Last month a victim of staffroom bullying wrote to Talkback of her isolation. Her plight prompted a large mailbag, from fellow sufferers and others with advice. Many tell of ineffectual unions; others of weak governing bodies. All the replies from victims are anonymous. First, the victim needs to recognise what's happening, to see that it is bullying that has to be countered and not personal failure as a teacher. This means looking closely at the allegations of incompetence, and getting second or third opinions.
This important first step will separate the bullies from those heads who are taking legitimate steps to deal with real incompetence rather than the imaginary and unjust.
At this stage, too, it would be useful to get others' opinions on the head's character. Longer-serving colleagues may be able to cite earlier instances of similar behaviour and this will help provide the victim with a clearer view of the sort of person he or she is up against. (While the victim has been identified as female, it is important to realise that there are male victims too. Remember bullying can take place at all levels - a head could be bullied by the school keeper.) Another important strategy is to collect documentary evidence. The victim needs to have self-confidence restored, and can do this by asking for comments on her professional competence, and then getting these in writing. They could come from colleagues, senior management, people known at other schools that she may have worked in, and parents (especially influential ones who are or have been school governors).
She should also try to get the bully to give, in writing, her or his assessment of her work. This will not be easy, as the bully will be aware of the dangers inherent in committing himself on paper, but it's worth trying. A written request to the bully to write down the reasons for his dissatisfaction could lead to his revealing his strategy. The victim should also keep a diary in which she notes the bully's words and actions.
The victim needs to remain in good health and maintain a normal attendance record.If she can derive satisfaction from being a good teacher this will help her to maintain good attendance. She has to avoid the sequence that seems all too common - a minor breakdown, followed by sick leave.
Your average classroom bully has much more success when his victim suffers in silence. We advise children to get their friends to help them stand up for themselves, or even to challenge the bully. The teacher victim too, I suggest, should talk about her situation and collect sympathetic friends around her. People are so much more powerful when acting jointly.
Perhaps the victim could ask for a discussion with the head, and take her union rep with her. This would be a good time to bring out the diary, and photocopies of other people's opinions on her professional competence. Alternatively, (or in addition) what would be the effect of a letter to the chair of the governing body signed by a small group of staff, giving a brief precis of the situation, and asking for an investigation?
Most bullies are surprised when confronted, and will back off. When this has happened and things are back to a relative calm, our victim should think about moving on. She could meet the bully and say, "Headmaster, I've seen a job I would like to apply for at Such-and-Such school. I know we have put our differences behind us, and I could go on working here quite happily, but I think it is time for me to accept a new professional challenge. May I hope for your support?" By now, I believe, he would not dare to withhold it!
David Streeter is a former deputy head and member of the Kingston Friends Workshop Group which has a Sainsbury's Headley Trust grant to help schools prevent and respond to bullying. KFWG Tel: 0181-547 1197