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Why is there still workplace bullying in teaching?

Workplace bullying is driving teachers out of the classroom for good – we must trade toxic environments for supportive ones

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Workplace bullying is driving teachers out of the classroom for good – we must trade toxic environments for supportive ones

My PGCE tutor told me that relationships are the most important part of the job: everything hangs on how teachers socialise with their students and our colleagues.

In the classroom, a teacher can plan a great lesson with tons of scaffolding and assessment for learning and be up to their neck in dedicated improvement and reflection time (DIRT), but if the relationship with their class is poor then learning will suffer. Similarly, if we cannot maintain positive working relationships with other staff, the quality of teaching and learning will also decrease, because we need each other for support.

None of the above is news, and yet, as a profession we’re still struggling to get it right. One glance at the Tes forums or articles will offer tales of workplace bullying, of informal “support” plans and of staff being forced out of their teaching post by any means necessary. We tell our students to be kind to others but forget this applies to ourselves. In the end, staff leave – often jumping before they are pushed – with a settlement agreement that provides a good reference in return for never speaking about the issues that led to it. A culture of silence, of “like it or lump it” pervades, especially for teachers of non-shortage subjects that are unable to escape to another job so easily.

How has teaching become so toxic? When I was a student, part of what attracted me to the profession was the teamwork. There was a sense of belonging which does still seem to exist in many schools, but only on the surface – once something goes wrong, the knives are out.

I was once in a school on a supply contract, which was going well until I was told by another member of staff that my line manager was unhappy about a recent observation. The thing is, the observation had never taken place. No one seemed to know why this had happened, and no action was taken. I raised the issue with our union rep, my line manager set the record straight and we moved on. Weeks later, my contract was not renewed. The head assured me that they personally had seen good things, but that they had to take the line manager’s word over that. It was a very established department and we never really bonded, but we had never been at odds either. Whatever problems that existed with my teaching were never raised or discussed with me with the intention of making improvements.

As an outsider, you might be forgiven for thinking all schools are filled with psychopaths and narcissists – though I’m sure this is sometimes the case, in my experience, it has never been that simple.

The pressure is hitting us all and is filtered down from SLT to middle managers to class teachers. Everyone is scared to admit they are struggling, lest they be the new target. Instead of a team working together, we are trying to keep under the radar and hope "the other colleague" will be picked up on for their mistakes so that ours will go unnoticed. Middle managers are dipping into lessons and flagging issues up, but much of the time it feels as if it is paying lip service to SLT. Of course we need to be observing what goes on in the classroom and of course we should be acting on any concerns, but this need to document and escalate sometimes has no real intention of being supportive.

Dealing with malicious management is a nightmare. Forming a positive relationship which later breaks down is a whole different story, which I discovered in my first non-supply role at a school. I had been warned by my predecessor during handover about the head of department. To begin with, she was friendly and welcoming – I put the warning down to a personal issue between them both. After discovering we lived fairly close by, we decided to share lifts, and we formed a car friendship that also extended to school, where we worked well together as part of a team. When the job became difficult for the usual reasons, I found her an unwavering source of support and compassion. We would use the journeys to vent about whatever was on our minds. During school holidays those of us in the department who lived locally would go out for a meal or drinks.

It didn’t last. Someone else became the flavour of the month. Perhaps it was some intentional divide and conquer tactic or just plain thoughtlessness. We stopped sharing lifts at her request and after that, a frosty atmosphere reigned between us. Every conversation was now held over email, with minimal face-to-face interaction. As a department, we stopped pulling together and generally people closed off and stayed in their own spaces. A few of us spoke to HR on separate occasions but the problem was personal, even if it was affecting our professional lives as well. The simple answer we got was that you can’t make anyone be your friend. Soon after, I moved away and started a new job.

When I began writing this, I wanted to talk about workplace bullying and the disastrous consequences it has. I have seen what happened to friends of mine, in more extreme situations, but that is their story to tell. What I have found is that my experiences are less easy to define.

My question has become: “Why do people bully in the workplace?” The usual reasons range from power to feelings of inadequacy to being a sociopath and anything in between, but how does it start? The department in my second example had been close-knit for half a decade before I arrived. In the time I was there, expectations grew and as staff, we all struggled to meet them, to achieve every target and, more exhausting, tick every paperwork box.

Our HoD probably felt the brunt of it. The physical and mental impact of long-term stress is well-known, but is it changing our personalities as well, making us more aggressive and less empathetic? It could be a reason for those who start out as compassionate, caring less and less about those they work with, or manage, because it is easier just to switch off. Eventually, you have nothing left to give.

For me, the line between professional and personal is so much fainter in a career such as teaching. If a working relationship deteriorates, it does not stop at the door at home time. We do not walk into a different life once we leave the school building.

It's time we started remembering that we are just as in need of support as the students we teach. Managers, senior leaders, and the government must stop treating teachers as though they're expendable.

The writer is a teacher in England

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