By: Simon Collins

Bullied teacher Rachel Maitland -Smith from Ponsonby Intermediate has written a report on bullied teachers. / Doug Sherring

Teachers say it’s not just children who are getting bullied at schools – many teachers are also being bullied by their bosses and colleagues.

Rachel Maitland-Smith, the guidance co-ordinator at Ponsonby Intermediate who will present a study on the issue at a Bullying Prevention Conference on Saturday, said she found bullying of teachers was widespread.

“It was regardless of decile, regardless of what kind of contract the teachers were on, regardless of area,” she said.

“Worksafe talks about where there is a stressful job, there is more likely to be bullying. Teaching is a very stressful job.”

survey last year found that NZ 15-year-old students suffered the second-highest rate of bullying out of 35 developed nations – 26 per cent said they were bullied at least a few times a month.

There has been much less research on bullying of teachers, but recent NZ Council for Educational Research surveys have found about a sixth of teachers disagree that staff “treat each other with respect” (18 per cent) and that their schools are “a safe social and physical workplace for staff” (17 per cent).

Maitland-Smith herself was bullied by a more senior teacher while working as a classroom teacher a decade ago. She said the school principal and other teachers knew about it but did nothing.

“”They said, ‘You’re a target now, Rachel, you’re one of six targets that she’s chosen,” she said. “It was hushed conversations.”

She said the senior teacher ignored her, played favourites, yelled at her in front of students at a school camp and bad-mouthed her to her class behind her back.

“I’d tell my team leader. He said, ‘Just ignore it’,” she said.

“One of the other people in the school leadership took it to the board of trustees and said, ‘This is what’s going on in this school.’ It made me realise it wasn’t just me, there were others as well. But, even then, nothing happened.

“Eventually this person was made to resign after she’d been in that position for 20 years.”

Maitland-Smith interviewed six other teachers who had been bullied, including two who were threatened with losing their teacher registration or told to look for another job.

She found both verbal bullying, such as mocking and yelling at teachers, and one case of physical bullying where an angry department head threw a basketball at a teacher in her office.

“He was protected because he coached the First XV and he was important,” she said.

Three of the teachers were placed on “competency”, a process which is meant to give them support and guidance to improve their teaching. The teachers experienced it as constant monitoring and criticism.

One said: “I knew at the time when she came in she would find something to nitpick and make me feel shit about myself … She classed it as support, it was the most unsupportive thing possible.”

Unions sometimes helped. In one case, a principal moved a teacher out of a bully’s department as soon as the Post Primary Teachers’ Association became involved, to avoid an external mediation that would have cost the school $5000.

But the three primary teachers in the study were less happy with their union, the NZ Educational Institute (NZEI). One who was sacked said the NZEI told her, “Just do whatever she [the principal] says, there is no point in fighting this.”

Maitland-Smith said the unions should publish clear guidelines on their websites about teachers’ rights if they are being bullied, and schools should also have formal processes for reporting bullying.

She advocates programmes to teach school leaders how to be supportive managers, and training teachers about how to respond if they are bullied or see others being bullied.

At Ponsonby Intermediate, all teachers have “coaches” to discuss problems confidentially. Maitland-Smith is one of only a handful of counsellors in primary and intermediate schools, but believes every school should have them.

“I think as a society we are becoming more anxious,” she said.

“We have anxious children. We have anxious parents. Parents are under a lot of pressure. Kids are on technology, parents are on technology, they don’t switch off, in some houses there is never eye contact.

“So we really have to meet that need. We have to be aware of our people and what they need and respond accordingly in a nurturing and positive environment.”

The school is running a series of activities for Bullying Free Week this week, including watching the movie Wonder and wearing pink shirts on Pink Shirt Day on Friday.

NZEI president Lynda Stuart said her union had “processes in place to support members when they are in a situation where they believe there is workplace bullying”.

“That’s what we are there for,” she said.

What teachers said

  • “Staff treat each other with respect”: 83 per cent agreed, 18 per cent disagreed.
  • “We provide a safe social and physical workplace for staff”: 83 per cent agreed, 17 per cent disagreed.
  • “We actively address staff workplace harassment and bullying”: 67 per cent agreed, 33 per cent disagreed.

Source: NZ Council for Educational Research Wellbeing@School surveys of 3416 teachers, 2013-2016.

Source: NZ Herald

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