Nip bullies in the bud

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
Bullying by staff doesn't have be tolerated, writes Elizabeth Holmes

Bullying is still a miserable reality for thousands of teachers, despite increasing awareness of the problem. The recent TUC conference "No Excuse: Beat Bullying at Work" revealed that a specially commissioned NOP survey found that 5 million people have been bullied at work (an average of 11 per cent across the work force, but 15 per cent among professionals).

Tim Field, founder of the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line, says teachers and lecturers have consistently been the largest group of advice line callers. While harassment and intimidation are real issues, these terms hardly convey the nature of bullying. Relentless criticism, humiliation, outrageous work expectations and abuse of power with the intent to cause emotional and professional damage are some of the tactics used by bullying teachers and heads.

Such behaviour results in high staff absenteeism and turnover, low morale and mutual disrespect between management and staff. The costs of extended sick leave, investigations and tribunals, the need to recruit, pupil discontent and the likelihood of adverse publicity make any degree of bullying a risk to an institution.

Victims of staffroom bullying face a difficult challenge if the problem is to be solved. Protracted periods of bullying often leave the victim depressed, over-anxious and lacking in confidence - as well as suffering ailments such as migraines, fatigue, digestive and menstrual disorders. From this position of disadvantage, the victim must struggle for redress.

There are some tried and trusted approaches when tackling a bully (see box) but it is worth being aware of the more common pitfalls. Bullied people can become difficult and aggressive themselves, which is potentially disastrous in teaching, as perceptive classes will respond adversely to changes in their teacher's behaviour - and that will mean even more stress. If you are being bullied, channel any anger into fighting it positively: don't aim it at your pupils or loved ones. You will need other people's support, so don't isolate yourself.

If you feel as if you just want to leave the school, don't view that as failure; it could be a shrewd career move. But don't hide your true reasons for leaving.

Keep believing that you are suited to teaching - there are many former teachers who might still have been in the classroom if their working environment had been more hospitable. Maybe a different school with a positive, constructive ethos would suit you better.

Don't be unnecessarily suspicious of admissions of guilt and promises to modify behaviour. It could be that your handling of the situation has had a dynamic effect on your bully.

Never give in. It is essential to feel that your school is supporting you, but if it doesn't, try the next layer of authority. For example, if the usual channels for grievances do not help, try approaching the governing body (although do take the advice of your union and Redress, the Bullied Teacher's Support Network).

If the governing body fails to address the problem, try your local education authority. Recent high-profile cases (in particular, former deputy head Anthony Ratcliffe from Dyfed, who was awarded pound;101,028 in an out-of-court settlement for the psychiatric illness he suffered as a result of bullying) have shown that support is out there.

Be aware of your needs throughout your experiences. Tell your GP why your health is suffering and who has contributed to this. Care for your health and allow yourself relaxation - nurture your own feel-good factor.

If you are being bullied, rise to the challenge and don't be beaten.

Jenni Watson, national secretary of Redress, is an invaluable source of support and practical advice. Tel 01405 764432. For information for staffroom noticeboards, send two stamps to Bramble House, Mason Drive, Hook, near Goole, East Riding of Yorkshire DN14 5NE.l National Workplace Bullying Advice Line, tel: 01235 834 548.www.successunlimited.co.uk

BEATING BULLIES

* Talk to a trusted friend about your experiences as soon as you suspect bullying is taking place.

* Attend an assertiveness course or seek professional counselling.

* Contact Redress and your union.

* Document all communication you have with your bully - refute all unfair claims made against you.

* Monitor changes in your work performance due to bullying.

* Never be pushed into removing yourself from the school unless you are certain you want to leave.

* Don't fear losing control when confronting your bully. Always take advice and use the support that is given to increase your confidence and allow you to face the perpetrator with calm and serenity.

* Avoid allowing your experiences to have a lasting detrimental effect on the way you view your job. Move on knowing that your experiences have undoubtedly improved your abilities to assert yourself and to be of valuable support to future victims of bullying.

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