We often don’t hear about teacher’s experiences of workplace bullying, it seems like a contraction in some ways that teachers are protecting or dealing with bullying issues with their students, but in secret dealing with their own experiences of bullying.

After experiencing workplace bullying in a school setting from a person in senior leadership myself I realised I wasn’t the only one who was going through this. In my case a bystander had reported what she had witnessed and had witnessed with other ‘targets’ to the Board of Trustees, but unfortunately things did not get better from there. This experience threw me as a teacher as I had been teaching for many years. It affected me in many ways, and we know that bullying has that affect on people. My own experience prompted me to research this issue further, to find out what it looked like, and if so any way forward.

In-depth qualitative interviews were used to gain insight to bullying experiences, the effects of bullying on teachers’ lives, and coping mechanisms and resources drawn upon. The degree and nature of the bullying ranged from low-level behaviours such as “nit ‘picking” to high-level behaviour where an unfair dismissal took place. Common themes that emerged were that of the bully’s qualities, such as insecurity, and a controlling leadership style. Common bullying behaviours were reported as criticism of personal habits or traits, mocking, use of competency, excessive monitoring, threats, belittling, favouritism, and covert or overt pressure on participants to resign.

“I spent two days planning to make sure it was detailed as possible. I showed it to her, she took ten minutes reading it, and then ripped it up.”

“I wasn’t the only person to be called into the principal’s office to be berated for hours and it happened for like four or five times that year”

There is a tremendous sense of fear around this, on one side there’s a fear of I”f I report this what are the repercussions going to be for me and my career?” considering that teaching in NZ is a ‘small place’ and the second part to this was experienced from others that witnessed bullying going on, and worried they then to would fall victim to it. High staff turnover seemed to be a common thread amongst schools that had high levels of bullying behaviour.

The development of an effective reporting structure and follow-up procedures for teachers experiencing workplace bullying could provide a unique way forward in combatting this problem. This could include the involvement of teachers’ unions. Reporting structures currently are unclear, and given the fear on the part of both victims and bystanders of being targeted further, this will remain a challenge. In some ways we need to look beyond the bullying and address the heart of this issue if things are really going to change. A focus would need to be on well-being for staff and having a shared understanding of what’s acceptable and appropriate.

Most people don’t want to go out and intentionally bully, so there seems to be a belief that drives this behaviour within the perpetrator. This is where a lack of self awareness can play out. We also know teaching is an incredibly demanding career, which at times makes it difficult for us to be the best versions of oneself, potentially leading to poor communication.

The cost of workplace bullying is great, and there is much literature and a good business case to support that happier workplaces result in high levels of success, productivity and creativity.

Rachel Maitland-Smith, the guidance co-ordinator at Ponsonby Intermediate. 

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