They're all out to get me...

14th January 2000 at 00:00
When his 30-year humanities career ended in tatters, a teacher blamed himself. Now he is convinced that 'they' - particularly his headteacher - ruined him. A cautionary tale for new teachers, this is his account of what happened, and how it could happen to you.

I have been the victim of a school bully. But in my case the social inadequate who bullied me was my headteacher. And only after a mental breakdown, medical treatment and extensive counselling have I fully realised what happened.

My problems began in 1991 when, because of falling rolls, the school where I was a senior teacher was amalgamated with one nearby. The amalgamated school was sited in the buildings of the other school and the head of that school was appointed head of the new one.

He drew up his plans and the long process of staffing began. Most people, including myself, began planning optimistically for the future. For all my career I had worked in humanities, and in the new school everyone expected I would make an excellent leader of that faculty. Until a female PE teacher was appointed to the post.

The local education community was surprised... and I received no counselling about my non-selection. I was eventually offered a job as an assistant teacher within the humanities area. After well over 20 years, I was going right back to where I'd started.

Over a couple of years, three senior teacher posts became available and I applied for each one. I never even reached the interview stage. It was only then that I began to think something sinister was at work.

My worries were compounded when, in my third year at the new school, I was told I would have no permanent teaching base. My world became a cheap plastic box crammed with bits and pieces - books, chalk, pens and pencils. I was the only teacher among almost 40 in this situation. I ended up teaching more subjects in more classrooms than any other member of staff. I began to feel victimised - even abused and violated. My self-esteem plummeted and confidence in my own ability hit zero.

In 1995, I was thrown a lifeline. The local FE college had just started a community radio project and I was seconded to it. As the project drew to a successful end, I looked for work away from the school environment. But my age (late forties) conspired against me. When the project ended in 1997, there was no alternative for me but to return to the school where I had been so unhappy and seemingly so unwanted.

While I'd been away the school had appointed three more senior teachers. The head had not notified me about any of these vacancies, all of which would have been well suited to my experience and background. This new management team had also made significant changes to the school structure, one of which was deciding that new intake pupils would be taught as if they were still in primary school - they would have the same teacher in the same room for most of their school week. I was to be one of those "new style" teachers. After almost 25 years of secondary school specialist teaching, I was being asked to work like a general subject primary teacher. Training? Guidance? Support? Nothing was provided.

The career structure I had aspired to was in tatters. My discussions with the head met with the same shrugged shoulders of earlier years. My difficulties seemed to him at best trivial. I tried hard to succeed but was getting nowhere. I instinctively knew the quality of my lessons was deteriorating. This was not the way to end my career. After a lifetime of quality teaching, I was back to being an assistant teacher, trying to deliver subjects about which I knew very little. The classroom became a mental jail and I could see no escape.

The black dog of depression that had yapped at my heels a couple of years earlier was now biting hard. I entered a downward spiral of stress and deepening depression. I began to drink heavily and to distance myself from my family. I was withdrawn and had no energy. My life was drifting away from me. During odd constructive moments, I applied for other jobs, both in and out of education. But the growing list of rejections only accelerated my depression and feeling of severe, self-inflicted failure.

In the depth of my depression I left home, with no good reason other than to be alone, and away from the very people who were willing to help me. The blackness intensified. Dark nights and darker days.

Then I was rescued by the woman on whom I had inflicted so much pain during my sullen descent. My wife took me back and urged me to visit a doctor and within days I was starting a long, slow and often painful recovery. My doctor was sympathetic and highlighted the problems immediately: my job, the school, and the treatment meted out to me there. He immediately gave me a sick note and arranged professional counselling.

I decided to give the school one last chance. I rang to make an appointment to talk to the head and turned up with a half-rehearsed plea for time and compromise. His secretary made me wait in a busy corridor. I felt invisible. Old colleagues passed me by without a word, pupils hurried on and seemed to sneer at me. I felt an acute sense of panic. I was exposed and vulnerable.

The head arrived 20 minutes late and ushered me into his office. The tiny amount of confidence I'd summoned had vanished. He was dominant and frightening. Why had I expected anything different? Some single moments in your life can crystallise circumstances, and this was such a moment. I left and have never seen him again.

The day after, I began a course of individual counselling, and also visited Relate with my wife for guidance about our relationship, which was now growing in understanding.

My counsellor broached the subject of bullying in the workplace and over the course of our meetings we explored the problem. It was clear to her that bullying was at the root of my depression. She also suggested psychiatric help, and again the consultant was clear that bullying was central to my problem. He prescribed strong drugs to help me through this cathartic period. My doctor, counsellor and psychiatrist were adamant that I would never return to teaching. I didn't argue.

Having acknowledged the problem and with a clear support structure, I was growing stronger by the day. But anger was never far away. Anger at the way I'd been treated, but also at myself for allowing events to run me.

At times a guilt replaced the anger, and the depression would blacken. But with time the outbursts of anger and guilt became fewer and fewer. During this long period the school made no contact. This only underlined what I was slowly realising: I had been the victim of an abusive school bully. His power was such that even now, by his inaction, he was exerting control over me.

After six months absence the LEA was legally obliged to contact me. I saw their doctor, and they suggested I take early retirement on grounds of ill health. I accepted and retired. My teaching career was over.

At last the school contacted me - a letter from the head. The note was five sentences long. After almost 30 years, I merited five brief sentences. He stayed a bully right to the end.

Shortly after I retired I went back to the school.

As I got out of the car, an old colleague saw me and stopped. At last, I thought, I was to be acknowledged. He looked through me and beyond. Then he slowly turned his back. That gesture said everything. For whatever reason, I no longer existed and that really hurt. Contact with me, it seemed, meant failure.

Or perhaps my colleagues saw in my bully-induced depression a vision of what might happen to them. Maybe, by hiding their heads in the sand and pretending I do not exist they think they can also avoid the problem. I know with certainty that they are wrong.

The author wishes to remain anonymous

If you are being bullied, rise to the challenge and don't be beaten l Talk to a friend l Attend an assertiveness course or seek professional counselling.

You can contact Redress (01405 764432) or your union, or ring the National Workplace Bullying Advice Line (01235 212 286). Alternatively, visit the website at: l Document all communication you have with your bully - and refute all unfair claims made against you l Monitor changes in your work performance due to bullying l Never be pushed into leaving the school unless you are certain that you want to go l Always take advice and use the support that is given to increase your confidence and allow you to face the perpetrator calmly l Don't let your experiences 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

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