- Are you working in a teaching job, but feel like something has changed?
- Are managers or administration looking at you differently?
Sadly, you might not be paranoid, ‘they’ might really be out to get you.
Bullying of teaching staff by leadership with a ‘change agenda’ is becoming more and more common in schools across the world.
This usually occurs when leaders decide a teacher’s face no longer fits – and they want to persuade you to resign.
In this post I want to share the seven workplace bullying tactics typically used by school management or administration to force you out …
… and what to do if you are the subject of ‘increased focus’ or ‘support’ from leadership in your school.
Is Bullying in the Workplace a Problem in Education?
Ask a teacher and they will likely confirm that - yes it is.
- Recent research by a UK teaching union reported that 4 out of 5 teachers have been victims of workplace bullying by their employers.
- An Australian Council for Educational Research study confirmed 95% of staff in schools experienced some form of workplace bullying.
- And in the USA, numerous independent studies have concluded "that workplace bullying is consistently prevalent in the teaching profession"
If you feel unfairly targeted by leadership in your school - you are not alone.
As educational ‘reforms’ in many countries place an increased emphasis on data at the expense of wellbeing, workplace bullying is now an occupational hazard for teaching staff.
And while harassment and discrimination at work is illegal in many countries, the wide range of bullying tactics employed by educational leaders are all too often tolerated or covered up – rather than challenged in court.
Working in education didn’t used to be like this – so what has changed?
Modern Schools Are an Environment Ripe for Workplace Discrimination
Schools are no longer viewed as centres of social development.
Instead educational success is now judged on the development of specific data points ..
.. with an underlying assumption that performance should improve every year.
As a result, many schools now ‘weigh the pig’ obsessively in the search for evidence of incremental data improvements.
In the absence of actual ‘progress’ – many educational leaders resort to controlling micromanagement in an attempt to demonstrate that they are driving change.
This often results in extreme levels of workload, unrealistic targets .. and the enforced silence of staff who are simply expected to toe the line.
What usually flips this controlling behaviour into outright abuse, is when leaders decide that a teachers face no longer fits.
Emboldened by politicians hostile to education, school leaders have become increasingly brazen in their attempts to reduce staff costs and drive out teachers who challenge their authority.
Education in many countries is now defined by a toxic atmosphere of excessive accountability, constant criticism and enforced silence ..
.. a perfect breeding ground for the bullying and abuse of teaching staff.
Why do Managers Bully Teaching Staff in Schools?
The sad fact in many cases, is simply because they are allowed to do so.
In our modern schools there are very few checks and balances to stop them.
But the underlying reason behind the majority of cases of workplace bullying in schools, is that managers or administrators have decided they want a staff member to tender their resignation and move on.
- Often this is because they want to cut staff salaries and employ a newly qualified (or unqualified) alternative.
- Sometimes experienced staff members are simply too influential and get in the way of leaders’ change agenda.
The attitude of many educational leaders is that it's faster and easier to drive staff to write a resignation letter, than to support their training needs or follow school processes and procedures.
The lack of effective union support and threats of career ending consequences, leaves many teachers writing letters of resignation instead of fighting their corner and standing up to bullying and discrimination.
Most sadly of all, this cycle of abuse is hidden by non-disclosure agreements and teaching staff who feel frightened to challenge their schools or districts, for fear of damaging their career prospects.
How Will You Know if you are Being Targeted?
In many cases workplace bullying starts off subtly, disguised as ‘support’ for your needs.
If you suddenly find yourself on an improvement plan, or being asked to provide evidence of your effectiveness in a specific area – this can signal the start of a campaign against you.
But there are other, less obvious ways in which leadership can increase the pressure on you and attempt to force you out.
These workplace bullying tactics can be grouped into 7 main areas.
It is well worth familiarising yourself with these – as you could be next in line for their use.
1. Boiling The Frog
The underlying strategy in most cases of workplace bullying in schools, can be likened to boiling a frog.
At the beginning – the staff member is put into a pan of warm water – in an apparent attempt to support their development.
Over time the heat in the pan is increased.
After a while the poor frog boils to death, unaware that the temperature is being raised on them until it is too late.
Most schools employ this strategy to force teachers to leave, turning up the heat on targeted staff until they can bear it no more ...
... and resign rather than continue to work in such a hostile environment.
It is important to read the tactics below in the context of this underlying strategy.
2. Death by Data
In an increasingly data obsessed education system, it is often data which is used to turn up the heat on teaching staff.
Every teacher and department in school now has a data trail to obsess over – and create targets from.
Often the application of unrealistic or meaningless data targets is enough to persuade teachers they would be happier elsewhere.
But even if the failure to achieve data targets proves difficult for educational leaders to demonstrate – the constant focus on this data also has a draining effect on teaching staff.
Filling our time with data related tasks and meetings, is often an effective way of driving teachers out of a profession they joined hoping to plan interesting and engaging lessons.
Don't underestimate the impact of an obsessive focus on data on your motivation to do the job.
3. Job Redesign
A common tactic employed by educational leaders wanting staff to move elsewhere is Job Redesign.
As we work in school, teachers often choose to specialise in specific areas.
We might take responsibility for the delivery of something we are particularly good at - or give our time to a cause we support.
This is common amongst teachers who have been in school a few years, and a natural way to take advantage of our best qualities.
Taking away the thing you do best and making you start again or learn something new, is a key strategy of educational leaders who might want you to resign.
This works because it can be extremely upsetting to have what you have invested your heart and soul in taken away from you.
But job redesign goes further than this ..
Job Design includes things like:
- Giving a teacher the worst possible classes
- Making you teach outside of your subject area or grade level
- Moving your job to a different part of the school – or a different school altogether
- Changing your classroom or making you move between different rooms
- Restructuring your role
- Removing your additional responsibilities
Advice if your job is being re-designed
Ultimately our teaching contracts often describe making a broad contribution to the school.
Teachers are expected to be flexible and respond to the changing needs of our students and those who manage us.
When we take on projects and specialise in specific areas this usually isn’t formalised, and therefore can’t be protected from change.
If you believe that the changes being forced upon you are contractually wrong, approach your union or an employment lawyer and see if anything can be done.
But even in cases where the school are within their rights to target you for job redesign, there are still options open to you.
Because while an individual teachers’ ability to challenge a redesign of their job might be limited, the school still needs to function effectively as a whole system.
This fact might leave some area for negotiation, particularly if you can gain the agreement of other teaching staff to a different reorganisation of your job.
You might for example ask another member of staff to swap a specific class .. or teach in a different room .. and reaching this agreement can provide an additional hurdle for leaders to jump over to impose changes upon you.
With this in mind, it's important to build and maintain positive relationships with staff in different areas of your school, to give yourself opportunities for negotiation like this.
4. Raised Expectations
In an environment where management or leadership in school wants to achieve change quickly, a key way they attempt to accomplish this is by raising expectations of teaching staff.
This is often experienced as a renewed focus on specific data points – and staff being personally responsible for their improvement.
Expectations can be unrealistic - and it often isn't by accident.
School leadership can design failure into their school improvement plans on purpose – to give them the excuse they need to pursue a department or staff member.
All too often these types of change initiatives are applied inconsistently .. conveniently targeting staff members with higher salaries or a louder voice in the staff room or teachers’ lounge.
They are clever too, because by raising your hand and questioning the new direction you appear to be resistant to positive change.
Raised expectations are particularly effective in increasing the heat on staff members, because the evidence they are based on is often observations of teaching staff carried out by leaders seeking their removal.
If you are being targeted with this tactic - you are not alone ..
In a political atmosphere hostile to the profession, schools often dress unrealistic expectations up as an attempt to better serve their students - rather than the means to move unwanted staff onto other jobs.
If teaching staff stick together it is sometimes possible to push back against unwanted or unrealistic change.
This relies on teachers remaining confident enough to express their opinions in what if often a hostile atmosphere .. designed to silence them.
5. The Sickness and Absence Policy
And so we reach the tactics associated with process and procedure which schools often use to force teachers out.
The first of these is an application of the schools' sickness and absence process.
At its core, the sickness and absence process exists to support staff who are struggling mentally or physically at work.
It often mandates several stages of support through which teaching staff will progress in any 12 month period.
Each school and each country will deal with absence differently, it’s important that you understand how your employer does this – and your rights under the system they use.
It is also worth noting that even if your school is extremely understanding now, a change of leadership or a bad inspection report can change things very quickly.
How might a school might use this to force you out?
Application of the sickness and absence policy is often the most straightforward way for a school to turn up the heat on a staff member whose face no longer fits.
Leaders do this by creating working conditions which make an employee sick for long enough that they have no option but to resign or be judged unfit to work.
It is important to realise that the level of potential threat from your employers’ sickness and absence policy is entirely down to the way this is applied in practice.
A supportive employer will apply the policy with empathy and a focus on supporting a valued staff member through a period of illness.
An unsupportive employer could use exactly the same policy to move 'unwanted' teaching staff closer to the exit door.
What to do if you are at risk of being dismissed due to sickness or absence
In the application of a sickness and absence policy to remove someone, often the devil is in the details.
- It is important that you know the policy, and your position in the sickness and absence process of your school or district.
- Make sure you document all meetings that you have with your school or doctor - and record all sickness events carefully.
- Contact your union and bring them into your sickness and absence meetings. Their role is to provide a second eye to a process which is supposed to be helping you – and in many cases they can catch the school out for skipping steps or not applying policy correctly.
- Investigate if the illness you suffer from can be classified as a disability - as this often gives you more protection from discrimination.
- Make your school aware through official channels, if the work you do is having an impact on your physical or mental health. They have a responsibility to support you well before they can seek your dismissal.
6. Capability Proceedings
Capability procedings can occur "where a member of staff fails consistently to perform their duties to a professionally acceptable standard" (NEU)
This is often used as a threat by management in schools – and its potential implications on teaching staff are huge.
Being judged incapable to teach and sacked as a result, can impact future employability and is taken seriously by potential future employers.
Indeed, in the UK it is a schools' responsibility by law to tell future employers of capability procedings against anyone applying to work for them.
As a result, it is essential for teaching staff to be aware of exactly how the capability process in their school works.
It is also important to realise that the hoops a school has to jump through to prove a staff member incapable of doing their job, are often onerous and expensive.
The vast majority of schools who threaten 'capability' in official meetings do so as a threat which, in reality, they rarely want to carry out.
Instead they use it is a way to turn up the heat on a staff member who is then more likely to submit to an easier (and cheaper) exit route down the line.
7. Gross Misconduct / Suspension
In the UK, GOV.UK state that "Gross misconduct includes incidents such as theft, physical violence, gross negligence or serious insubordination"
Such incidences of gross misconduct are rare amongst teachers.
The vast majority of rules and protections designed to protect our students are supported and followed wholeheartedly by teaching staff.
However, it is important to recognise a grey area which is increasingly being used by schools to control and silence influential staff members.
The first step in a case of misconduct is the suspension of the staff member concerned, while the case is investigated.
A suspended teacher isn't allowed to communicate with students or staff at school during this investigation – and often management are able to give the impression of guilt internally without needing to prove it.
Being suspended as a teacher implies some truly awful possibilities and the suspended staff member is often left isolated and damaged by the process - regardless of their innocence or guilt.
The majority of cases like this are 'settled' before gross misconduct proceedings conclude, either because evidence is absent or because staff decide to protect themselves by resigning, rather than risk being tainted by an investigation carried out by those who want them out.
By applying threats of gross misconduct strategically, educational leaders often seek to silence dissent in other staff.
A staff body who is scared they might be targeted next won't risk complaining at changes they don't agree with.
As a result of this grey area, teaching staff should be very familiar with the policies of the school, as they evolve - and treat them as potential hazards designed to trip them up.
One recent example of this is schools growing use of their social media policy in this respect - which can be easy to fall foul of unwittingly.
It is also wise to consider what your actions will look like to a new leader arriving in school looking for any excuse to get rid of unwanted teaching staff.
How to Protect Yourself Against Workplace Bullying in School
Given the current hostile working environment in many schools ..
.. to protect yourself against workplace bullying, teaching staff should develop a healthy scepticism of leadership and the motives behind any changes happening at work.
Many staff targeted by these type of bullying tactics express surprise at their use - and remark that they didn't see it coming.
Your good natured commitment to the students and school you work for make you more vulnerable to bullying than you might realise.
>> If you are being targeted by educational leaders, it is sensible to:
- Be very aware of your school and district's policies and procedures - and your rights to being treated fairly within them.
- Know the discrimination laws in your state or country and how they apply at school level.
- Know the terms of your teaching contract and what implications this has on the demands being made of you
- Seek help and advice from unions, and have someone accompany you in official meetings. A second eye is useful in situations where you will feel emotional and under pressure.
- And most important of all .. keep records of all communications, email and meetings - make notes of what was discussed and decided, yourself.
If you find yourself being targeted by your school employer, typically leaders will attempt to put pressure on you through an application of rules and procedures.
Often they will attempt to jump through the process as quickly as they can .. and a keen eye for detail can slow them down, or stop them altogether.
How to Make the Decision to Leave
Standing your ground is admirable, but ultimately if school want to make your working life as difficult as they can - it will have an impact on your life, health and happiness.
If your face no longer fits, it is natural to feel angry and agrieved .. particularly if you've given a lot to the school and it's students.
Minimising the damage that this process has on you is important, and an understanding of the emotions you might be feeling is useful in doing this.
And if you want a safe place to share how you feel, our Facebook group is full of teachers with similar experiences .. you can request membership here.
I truly hope your experience of education reflects none of the above.
Many schools are supportive and rewarding places to work, and the job you do each day is so important for our collective future.
In case you haven't heard it recently - thank you.