Secret Teacher: bullies lurk in the staffroom too

Nov 18, 2013 by

There’s plenty of awareness of and support for bullying among students, but what happens when teachers are the targets?

Kerry hated a lot of things. Cyclists. Channel 4. Simon Armitage’s poetry. But what Kerry hated most of all was young teachers – arrogant, irresponsible and idle, the lot of them.

This wasn’t a notion that we – the staff of an English department almost entirely populated by under-30-year-olds – developed of our own accord. It was a firmly-held view that was regularly aired throughout the unpleasant year I spent as Kerry’s colleague.

I had been genuinely excited about her arrival. In my three years of teaching, our department had always been chaotic, largely because it was overseen by a gentle mother hen who was as well-meaning as she was disorganised.

Pupils were given the wrong assessment questions, data was accidentally deleted and a cloud of panic permanently hung over our muddled, over-crowded office. So when the prospect of a new second-in-charge was presented, we were optimistic. Would Kerry be the organised, inspirational leader we’d been crying out for? No.

The doom set in quickly. Department meetings were transformed from lengthy sessions of tea, biscuits and chatter into bitter diatribes about our poor practice. Challenges were brushed off with an unwavering egotism – the phrase “and how would you know?” was a favourite – while new ideas were simply squashed.

Our pitch for shared planning was dismissed as laziness. The behaviour issues we raised were nothing more than signs of our inability to control a class. When one of Kerry’s essays was moved down a grade in moderation, she was so enraged that she stormed out and drove home. We quickly found the way to get through was to keep quiet and try not to cry. We often failed.

When I was promoted to key stage four co-ordinator at Christmas, things got nasty. Savvy teenage bullies locate their taunting on Facebook and Twitter. For Kerry, it was staff webmail, with the reply all button as her weapon of choice. I would send schemes of work to the department and receive a response moments later insisting on some fatal, idiotic flaw. I would post long-term outlines only to receive a flat-out refusal to teach Of Mice And Men. When I proposed switching exam boards, she copied the entire management team into the email calling me “a cheat”.

She was pushing me, and I was stumbling. I started to doubt every decision I made. I had always been well organised, but I began triple checking the most minute of details with her voice ringing in my mind. I would lay awake in bed with my heart racing because a meeting was scheduled for the next day.

There were times when – probably due to exhaustion – it all seemed quite hilarious. I stifled a giggle when she refused to share a worksheet as it was her “intellectual property”. When she interrupted the headteacher during a professional development session to point out a spelling error, I almost turned blue fighting the urge to burst out laughing.

But things were becoming more and more difficult. On the advice of my union rep, I started to keep a diary of our interactions. Looking back now, from a distance of time and a new school, I can hardly believe what I tolerated:

• May 2. Kerry told me to “read the fucking mark scheme”.

• May 21. Kerry said I was “disgusting” when I asked about payment for weekend revision classes.

• May 30. A year 10 pupil said Kerry had been telling her class that I don’t know what I’m doing.

When I think about it now, I question my own sanity more than hers. I am assertive and assured in every other aspect of my life, and yet I allowed her to kick the confidence right out of me.

Another (recently promoted) colleague was suffering the same treatment, so we took our concerns to the head of department. She shrugged them off with the phrase: “That’s just Kerry”. When we escalated the problem to management, they insisted the issue was our all-female department. The deputy head suggested employing a man to “sort you ladies out”.

So we took the only sensible option, and left. Six of our 10-person department resigned that year. On the last day we sat in the park, swapping horror stories over beers. The poor girl who’d been Kerry’s mentee had been told she’d failed an observation in front of her class. Another had ended up in tears when Kerry followed her, shouting, into the car park.

As we vented, at long last, there was a sense that if we had come together before, organised ourselves better, we could have taken her on. But we were inexperienced, intimidated and, ultimately, drained from the day-to-day battles we had to fight.

It’s tempting to try and salvage some great significance from the experience. I wish I could say Kerry taught me a useful lesson about myself or the profession, but all I limped away with was disbelief at how hostile a workplace can be. To anyone in the same position, I can only offer my version of the 3Rs – record it, report it, and if that doesn’t work, run.

This week’s Secret Teacher works in London.

via Secret Teacher: bullies lurk in the staffroom too | Teacher Network | Guardian Professional.

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