Crying in cupboards: what happens when teachers are bullied

Pat Bricheno and Mary Thornton have written a new book about the experiences of teachers who have been bullied. They share some of what they discovered here.

When people become teachers, they prepare themselves for the challenges and responsibilities of working with children, including the long hours required.

But for some, the most difficult and unexpected task is dealing with bullying by a fellow member of staff.

“It’s the nature of the profession,  when teachers are being dealt with inappropriately or in a bad way by their employer, that they don’t tell anybody, they carry  on, hoping that if they keep their heads down, work harder, then the bully will move on. But quite often it becomes intolerable and they have a complete breakdown. “(Union official)

It's a story we heard time and again when writing our latest book, ‘Crying in Cupboards’. We knew that bullying of teachers was rarely discussed, so we interviewed teachers, senior managers and union officials across the profession to hear their stories, and track how they dealt with bullying. What we found was an education system under stress, which empowers bullies, and makes bullied teachers too ill to work.

Emma' story

One of our teacher stories is about “Emma”, who represents a primary teacher in her mid 30s.

“After 14 years I could say 'So far so good,' and in Ofsted-Speak 'Good to outstanding'. I loved my work and the kids, but it was time to move on: a new school, and a move up the ladder. The head was so nice at the interview, but almost immediately I could tell that something wasn't quite right - an atmosphere, a staffroom where everyone is walking on eggshells, afraid to speak in case 'she' overheard.”

Emma had walked into a Lion's Den; everything she did made her a target.

“It was a horrendous, I hated every second of it. Endless put-downs and humiliations by the Head; unannounced observations where she picked holes in everything I did, making me increasingly nervous, affecting my confidence. She said, repeatedly, that I was too expensive, not performing well.. I tried to adjust to the fact that I was just not a good teacher anymore.”

Then a £20,000 budget cut was revealed, and fear of redundancy stalked the staffroom. For Emma, it was brought to a head when she received the write-up of her Performance Management meeting.

“I'd met the targets, but the head added some really nasty comments. I was extremely upset by them. I tried to put it behind me and carry on but I felt unsure of my position. “

It was the beginning of the end for Emma, who was soon threatened with Capability Procedures, or, if she simply resigned she'd be offered a good reference.

“Every day, I came home crying. I was drinking too much, feeling sick, dreading going to work. I saw my doctor and broke down completely. She prescribed a multitude of medications, and said 'I'm signing you off’.

The Union said I could take a grievance against the Head, or get a Compromise Agreement, which would guarantee me a reference, and that is all I want out of it. I want to be gone and I need a reference. It felt like a battle that I couldn't win, and that's the thing I hate most about it, the futility of it."

Unions and senior managers respond

We asked several Senior Managers to respond to Emma’s story:

“You’ve got a very experienced and very good teacher, and it’s taken no time at all to knock her confidence. The Head’s trying to manipulate the situation by getting her to leave. I can understand that lots of Heads would do that, because formal procedure is a lengthy, difficult process. But it’s not very professional. She took on a very good teacher and managed to demoralise her to such an extent that she may well have became a less good teacher, but only because of the way she was treated. A Compromise Agreement is a good escape route for Emma. She keeps her good reputation, but it allows the Head teacher to carry on being a bully.”

We also asked our Union officials about situations like Emma’s

“Schools get rid of teachers by using the Capability Procedure, because it's easy to do that. They're using it to get rid of older, expensive teachers, and getting in younger, cheaper ones. They shouldn't be saying, ‘I could take formal proceedings or I could give you a good reference’. That indicates bullying, because a good, non-bullying Head would try to develop that person, to help them improve. In Emma’s case the underhand comments, the nasty phrases and the formal proceedings; well this person is abusing their position of power. Sometimes with a really good teacher the Head feels intimidated and insecure; they'd rather have somebody who doesn't challenge them as much. Unfortunately some people come to us a bit too late, when they're off sick. It’s best when someone comes early. Often we are involved in negotiating an exit, basically a Compromise Agreement, which is not really solving it, but it allows them to look for another job and to get a reference. If it's just one person, and nobody else is prepared to stand up and be counted, then we might say ‘it is in your best interests to leave’. It is awful, as a trade Unionist, to give that advice but it's probably the best advice in those circumstances.”

Emma’s story ends with her leaving teaching, as did nearly one third of the bullied teachers we followed: several developed new careers, others remain too ill to work.

Emma’s story is just one of the stories that we share in this book.  We don't have all the answers about teachers who are bullied at work, but, if we can shine a light on what seems like an epidemic of bullying in the teaching profession then perhaps bullied teachers will have a better idea about how to deal with it.

"Crying In Cupboards: what happens when teachers are bullied?" is available from local bookshops, or from Troubador's website (where you can get a discount by typing in MOBBING at checkout).

Pat Bricheno is an independent researcher, focusing on social justice issues. She has previously worked for the University of Cambridge, and for the Education Support Partnership on teacher well-being. Mary Thornton is Professor Emeritus at the University of Hertfordshire’s Faculty of Education, and a National Teaching Fellow.

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