Susan Bates is an ECE teacher, researcher, founder of Facebook page ‘Teachers Advocacy Group (TAG)’ advocating for the rights of teachers and children, equity in education and ethics in policy.

In a 2018 social media survey of early childhood (EC) teachers in New Zealand, 52% of the 700 respondents reported they had experienced bullying in their workplaces. Children in those services may or may not witness bullying actions, but they know when ‘their’ adults are miserable, and they notice when teachers vote with their feet and leave. They notice what adults try to hide from them. Those EC teachers who reported bullying at work recognised that it impacted on their work. Anxiety, depression, even panic attacks are among the teachers’ responses to workplace bullying.

Documenting this, let alone resolving it, is far from straightforward. But a key is the question of ‘Who is responsible?’ when bullying is identified as a problem – and it is almost always identified by employees, rather than by employers. There is immediately a power imbalance. So the second question is ‘Who will be believed?’

Allan Halse from Culturesafe is an advocate for bullied employees in every sector of NZ. He has been involved in winning large amounts of reparation for two kindergarten teachers, who should have been represented by their own Union and were not.

I asked him some questions about the nature and remedies of workplace bullying in relation to early childhood education in NZ. He told me that ‘health harm’ is the most critical factor and that is evidenced in the Employment Court case, Jane Barnes versus Canterbury Westland Kindergarten Association.

Jane Barnes suffered PTSD as a result of workplace bullying and was awarded $30,000 tax-free compensation for hurt and humiliation and two-years (disregarded) sick leave, plus costs i.e. more than $160,000. He identified workplace bullying as a health and safety issue (not an employment issue) but is not being treated as such by the Ministry of Education.

He told me: “In the case of Early Childhood Education, charges of bullying cannot be taken to the MOE for redress, but I believe that is exactly where it belongs. MOE is responsible for drawing regulations that ensure Health and Safety of children. It is already doing a poor job of this and not recognising bullied teachers is another failure.” The most insidious form of bullying is using threats to deter teachers from reporting regulation breaches to the MOE.

The Ministry’s view apparently is that there is no major problem. The Ministry of Education’s Katrina Casey has stated that “Complaints numbers are stable and still only represent a small number of services”.

Those working with early childhood teachers know a different story. The Teachers Advocacy Group received 25 complaints from EC teachers within one week in January this year (2021). All were regarded as serious, and none of the teachers were confident to approach the Ministry of Education for fear of reprisal, or of no action being taken.

A common form of bullying in our sector is telling teachers who bring up issues of not being paid for work done, unfair treatment, and unrealistic expectations that they are ‘unprofessional’ and not ‘passionate teachers’. Of course, it is being both passionate and professional that drives teachers to bring concerns to the fore.

Blackmail in the EC sector is not uncommon. Migrant teachers are vulnerable; they often believe that their employers know best, resulting in exploitation. There are multiple examples in which employers have manipulated teachers by refusing to sign off teacher registration unless the teacher agreed to stay at the centre longer than required for registration purposes. Or to knowingly exploit a teacher who needed an employment contract for her NZ residency application; exploitation that included long hours at minimum wage – in the hope of such a contract which never materialised.

More common bullying behaviours include using rosters as ‘punishment’; minimising opinions and dismissing complaints, employing exclusionary tactics, silent treatment, not discussing work related issues with targets and then criticising them when they are not prepared.

Few early childhood managers are trained in what constitutes bullying, how to mitigate it through the organisational culture, personal behaviours and implementing protections for staff. The concept of democratic workplace cultures are alien to many in a sector driven by profits. A challenge to the ‘profit plan’ is often dealt with harshly.

Every licensee in the sector is responsible for providing a safe workplace, and this includes protection from bullying, under the Health and Safety at Work Act (2015). This act is supposedly enforced by Worksafe, an arm of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise. I have discovered, Inspectors are very thin on the ground.

Institutional bullying can include burying documents, not acting on complaints, not providing support to teachers or parents. Advocates have complained to me, and I have experienced myself when dealing the Government agencies, a reluctance to act, refusals to respond and dismissing evidence.

Teachers have no representative voice on any of the Ministry of Education’s advisory groups. The secret appointment and secret meetings of the newly established Regulation Review Advisory Group, is a form of institutional bullying. It is bullying by neglecting to seek out the views of early childhood teachers, who are working within often impossible regulations.

There is plenty of research detailing the effects of poor maternal mental health on children’s development. Teachers are with very young children for 40 hours per week and more, many in physically and psychologically awful conditions. But they are adults – most can articulate that there is a problem and many can choose to resign in order to move out of a toxic early childhood environment. What is effect on children in settings where teachers are bullied? Much the same as occurs when mothers are bullied or abused.

Young children are extremely perceptive and know when their adults are not happy. They notice how adults treat each other and mimic, this is how they learn about relationships.

Bullying in any workplace is unacceptable. Bullying of staff in early childhood settings is not only unacceptable, it is also toxic to a generation of children immersed in relationships with stressed adults who want to do better for children.

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