Guerrillas in their midst

24th June 2011 at 01:00
Bullying comes from below as well as above. And staffroom snipers can make teachers in management positions feel isolated and undermined, writes Meabh Ritchie

Fiona Beckett expected that settling in to her new school would be tough. It was her first deputy headship after being fast-tracked into the leadership team, and a big step up from her previous post as head of year. On top of that, she was joining a school in challenging circumstances.

But what she did not anticipate is that her biggest problems would come from the staff. Her first clue to what lay ahead came in a staff meeting only a few days into the new term.

"One of the more experienced teachers said: `I wonder how much money is being paid to these fast-track teachers when so much of our budget is being cut'," recalls Ms Beckett. She kept quiet at the time and did not respond, but it stung nonetheless. "It really hit home to me - the fact that I was on the other side."

Ms Beckett continued to have problems with that teacher throughout her first term. After she ran a training day, he sent an email to the entire teaching staff. "He said he didn't have time to worry about the ethos of the school - that all the regular teachers were too busy doing their jobs," she says. "He referred to me personally, saying that I was trying to impose my beliefs about pupils' achievement on to everyone else."

Members of the leadership team are assumed to be immune to this sort of treatment. After all, they are the ones in positions of authority. But teachers who move into senior positions can find themselves the targets of bullying behaviour from the very staff they are supposed to be managing.

While conventional bullying is relatively well understood and easy to identify, bullying from below can be more subtle. Rather than intimidating, overloading with work or making unreasonable demands, as a manager might bully a subordinate, it can take the form of questioning decisions, making critical comments to colleagues and "forgetting" to do what has been asked. Often seemingly innocuous in themselves, in combination these tactics can be undermining and unsettling.

Bullying can have a devastating impact, regardless of an individual's position. A 2009 survey by heads' union the ASCL found that 79 per cent of victims suffered from mental health problems, including stress and anxiety. For a quarter of bullied teachers, their symptoms are so severe that they visit the doctor, the survey found. Bullying in schools results in a culture of fear and distrust among staff, and more than a quarter of teachers who are bullied take sick leave from work.

For teachers who have recently stepped up to management positions, this is compounded by the fact that they have left their peer group behind and may not yet have developed a new network to turn to when things get tough. This is especially the case when starting at a new school. A helpline run by teaching union ATL receives 150 calls a month relating to managing staff.

When she received the email accusing her of trying to impose her beliefs, Ms Beckett was not only embarrassed, but also felt her authority and confidence was crushed. "I don't think that staff consider senior leaders' feelings," she says. "They think we're robots, but we're human beings."

Ms Beckett felt the email undermined her in front of the entire school. "It was a personal attack," she says. "It had never been a problem before, but when you move into senior management, you're treated differently."

At Ms Beckett's school, a secondary in Manchester, part of the problem was her age - she is in her late 30s - and lack of experience relative to other staff.

"Other teachers will have done the footwork, they are working up slowly and they think: `Who are you and what do you know?'" she says. "I got that feeling from members of staff here, some of whom are a lot older."

Age, or lack of it, also became an issue for Alicia Wilde when she took her first job as a deputy head at a secondary just outside London. "I was easily the youngest member of senior staff in the school and they were waiting me out," she says. "They thought I was this bright young thing who was not going to stick around very long."

There was no direct confrontation, however, and it took some time for Ms Wilde to realise what was going on. "When I suggested anything, they would say: `Yes, yes,' but then nothing would happen," she says. "It was passive undermining."

This made it difficult for Ms Wilde to broach the subject with her own manager without making it seem that she was causing a fuss about nothing. "You absolutely do not want to go to your superior, you don't want to seem weak," she says. Although it is now a decade ago, she recalls that it prompted more than a few sleepless nights. "I worried about it certainly, I must admit," she says.

The dilemma of being stuck between the bully and the boss is a common one for middle managers, and one that they often feel ill-equipped to deal with, says Rosie Garwood, director of Reflection Consulting, which provides management training for team leaders.

"You can find a brilliant teacher who is fantastic and gets promoted, but suddenly they're in a different world," she says. "These people have nowhere to go. They can't whinge up and they can't whinge down."

The isolation of this situation is made worse if there is little support from above, says Linda Birch, a subject leader in English, who had to deal with a raft of complaints from staff in the first few years of her new post.

"Having a good leadership team at the top of the school would help with matters like this, but they avoid difficult situations like the plague," she says. "They want to be seen as the nice guys, so the subject leaders are expected to deal with the difficulties and are seen as the bad guys."

Ms Birch was presented with a list of complaints from staff, which included issues to do with pay and teaching and learning responsibilities - aspects of the job outside her control. She sought advice from her union representative, who responded by saying that the complaints were directed at her individually and could be construed as bullying.

As a result, many members of staff sheepishly retracted their comments a month later. "They realised that some of the items raised should never have been raised and it highlighted the side of their own practice which was unacceptable," Ms Birch says.

But she is exasperated that it got to that stage at all. "Why is it that people always blame others for things out of their control?" she says. "It seems that I am an easy target for my team and they vent their disappointment and frustration out on me."

For months she dreaded going into school. "Every Sunday I was worried about going in, and I was coming into work every day, thinking, `there are seven people here who don't want to work with me'," she says. The situation had an impact on her teaching. "My focus wasn't on the lessons."

Learning to look at the situation objectively and not take things personally is crucial, says Anne Barton, who mentors senior leaders in her role as leadership development officer for fast-track scheme Future Leaders. "When things are difficult in a school, the senior leadership team are seen as a legitimate target," she says. "People will think nothing about sending you a fairly vitriolic email, but if it was the other way around, it would cause a fuss. It's good to remember that staff are projecting something on to the role, rather than the person."

Learning not to be intimidated was one of the most difficult things for Ms Beckett to deal with. "I had never worked with people who just didn't like me - it's as basic as that and in the first term, I did struggle," she says. "But then I just realised, I've got friends and family who like and love me, and I'm not at this school to be liked. I'm here for the kids."

For Ms Wilde, respite came with a change of tack. She began to see the situation from the point of view of staff who had been in the school for a long time and got used to a certain way of doing things. "People are generally resistant to change and quite nervous about it. Maybe they're insecure," she says. "You need to approach it from that point of view, rather than `they're out to get me'."

Instead of trying to forge ahead with new initiatives, Ms Wilde tailored her plans around the staff's personalities. "I had to find what it was that would be an advantage to that member of staff. What are their strengths, what are their weaknesses?" she says. "Sometimes their need to control students is bigger than their desire to do well. Other times it's just that they're working really hard, and taking on what I've suggested would be the straw to break the camel's back."

Now an executive headteacher in London, Ms Wilde still remembers it as a make or break time in her career. "It was my biggest learning point as a deputy," she says. "You have to develop a thick professional skin. Mostly, this stuff is just what happens in a school - you have to deal with it anywhere, especially if you have ambitions for leadership. You can't be in management and forge ahead and change things if you're oversensitive."

Ms Beckett also found herself becoming impervious to criticism. "You have to be driven and resilient, and you have to remember what you're there to do," she says. Learning to play to her staff's strengths also paid off. "I'm very happy to defer to their experience," she says. "I think that's how you bring people with you. Ask them to lead things and acknowledge that you don't know everything."

But for some senior leaders, it is peer support that gets them through. "There's a huge wealth of advice out there," says Ms Wilde, who reached out to the people from her initial teacher training. "When the job gets very difficult, I would have given up ages ago if I didn't have support from my peers," adds Ms Beckett. "It puts it in perspective."

* Some names have been changed.

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