What should you do if you're a teacher being bullied?

Bullying in the workplace can make a teacher's life miserable – here we ask experts about the support that is out there

Grainne Hallahan

Bullying in schools: What should you do if you're a teacher who is being bullied?

Workplace bullying is a very real problem for teachers and school staff. In a 2020 survey run by the union Voice, 12 per cent of the respondents reported experiencing workplace bullying, and 23 per cent reported that they didn't feel safe at work.

So what practical help is out there for teachers?

Support for teachers who are being bullied

We asked the NAHT school leaders' union, Voice and the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas)

Q: How do I know if I’m being bullied?

Acas: Bullying and harassment means any unwanted behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended. It may not be obvious or apparent to others and it could happen at work without an employer being aware of it.

Bullying or harassment can be between two individuals or it may involve groups of people. It might be obvious or insidious. It may be persistent or an isolated incident. While it often occurs face-to-face, it can also occur in written communications, by phone, via email or on social media.

You can read more about this here on an Acas blog.

Q: What should a teacher do if they find themselves being bullied? 

NAHT: Bullying in any form is unacceptable in a school. Schools should have a very clear policy and procedure for dealing with bullying.

If a teacher feels they are being bullied, they should refer to the school’s policy on bullying. In the first instance, they may think about raising the issue informally with the person responsible. Their line manager (assuming this is not the potential bully) can support them with this. 

If they do raise the issue with the individual, they should explain clearly that their behaviour is not welcome or makes them uncomfortable. It may be that the other person is not aware of the effect of their actions. 

Raising the matter informally will involve a discussion of the events, with the intention of reaching an agreement that the behaviour will cease with immediate effect. 

Voice: Employers have a duty of care to all of their employees and anyone who is being bullied should feel that there is someone to whom they can turn. We know from experience that this, sadly, is not always the case.  

Bullying can take many forms but, basically, if the action of another creates a humiliating or offensive environment, then it could be considered unlawful.

According to our survey, employees experience bullying from a senior leader or manager in over 65 per cent of cases, and if there is nobody else in senior leadership to speak with, then employees must phone their unions for help and advice. 

NB: Both unions say that in order to be able to provide examples of the bullying, it is recommended to keep a chronological record and any written evidence of bullying activity.

Q: How does the advice change if the teacher is a senior person and the bullying is from someone they line manage?

NAHT: The same principles apply. The senior person should document instances of the unwanted behaviour and seek to address them informally in the first instance with the individual. The senior person should point out how the behaviour is unwelcome and that it should cease.

At the same time, the senior person could also explain how the behaviour falls short of the staff code of conduct for the school, Teachers' Standards and the school's bullying policy. The senior person should document that there has been a meeting and what was discussed.

If the behaviour persists then the headteacher should be advised of the situation and that the senior person wishes to pursue the matter formally. The school can then determine in conjunction with advice from its HR provider the appropriate process to follow (eg, the bullying policy or the disciplinary policy). 

Q: What happens if a student is bullying a teacher? 

NAHT: If a pupil was bullying a teacher, we would expect two things: 

Firstly, we would expect the child to be dealt with under the school’s behaviour policy. Broadly, the child needs to be dealt with in a way that will alert him/her to his/her poor behaviour and the school needs to be satisfied (as much as it can be) that the child will not continue with that behaviour. The child might need to be kept out of the teacher’s class for a period of time, for instance. 

Secondly, we would expect the school to take its duty of care to the teacher very seriously and offer support, advice, training and counselling if necessary. 

Voice: Student to teacher bullying is, thankfully, quite rare, but when it does happen it is difficult to resolve often because the teacher has usually taken longer to report it – either because of embarrassment or fear about what their colleagues might think.  

As with other types of workplace bullying, gathering evidence is key. It is also important that the individual does not try to address this on their own but should seek support from a manager or their union.

Q: What protection is there for teachers from workplace bullying?

NAHT: Prevention is the best cure. The school should have a clear "no tolerance" policy on bullying and staff should know how to access it.

There should be appropriate briefing and training on the use of the policy and any related policies (eg, grievance or harassment). Posters around the school should reinforce the message and signpost to the bullying policy. 

If a teacher is the subject of bullying and complains, the school should consider requests from that teacher to change their working arrangements, duties or hours to avoid or minimise contact with the alleged perpetrator until a successful resolution and an agreed outcome are reached. 

It is important that confidentiality is maintained for all parties concerned, with details of the investigation and names only being disclosed when necessary. Information about a complaint by or about an employee may be placed on the employee’s personnel file for future reference in line with GDPR arrangements. 

A teacher can seek further information on bullying from the following people: 

  • Their line manager 
  • Their HR provider 
  • Their trade union 

The NAHT has also produced a model "dignity at work" policy that may be helpful.

Voice: Staff have the right to work free from bullying and harassment. The law protects against discrimination due to protected characteristics, and all employers should have a policy position and a process for investigating allegations of bullying and harassment, such as the grievance process, and this must be freely accessible to all staff.

Q: What is the difference between bullying and harassment? 

Acas: The impact of bullying on someone can be the same as harassment and the words "bullying" and "harassment" are often used interchangeably in the workplace. However, unless bullying amounts to conduct defined as harassment in the Equality Act 2010, it is not possible to make a complaint to an employment tribunal about it. 

The Equality Act 2010 uses a single definition of harassment to cover the relevant protected characteristics. Employees can complain of behaviour that they find offensive even if it is not directed at them. Harassment is “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.” The relevant protected characteristics are age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

Q: What happens if my employer doesn’t resolve the bullying, it continues, and then I leave the school?

Acas: If, despite all your efforts, the problems are not resolved to your satisfaction, you should take advice on your legal rights. Where harassment is unlawful conduct under the Equality Act 2010, you can take a claim to an employment tribunal.

If you make a claim to an employment tribunal, they will expect you to have tried to resolve the problem with the organisation and any records you have kept will be considered when it hears your claim. If you resign as a last resort, make sure you have tried all other ways to resolve the situation. To make a claim of constructive unfair dismissal, you need to have worked for your employer for 24 months.

Voice: If you raise a bullying concern with your employer and your employer fails to deal adequately with it, then you might be able to resign and claim constructive unfair dismissal or even raise a civil or criminal claim for the most serious cases.

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Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan is Tes recruitment editor and senior content writer at Tes

Find me on Twitter @heymrshallahan

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