Is there a bully in the staffroom?

Bullying happens to a greater or lesser degree in every school everywhere. In your senior management position, you could be dealing directly with bullying incidents on a regular basis.

As a member of the senior management team (SMT) you are intimately involved with and responsible for helping to create a harmonious working environment. When staff bullying isn’t dealt with promptly and in an emotionally intelligent way, there can be huge negative consequences.

Bullied teachers are often absent from school. They can become mentally and physically ill. Bullied teachers can become ineffective in the classroom and make school a miserable experience for their unfortunate learners. Such teachers could leave the profession or go to a school where they know that bullying is dealt with decisively.

Attempts at bullying can happen to you, too. Think of the angry teacher who is unhappy with decisions taken by you or the school. They try to bully the SMT by threatening legal action or reporting them to education department officials.

Then there might be a groupie of teachers who sabotage SMT initiatives or improvement plans.

D Riley, in “Investigation of Staff Bullying in Australian Schools: Executive Summary”, writes: “Staff bullying relates to situations where an adult is either the perpetrator or target of bullying. Bullying has been defined as ‘repeated and persistent negative acts towards one or more individual(s) which involve a persistent power imbalance and create a hostile work environment’.”

Research has identified different ways in which teachers can be bullied. A sample of the types of bullying is shown in a study conducted among staff in Australian schools.

The top 10 types of bullying in descending order of frequency (the percentage in the brackets indicate how many teachers personally experienced a particular type of bullying) were:

  • Information is withheld which affects your performance (94.9%);

  • Questioning of your decisions, procedures and judgment (94.8%);

  • Tasks are set with unreasonable or impossible targets or deadlines (94.4%);

  • Attempts are made to belittle and undermine your work (92.9%);

  • Recognition, acknowledgement and praise are withheld (90.9%);

  • You are ignored or excluded (89.5%);

  • Your mental or physical health has been affected by the behaviour towards you (88.7%);

  • You are exposed to an unmanageable workload (87.8%);

  • Excluded/frozen out/ignored from decision-making (87.6%); and

  • Undermining of your integrity (86.3%).

In Britain, the types of bullying are not dissimilar. In South Africa, I’m unaware of any major research done on staffroom bullying but the types of bullying found in Australian and British schools will be found in ours, too. I add these five types of bullying:

  • Spreading gossip or rumours about a person;

  • Removing areas of responsibility without reasonable explanations;

  • Blocking applications for leave, promotion or training;

  • Regulation bullying; and

  • Legal bullying.

Regulation bullying occurs when people are forced to comply blindly with rules and regulations even though there are often better ways of doing things. An example is when a teacher is forced to discipline a child who breaks a school rule in a specific way because of regulations. The teacher is denied the right to use professional discretion.

Legal bullying happens when threats are made about what will be done to a person who doesn’t comply with the demands of the bully. This type of bully is often in a senior management position. The bully threatens legal action such as being charged, a commission of inquiry or being given a written warning.

How quality schools cope
Quality schools work hard at creating a happy, productive organisational climate. The children enjoy school and the staff work well together. Any visitor can pick up the good vibes as they walk through the school gates.

Ordinary and poor-quality schools are often characterised by an inability to deal assertively with bullying. Sadly, these schools create an atmosphere that allows bullying to rumble under the surface and eventually explode.

Eight ideas to deal with this are:

  • Walk the talk of core values: At assemblies, awards functions and on many other occasions, we make others aware of core values. Strive to be a role model of those values such as empathy, friendliness, honesty and kindness. There are times when, as an SMT member, you will deal with underperforming staff members. You will also handle those situations in which teachers handled conflict situations poorly. Remember to tackle the issue, not the individual. “Skinder will get you fired” was the headline of a newspaper item (Sunday Times July 4 2010). The article was about Ray Dalio, a self-made billionaire on Wall Street. He had issued a decree to his 1 000 employees—anyone who is overheard speaking maliciously about a colleague three times will be fired. He transformed a wish to “only speak well” into a corporate rule of ‘Never say anything about a person you wouldn’t say to him directly”.
  • Make the staff aware: Just as the learners are made aware of different forms of bullying, do the staff know the different types of bullying that can happen among themselves? Make them aware.

  • Write a staff anti-bullying policy: Outside the education profession, the human resources departments of organisations write workplace anti-bullying and sexual harassment policies. I’m not suggesting that the school write a lengthy policy. State what constitutes bullying and what route to follow if it happens.

  • Ensure a fair workload: The SMT is directly involved in the allocation of staff administrative, extramural and teaching duties. Make sure that the allocations are scrupulously fair according to the person’s ability, experience and post level.

  • Make meetings democratic: Departmental and whole-staff meetings should encourage staff to raise concerns. Meetings that invite frank yet courteous discussions take away the legitimacy of gossiping and rumour-mongering. When everyone is welcome to make input, the teachers become a team that cares and supports each member.

  • Be vigilant in identifying bullying behaviour: Are there staff members who always seem to sit alone or never come to the staffroom at break? Is there someone who never speaks at a meeting but talks like a confrontational politician outside? Is there a groupie being obstructive when a SMT member wishes to introduce change? Deal assertively with incidents in which you feel someone is a bully or being bullied.

  • Do staff development: Many children who bully need help in dealing with their emotions. Bullied children also need help. There are obvious parallels with teachers. Staff development training could include topics such as assertiveness training, conflict resolution skills, emotional intelligence and stress management.

  • Arrange social events: Break times are too short for staff to get to know each other. This lack of contact happens especially when teachers are in different departments and phases of the school. Arrange social functions such as braais, end-of-term lunches and outings. People get to have fun and get to know each other and incidents of bullying can be reduced to almost nil.

Rod Smith, a family therapist who lives in the United States, talks of the “free passage” that we’re all entitled to, a life that is bully-free. Smith gives wise advice in this article:

Free passage ...
“Every person deserves free passage—the right to be unhindered in their daily life. To be free of bullying of all kinds, free of abusive behaviours, free of intimidation, manipulation and domination—to live as victim to none.

“If this is not your experience, it is time to muster the courage to do something about it. It is time to speak up. Begin small: choose a few selected and trusted friends and tell them the truth. Ask them to listen without offering advice, without attempting to rewrite or reframe your experience. Essential to finding freedom, to finding your voice, to gaining the self-respect required to escape the destructive web that comes with toxic relationships is the willingness to articulate your experience and name it as accurately as possible.

“Once named, the trap is easier to identify and an escape plan is easier to devise. While there is no one-plan-fits-all to rise above unhealthy patterns in relationships, silence is never the answer.

“Speak up. It’s the first step to freedom.”

The article highlights the first of the three crucial principles according to Harvey S Firestone (The Mercury, June 17 2010) on how to deal with a bully. His three principles are:

  • Never be bullied into silence;

  • Never allow yourself to be made a victim; and

  • Accept no one’s definition of your life but define yourself.

Further tips on how to deal with a bully are:

  • When talking to a trusted friend or colleague, realise that the person should be able to help ensure that you’re not over-reacting. Sometimes, for example, an off-the-cuff remark from a colleague is not bullying, but a thoughtless comment.

  • Have a meeting with the person attempting to bully you. State your concerns. Invite them to state theirs. Be a fully focused listener. In many instances, the person had no intention of being a bully.

  • Do what you tell children to do if there is a bully. Be courteous, be non-confrontational, but keep social contact to a minimum.

  • Record bullying incidents if there are no improvements.

  • In extreme cases, the matter could be raised with other SMT members to help find an amicable resolution within the school.

  • When the issue cannot be solved amicably, it might be necessary for the department of education and/or the teacher union to become involved.

Should the situation be unresolved, some form of staff movement might be needed. It’s a challenge to the SMT to get behaviour modification from the bully. Alternatively, the bully doesn’t belong in the staffroom and needs to leave the school.

Sadly, when senior management is unable to deal with such a bully or is the source itself of the bullying, the innocent (bullied) person has tough choices: to live with the situation, go to another school or leave the profession.

Teaching is an exhilarating but exhausting profession. In 2010 it’s a profession in the midst of crisis. There aren’t enough teachers to meet the needs of the country. We need to ensure that we don’t lose our quality teachers. If we create happy, bully-free staffrooms, we can do much to keep them at the chalk face or whiteboard.

This is an edited version of a paper presented to the Naptosa Principals’ Conference in August in Gauteng. Richard Hayward is a former principal of two Gauteng state schools. Currently, he gives leadership and management workshops within the Quality in Education unit of SAQI (the South African Quality Institute). Presentations are done across the country. Poor schools are sponsored. For more information, please contact Vanessa du Toit (012 349 5006; [email protected]) or Richard Hayward (011 888 3262; [email protected])



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