I left. These are facts. What they do not convey are the painful emotions that have taken up so much of my time and which have left me feeling hollow and weak.

I suffered for several months. At first I thought I must be imagining it, but it got worse. Thoughts of bullying occurred to me but I knew it was too ridiculous; we work in an environment that actively discourages such behaviour among pupils. But abruptness turned into unfriendly notes, disparaging remarks, filthy looks, excessive monitoring and crude efforts to ostracise. The seed of bullying grew, but still I was unconvinced. It took some time before I said the words out loud: "I am being bullied."

By this point, I felt fearful whenever I looked at her classroom door, or saw her car in the morning (I never saw her, she slammed the door shut every time I was near). I sobbed uncontrollably when the results of an internet search on staffroom bullying confirmed my suspicions and gave me stories I could identify with.

I sobbed a lot more in the months that followed. And screamed. And raged. I smashed every glass I owned. I shouted uncontrollably at my patient boyfriend. And every day I ached with the frustration of being a victim. My skill with children with emotional and behavioural difficulties was replaced with panicky moments of helplessness; my diligent paperwork fell rapidly into disarray, along with my concentration span.

Somehow I summoned the strength to approach my manager. He could not have been more sympathetic, and made grave comments about one bad seed destroying an empire. He assured me he would deal with it. But despite this comfort, my fragile nerves gave up and, on the advice of my GP, I temporarily halted the daily trauma of going to work. I took refuge in my living room, trying to come to terms with that peculiar feeling of not having to be somewhere, doing something.

I met with my union rep, who chained-smoked while I edgily recounted my story and shuffled pages of meticulously timed and dated incident notes under his weary eyes. He thought I had a case, but warned me of the drain such grievance proceedings can be on an already distressed individual.

Could it be sorted "in-house"? Get well, he said.

A series of meetings followed with senior management; people I liked. It seems they shared my concerns, and keenly let me know that I was not the first to complain - or leave. A serial bully, they said, they'll have to get rid of her. It's clear that she's bad for morale. Three conciliatory meetings were attempted. I'd drag my rattled nerves to the office and steel myself at the door, only to find that she'd failed to attend, her way of avoiding the truth. They'll definitely have to sack her, she's taking the piss.

But nothing happened. She was well-connected, a vital player in the preparations for a looming Ofsted. My favoured managers were too intimidated to upset the balance and I was too tired to persist. A job opportunity came up and I went for it.

I quietly handed in my notice and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The problem was solved.

I have had counselling to guide me through the wilderness; expensive hypnotherapy to induce relaxation; medication to redress the "chemical imbalance"; and the valuable support of cherished friends and family. But none of this matters when I find myself lying awake at four in the morning, every cell of my body seething with anger.

Part of my psychology wants evidence that she is held accountable. Strip her of her pride. Make her feel hated for what she has done. Whisper about her in the corridor. Sack her. Take away her power, the way she took away mine.

I now have a better job, a renewed enthusiasm for living, a greater understanding of myself - I could almost thank her. But I find myself worrying that when a cup breaks it's never as strong, once glued back together.

If you find yourself in my position - or if anyone you know does - speak out. Do not give up. Insist on accountability. No matter how wary you are of upsetting people, they, as do you, have a responsibility to ensure that your place of work is a physically and emotionally safe environment.

You may feel you can cope with it, you may feel you just want to walk away, but somewhere down the line you will find you are still bitten by the anger of justice not done. Do I sound bitter? I wish I wasn't.

The writer is a behaviour support teacher in east London

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