Pecking order

30th August 2013 at 01:00
Staffroom bullying is far too common, but many avoid discussing it for fear of compounding the problem. Former teacher Chloe Combi talks to friends and colleagues and finds that the situation is getting worse

I am going to confess to something that makes me feel all the things it's supposed to: queasy, ashamed, small, somehow lesser. I have been bullied. Sure, once or twice as a child. But also twice as an adult, in my workplace, when I was a teacher. One instance was minor and petty and occurred when I was newly qualified (this happens a lot to young teachers, but more of that later). The other was more serious, and led to me consulting my union and eventually seeking legal advice.

Neither situation was resolved satisfactorily. My experience of red tape, protocol and management politics eventually made me give up on the matter - a far from unique outcome. In fact, from researching this article, it seems that management are often identified as the biggest culprits where bullying is concerned. They are the proverbial big boys and girls picking on the weaker ones. Could it be that a profession that commits itself so brilliantly to tackling the problem of bullying among students doesn't necessarily practise what it preaches with its own members?

First, the facts. Little recent comprehensive research has been done in the UK. But in 2000 a study by the Manchester School of Management found that teaching was one of the professions in which people were at the highest risk of bullying, and a 2003 survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers found that one in two teachers had experienced bullying in the staffroom.

In the Republic of Ireland, in 2007, the Economic and Social Research Institute echoed the Manchester findings, estimating that 13.8 per cent of employees in education had raised complaints about bullying in the workplace, compared with an average of 7.9 per cent elsewhere.

Significantly, many teachers are willing to share their experiences only if they can remain anonymous, fearful of further persecution or of putting their jobs at risk.

As we tell students, bullying takes many forms. In teaching, it manifests itself most commonly in face-to-face confrontations, irresponsible gossip, memos, unfair criticism of work, staffroom hierarchies, nasty "jokes", personal attacks, undermining in front of students and workloads that cannot possibly be met. Pretty shocking stuff for a supposedly "caring" profession.

Under strain and lashing out

There is clearly a problem. But why is it happening? And what can be done about it?

The pressure on teachers from the government, including via inspections, as well as from parents, the media and even from young people themselves, is more ferocious than ever. People who are stressed and tired lash out at each other. According to Louisa Davenport*, who works in a school in south-west London: "Work is so hard at the moment that when people get together socially it always descends into a massive bitch-fest about other members of staff. Unfortunately, what's been said often gets back to them, which can make for a really unhappy working environment."

John Drew, who completed his first year of teaching in June, says: "I took over from a really popular member of staff - hardly my fault - and was constantly compared unfavourably with her by other members of staff, and particularly my head of department. It was even more unfair as I was so inexperienced and she was an experienced teacher. It's been horrible. I'm going to another school in September."

And then there is Nina Cavendish, who worked in a very highly regarded private school. She says she was "hounded" in her first year of teaching by members of her department, who criticised her ability, professionalism, clothes and the fact that she "wasn't smiling enough and seemed sulky".

"The reason I wasn't smiling," she says, "was that I felt borderline suicidal for the whole autumn term. My doctor was imploring me to take sick leave due to stress but I was too scared to." Unsurprisingly, she left after her first year. Cavendish then heard her successor being criticised even before she began, with comments such as "I'm not sure she looks up to the job". Cavendish learned that her predecessor had gone through exactly the same thing - and, somewhat ironically, had turned into one of the biggest bullies.

It is not just newly qualified teachers who are suffering. Claire Diamond, who has been teaching for 30 years, thinks the profession has become very "ageist" and that new and upcoming teachers, particularly those moving into management, lack patience with those who haven't been trained in the ways of the brave new world.

"When I was starting out," she says, "there was no Ofsted (England's schools inspectorate) or league tables or even that much government intervention. The teaching profession was just that: teaching. It was about being a good classroom practitioner, allowed to use your own methods and producing happy, knowledgeable students. And it was the best job in the world. The new initiatives have not improved anything. Everything I loved about teaching has pretty much gone and I am made to feel as if I don't belong in it any more."

So, is the enormous strain that the teaching profession is under to blame or do teachers need to take more personal responsibility for the state of play? Does the profession bring out the bully in people or, worse, does it actually attract people with bullying tendencies?

"There is a type of teacher who either loved school and was a real leader in their peer group, and wants to come back to school to live that again through teaching, or who had a very bad experience at school," the headteacher of one prestigious private school says. "You can usually spot them easily. In my experience, they either make the absolute best teachers in terms of colleague relationships or the absolute worst."

There is widespread agreement that a strong, ethical management team helps to keep a culture of bullying in check. Teachers, particularly those in the early years of their career, do look to managers as models for their own conduct.

"It's the responsibility of management to ensure that the staff are happy and well looked after," the recently retired principal of a sixth-form college says. "And it makes sense: a happy teacher is a successful teacher."

Clearly, there are many schools with wonderful management teams, but some teachers I spoke to described theirs in terms such as: "completely useless"; "paid a fortune to wander around the school with a coffee pot pretending to be busy"; "the highest paid in our school, and the most useless and lazy"; and "total bullies, seemingly hell-bent on making every member of staff resign or kill themselves".

"Our deputy headteacher can barely spell lesson plan, let alone teach a good lesson," one teacher at an academy in Manchester says. "So it's (been) really hard to take him seriously the two times he has observed me and offered critical advice."

Culture of fear

So what can be done? Part of the problem is that there is a real culture of fear in teaching, and the more fearful teachers are about speaking out, the more bullying will proliferate.

Teaching unions are the front line of defence against unfair treatment at work - the NUT website (, for example, has clear instructions about dealing with workplace harassment and bullying. The problem with this, however, is twofold. First, many schools' grievance and complaints procedures are convoluted and complex, which can result in a weary apathy, a "Can I be bothered?" attitude. Second, it takes a pretty broad-shouldered individual to make a formal complaint against any colleague but particularly against someone more senior than them.

"I had a major complaint about one of the senior teachers," teacher Annie Jones says. "The grievance procedure would have involved me telling all this to the headteacher, who was as thick as thieves with the deputy. I just couldn't face it and I don't think it would have been dealt with properly if I had."

As teachers work so closely together, particularly within departments, the separation of the professional and personal is always going to be tricky: your best mate could observe your lesson, for instance, or a good friend could suddenly be promoted to become your immediate senior. Many recently appointed managers and heads of departments report feeling isolated or resented in their new roles.

Carrie Thomas was promoted very quickly after her first year of teaching and was thrilled at her ascension, which she says was "entirely down to gruelling hard work and love of my job". However, her colleagues were not so supportive.

"I felt like the older senior teachers didn't take me seriously and thought that I wasn't up to the job. But, worse, I was completely shunned by the people who had been my friends and whom I'd trained with. They spread horrible rumours about the manner in which I'd won my promotion - ie, sexual favours. I was devastated. But I felt I couldn't formally complain about them, as though I somehow deserved the flak. Looking back, I wish I'd done more."

There are lots of dream solutions to the problem: the government stops bullying the teaching profession, every management team in every school wholly commits to tackling staff bullying, the pressure eases a bit on teachers so that they are less stressed and combative. But, as in so many situations, all you can do is take responsibility for your own actions. In teaching, more than in any other line of work, it should be a simple equation: if I would not allow my students to behave like that, I should not do so either.

*Some names have been changed.


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