Let's Be Honest: Professional Bullying in Schools Is a Thing
By Angie Miller
A teacher recently told me about the ridicule she faced when speaking to an audience of teachers at her school. During her presentation, one colleague leaned back in his seat, ripped her handout into squares, crumpled two squares into small balls, stuffed them in his ears, and stared at her with crossed arms.
Horrible, right? But—if we are honest—not unfamiliar. Sometimes as teachers, we are not nice to one another.
Who among us has not facilitated meetings while other teachers have engaged in continuous eye rolling and commentary? And it doesn't just happen in meetings. Fellow teachers have disparaged me to parents when I wasn't around. Unhappy about articles I'd written, one colleague left menacing, anonymous notes in my mailbox threatening to get me fired.
When a teacher lives in fear of confrontation, ridicule or being talked about, this is professional bullying.
I do not want to malign our profession. Most educators I have worked with want to support one another. We encourage each other to try new things, taking risks, and strive for collegial conversations that challenge ideas and perceptions. In a profession that gets raked over the coals by others outside the field, it is uncomfortable to acknowledge this reality that pulses in our own hallways out of sight of parents and administrators.
We would not tolerate this behavior from our students. So I'm asking, why do we allow it to happen to us?
Professional bullying takes many forms. One of the most dangerous? When dominant teachers attempt to coerce colleagues into their way of teaching, a way that does not always play to the strengths of all teachers or benefit all students. I'm ashamed to admit that I have implemented classroom practices that didn't feel right to me. I coped with this in the same way many have: feign compliance, close door, and stop collaborating. When I do this, I contribute to the building's hemorrhaging toxicity, defensively keeping my practices only within the walls of my classroom.
How do we change a bullying school culture? I have some ideas about where to start.
- First recognize sensitivity to criticism. Teaching is one of the few professions that is part of our identity. When we feel under fire, we feel criticized. Instead of hearing "let's get better together!" we hear "you aren't good enough." This builds resentment in a building. Understanding this basic concept can help you approach colleagues better.
- Lead by example. Be the person who never utters a negative word to others. Put cards on desks, smile in the hallway, inquire about families at the copier, make meals during hard times, tell colleagues when you hear the kids say something wonderful about them. Affirm, affirm, affirm. Choose not be a contributor to toxicity.
- Ask for help. Recognize what your colleagues are good at and ask them to give you advice. When people feel recognized and valued, they let their guards down and allow for vulnerability. And vulnerability is always necessary for growth.
- Gather your allies. Most likely the professional bullies hold power that is inconsistent with their numbers. Take stock of who among your colleagues are most excited for change, intellectually curious, and passionate about educational issues. Collaborate with them. Celebrate those teachers and you will slowly change the tone and emotional energy of the building.
- Call out bullying when it happens to you. Think of how we expect kids to handle bullying—we expect them to say to their classmates, "I don't like that. Stop." This is nerve-wracking and most of us avoid conflict. But when we privately pull another colleague aside and say, "My feelings were hurt today when you did this. Can you tell me what I've done to upset you?" their poor behavior is called into question. Every single time I have had a conversation like this with a colleague, the air has cleared—every single time.
This year let's commit to making our schools no-bullying zones. Let's practice with our colleagues what we preach to our students.
Angie Miller is the 2011 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, a TED presenter and a National Geographic Teacher Fellow. A freelance writer and school librarian, Angie can be followed at www.thecontrarianlibrarian and @angieinlibrary.