Teaching victimhood

Why words are hurting in the staffroom.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

I was happy to leave hair-pulling, spitting, and kicking shins under the desk, behind me when I left primary school. Name-calling did carry on into secondary school. Talking about people behind their backs, I’m embarrassed to admit, continued for a lot longer.

One of the benefits of maturity is the ability to negotiate relationships without resorting to bullying or sulking. Yet, according to recent surveys, bullying at work is on the increase. Apparently, one in four employees have experienced bullying in the workplace (1). This figure rises dramatically for people who work in education – a survey published by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) union claims that over half of teachers and lecturers are being bullied at work (2).

One in every two teachers is, apparently, a victim of bullying and the perpetrators are, well, take your pick: pupils, colleagues, parents, governors or the Senior Management Team.

Can it really be the case that half of all teaching staff in the country are turning up for work nervous and fearful of the violence and intimidation the coming day could bring? Are pupils and parents really so terrible they can reduce grown-up professionals to quivering wrecks?

One of the problems with bullying, as teachers will know, is that the definition of what constitutes an act of bullying has become diluted. Forget throwing punches and demanding money with menace – bullying today is defined as leaving people out of discussions, not acknowledging someone’s feelings or disrespecting a person’s culture.

In the world of adult teachers, common experiences of bullying may include ‘constant trivial nit-picking and destructive criticism, combined with a refusal to value or acknowledge performance and achievements’ (3). Most people enjoy receiving praise, but as competent and confident adults, our need for the constant ‘Good boy, well done’-style reassurance I give my four-year-old should lessen.

The definition of bullying has been so broad that posters on the Times Educational Supplement (TES) staffroom bulletin board can agree, ‘If the person truly believes they are being bullied…then they are’. And as the many contributors to this particular discussion thread testify, there are an awful lot of people who believe they are being bullied (4).

So why are so many workers ready to see themselves as victims of bullying – and why does this trend seem so emphasised in teaching?

Minor irritations, such as lack of praise, are inflated into major issues, which are then labelled as bullying. One explanation for this may be the growth in general awareness of the issue of bullying. Teachers have been at the forefront of this trend. As a teacher, I taught personal and social education (PSE) lessons and organised assemblies on bullying; taught in a classroom displaying the school’s anti-bullying charter (the punishment for pupils behaving badly was to copy it out); and used English lessons to cover stories and poetry on the theme of bullying.

A hypersensitivity begins to develop – you soon start to see examples of bullying everywhere. When you become so used to viewing relationships through the paradigm of bully and victim it is, perhaps, only natural that this gets carried into the staffroom.

The problem is exacerbated by teachers’ loss of professional authority. Teachers are dictated not just what to teach, but also how to teach – and an increasing emphasis on accountability suggests a lack of trust in the ability of teachers to carry out what is expected of them. Relationships between teachers and management have become increasingly formalised, to the extent that there are almost as many rules and codes of conduct for staff as there are for pupils.

At my last school I was presented with a huge file detailing everything from the time I was allowed to leave the school site and the time I could take for my lunch to the number of days off work I would be permitted in case of the death of a spouse (one less than the death of a child, in case you’re interested). If teachers are treated like pupils, it is hardly surprising that teachers are quick to see problems in the same way as the pupils have been taught to view theirs.

There are also real problems in schools. Teachers talk about having demanding timetables, few resources, unrealistic targets, disruptive pupils and excessive paperwork. In the past, teaching unions would have fought for better working conditions, and if there had been a problem in a particular school the union representative would have met with the headteacher. The collective power of a strong union would have given teachers confidence in arguing their corner. Attending union meetings led people to see that many others faced similar problems to them and a political solution was needed.

Without this understanding, problems become internalised and individuals increasingly isolated. Problems with the profession as a whole become interpreted as problems between individuals. Today the unions are at the forefront of encouraging teachers to see themselves as victims, offering counselling helplines and advice on dealing with bullies.

An unexpected consequence of the lack of strong union representation is that senior management aren’t under pressure to mediate their aims. In the past, heads and deputy headteachers would have been conscious of the threat of union retaliation, and this thought would have been at the back of their minds when dealing with members of staff.

The present trend for head teachers to display ‘league tables’ of staff absenteeism rates, for example, would have been very unlikely to happen. Likewise the practice of ‘naming and shaming’ particular subject departments and individual teachers for poor performance would not have occurred. When senior management does not have to worry about a collective response from the staffroom, its pronouncements can appear more like bullyboy tactics.

And, to a certain extent, school managers have lost the common aims necessary for purposeful leadership. Few schools have a genuinely shared vision their educational mission. Paper mission statements are a poor substitute for a sense of staff working together to improve the lot of working-class children, or to educate an elite or promote social equality.

When the purpose of schooling becomes one of meeting government targets it is easy for a ‘them and us’ atmosphere to arise. Headteachers arguably have more at stake in meeting the targets, while some members of staff are paid more for teaching a shortage subject or for passing through the hoops of performance-related pay. All this further contributes to the perception of isolation for individual teachers and the feeling of being bullied.

When real problems are viewed as personal incidences of bullying, when minor annoyances are inflated to major issues, and when senior staff really do act in an unmediated bullying fashion, it is hardly surprising that one in two teachers consider themselves to be victims.

However, while teachers are concerned with displaying their credentials as victims it is less likely that they will find solutions to the problems facing education today. Crying into a telephone counselling line at midnight helps nobody. Standing up for yourself, being taken seriously and recognising which problems are shared by the entire education system at least provides a start.

Joanna Williams is a former English teacher, and has written for Early Years publications and the Times Educational Supplement.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) Research published by UMIST in April 2000, quoted in TES, 21 June 2002

ATL survey reveals widespread bullying of teachers, ATL, 12 April 2003

(3) ‘Staffroom Bullying’, Tim Field, TES, 21 June 2002

(4) See the TES staffroom

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Topics Politics


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