You're not alone

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
If you're being bullied at work, don't keep quiet and hope it will go away. There are places you can go to for support. Nick Morrison reports
If you're being bullied at work, don't keep quiet and hope it will go away. There are places you can go to for support. Nick Morrison reports

Bullying can take many shapes. Its most well-understood form is physical or verbal abuse. But other, more subtle, forms are far more widespread, and their consequences can be just as devastating. Having your opinions ignored, being given an unmanageable workload, or being set impossible deadlines, can undermine a person's confidence.

"It's all about sending a negative message," says Patrick Nash, chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. "A lot of people don't think that is bullying, but it is."

The TES Magazine today reveals exclusively the results of a survey of more than 500 teachers who have contacted the network for help.

Three-quarters of respondents said their mental health, confidence and self-esteem had been damaged. Sixty five per cent said they had been affected physically. A disturbing 86 per cent said they felt worthless or hopeless. Around a quarter wanted to leave their jobs as soon as possible and another quarter wanted to leave teaching altogether.

But there are steps though, that teachers and schools can take to stop bullying. Heads should make sure that staff feel comfortable asking for help and teachers should learn to spot the symptoms early (see page VIII).

Laura's story

Laura, 38, is on sick leave from her secondary school in South Yorkshire. Her ordeal began at the hands of three teachers who joined her department from another school four years ago. At first it was low-level. She went on a leadership course but was prevented from completing the coursework; she was overloaded with work; she was given unrealistic deadlines. She took time off with stress and came back to find the campaign against her had escalated.

One of the bullies was promoted to deputy head and started following her around the school; she was shouted at in front of pupils; a CCTV camera was placed outside her classroom. Her head's response was that Laura should drop her complaints or any future promotion would be blocked.

The effects were overwhelming. She stopped eating and went from 11 to eight stone in two months. She had a nervous breakdown and became agoraphobic, unable to leave the house for four months. She suffers panic attacks and memory loss, the latter possibly as a result of being on anti-depressants and Valium.

"It has destroyed my life. I don't have any confidence now and I don't know whether I'm ever going to be able to go back to work," she says. "I'd never had anything like this happen to me before and it's frightening."

One of the hardest things was wondering why she was targeted. Colleagues put it down to jealousy: her results were the best in school for her subject, but Laura admits she is baffled. "I can't understand how anyone could do that to another person."

What the experts say

Colleagues often fail to recognise that bullying is going on - or are reluctant to get involved in case they are bullied too.

"We feel that while they're picking on one person, 'they're not picking on me', and then we feel guilty about that," says Professor Michael Sheehan, of Glamorgan University's Centre for Research on Workplace Behaviours, which carried out the survey in partnership with the Teacher Support Network. "We also don't know how to deal with it, and lack the ability to cope with conflict in meaningful ways."

Nor is there any safety in experience. Indeed, older teachers may be particularly vulnerable. Bullies may see them as in the twilight of their careers, unable to cope with new technology, reluctant to be managed by younger colleagues, or unlikely to gain promotion and pose a future threat to them.

Age was the biggest single reason victims thought they were being bullied, according to the survey, ahead of employment status, qualifications and personal beliefs.

Although the survey did not ask for respondents' ages, around 43 per cent had worked at their school for more than six years, a quarter for more than 10 years and 7 per cent for more than 20 years.

Val's story

Val, 54, has been teaching for 24 years, but this was no protection when she found herself at the mercy of a new headteacher. She had been appointed to the post of family learning co-ordinator at her south London primary, but the new head set out to undermine her from the start.

She was asked to go back into class part-time but never given a regular timetable, so kept having to cancel family learning meetings; her room was taken away and she was given a cupboard in the staffroom; she was refused a threshold payment; when a pupil in her class stole from the head, Val was then blamed and was told that she couldn't keep order.

Eventually her family learning post was scrapped, even though her work had won national recognition. A local authority inspector came to observe her lessons, but it was arranged when she had a class she'd taught only twice before; positive remarks in the verbal feedback were omitted from the written version.

Even the pupils turned against her, although to this day Val does not know how.

Val believes she was targeted because her inexperienced head saw her as a threat. "She didn't understand my role and she couldn't manage it," she says. Although colleagues sympathised, no one was prepared to speak out.

She was signed off for a month through stress and was given counselling through the Teacher Support Network. She subsequently applied for and obtained an assistant head post at another school. But she still finds it hard to talk about her experience of bullying. "I'm learning to be more assertive and I look out for others more, but it has affected my trust in other people," she says. "Schools can be lonely places and there are times the profession needs to look at itself."

An issue for schools

Despite every school having an anti-bullying policy and an increased focus on the problem, there is no evidence that bullying is diminishing, Patrick Nash says.

Indeed, while teaching pays lip-service to tackling bullying, he believes it lags behind much of the private sector in putting well-meaning words into action.

Private sector employees are more likely to move if they are unhappy, but teachers are often loyal to their profession, which removes an incentive to improve management practices.

"There's a real issue in how you manage for performance and that's not being addressed in schools," says Patrick. "It is about being positive, using a coaching approach, looking at people's strengths and building on them - the opposite of marginalising people by ignoring them, withholding information or giving them excessive workloads."

Alongside this, the pressure produced by endless demands by policymakers results in increasing stress, providing a climate where bullying exists, or is even seen as an acceptable way to get results.

Laura believes her biggest mistake was to bring her plight to her head's attention. Instead, she believes she should have put up with it and looked for a job elsewhere. "Once I reported it my life became untenable. If I could turn back the clock I would never have done it," she says.

*Some of the names in this article have been changed. Read Laura's online journal of her bullying ordeal, "Just let me teach" at


1. Unmanageable workload

2. Opinions ignored

3. Feeling excluded

4. Withholding information

5. Hostile reaction on approach

6. Persistent criticism

7. Repeated reminders of errors

8. Humiliated or ridiculed

9. Excessive monitoring

10. Given work below level of competence

Source: The Teacher Support NetworkUniversity of Glamorgan survey of 541 teachers online between January and March.


Carol describes her experience of bullying as being like Chinese water torture: a relentless drip of accusations and criticisms that eroded her self-confidence and almost led her to suicide.

But in her case her chief tormentor wasn't her head, it was a teacher she was managing.

As a key stage leader at a primary school in Kent, Carol was line manager for the other key stage 2 teachers. One mounted a campaign to undermine her, while the head turned a blind eye and refused to get involved.

The teacher arranged to take Carol's class on an overnight trip without telling her; she shouted at her in front of the pupils; she refused to follow Carol's instructions on a walk.

But it was the small things that were most hurtful. "She deliberately disobeyed everything I said. There were constant barbed comments, a drip drip of undermining and demeaning behaviour. It took about a year before I realised it was bullying."

Carol, 44, was put on anti-depressants. She felt sick every day and lost 20 pounds in 10 weeks.

The cumulative effect became so overwhelming that on the way home one night she felt she couldn't take any more and pointed her car towards the crash barrier. She swerved away before impact.

In the end, she quit and got a job at a new school. This year she was voted teacher of the year in her school, but is still on anti-depressants and her experience has stayed with her.

"I feel I have triumphed, but inside I'm always looking over my shoulder," she says.

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