A Different Slant on Bullying
Educators are sometimes victims, too, and the bully is often an administrator or colleague.
By James J. Fedderman, PhD
I think of myself as an excellent teacher. I’ve never been the kind who reads a child’s cumulative file before I meet him or her, or questions administrators about previous discipline concerns, or talks to others about what little James could not or would not do because he was so bad. Since I began teaching in 1998, working with students from pre-K all the way to high school seniors, I have never written a discipline referral for a classroom management issue because a child disrupted the learning process. All my students demonstrate measurable growth every year. Even students who have been moved from another teacher’s class to mine because of discipline or other issues have been able to thrive academically, socially, cognitively and emotionally, gaining the confidence and skills to demonstrate mastery that exceeds the school division’s expectations. My students respect me and will perform any academic task placed before them. On any given day, they’re actively engaged and appropriately and effectively responding to higher-order thinking questions, which has been documented in all of my formal administrative observations.
However, even with this track record of success, I am constantly questioned by administrators about certain students, often harassed, and I have received letters and e mails of reprimand. In short, I have been the victim of professional bullying.
Why would a fellow educator do this? Instead of tampering with my enthusiasm and motivation to make a daily difference, why not engage me in a meaningful conversation about how I’m able to achieve documented success for my students? What can possibly be gained, either for educators or students, by attempting to intimidate me?
When we think about bullying in schools, our minds quickly go to students picking on each other, and to issues such as when and how to intervene in order to promote and preserve a safe learning environment.
But the often-overlooked truth about bullying is that it also happens between professionals. We hear very little about colleague-to-colleague bullying or administrator-to-teacher bullying, but I can tell you that such bullying is definitely happening in our schools.
The stress level in education is constantly going up: There’s the pressure associated with making Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind, the pressure of helping create impressive student scores on Standards of Learning tests, the pressure of being expected to overcome family and economic problems faced by our students—it’s becoming almost unbearable. And the pressure is systemic in that state officials are putting pressure on division superintendents who are putting pressure on central office staff and building-level administrators who are putting pressure on school staff members. All of us have to accept our responsibilities regarding student achievement—and all of us have to be accountable for how we respond to the pressure created by those responsibilities.
Under no circumstances should a teacher ever be yelled at, even if that teacher has made a clear mistake. Does yelling or degrading another professional contribute anything toward solving the problem? Not at all. If a student yells at a teacher or shows any sign or gesture of disrespect, he or she gets an immediate disciplinary referral and there are consequences for the behavior. But if administrators do the same to teachers, many consider their behavior acceptable. There must be a level of individual and organizational respect, and it must be mutual: It’s not acceptable for a teacher to be blatantly disrespectful to an administrator, either.
In a best-case scenario, every child would enter school with the readiness skills to work at or above grade level, but clearly that’s not the reality we face today. However, whether students are appropriately ready to learn or not, it’s our job to teach them effectively. When benchmark or test score data comes out, it often does not reflect the barriers teachers face on a day-to-day basis. Nonetheless, such data is often used as the sole measure of a teacher’s ability to teach and the students’ ability to learn. So, when an administrator and a teacher sit down for a post-data conference, the result can be that both of them come away questioning the teacher’s effectiveness. This can put an administrator who has a less-than-ideal management style or amount of people skills in a difficult situation. But he or she must keep in mind that teachers are the heartbeat of instruction and the frontline defense for mitigating learning gaps and deficits in student achievement—so by guiding, supporting and encouraging them, students will ultimately benefit. And isn’t that what we’re all here for?
The true meaning of teaching and learning is to make a daily difference in the life of our students, to help them become thinkers, doers and successful members of their communities. However, when some teachers don’t seem to be meeting the expectations of some administrators, the first step should be high-quality professional development in the area of perceived weakness. Professional development should be for further honing of classroom skills—not, as some administrators seem to think, the fast lane to documentation that ultimately leads to a plan of assistance, a letter of reprimand, a letter of concern, a chew-out session, a power struggle, a recommendation for nonrenewal and, eventually, termination, not necessarily in that order. How is a threatening letter or a morale-busting lecture supposed to improve the quality of instruction? In some instances, after being called “on the carpet” and perhaps being brought to tears and professionally humiliated, how can a novice or even an experienced educator perform in the classroom as if nothing happened? I don’t think it’s possible. Every teacher (and student) has feelings.
We need our administrators to work with us. It’s their job to help us help our students. Our job is to prepare and lead our students, not to be scrutinized and professionally tormented by the king or queen bee of the educational hive. Stand up for yourself, just as you do for your students, and do everything possible not to allow yourself to become a victim of professional bullying. But, if it happens despite your best efforts, here are some steps you can take:
• Get in touch with your local VEA UniServ Director. He or she is a professional trained to be your advocate.
• If your UniServ Director recommends it, follow the grievance procedure outlined by your school division. Its reason for being there is to help school employees address workplace problems.
• Do not respond verbally or in writing while you are emotional; you probably won’t be at your best and may say or do something that will exacerbate the situation.
• Refrain from contacting individual members of your local school board. They may appear supportive, but they don’t work for you. VEA staff members work for you.
• Ask your UniServ Director to accompany you when a meeting is scheduled. You don’t have to face this alone.
• Don’t share your situation with others and do not include what someone may have told you. Again, this may just exacerbate things.
• If you choose to write a letter of rebuttal, have someone read it before you submit it (preferably your UniServ Director as he or she will be able to objectively evaluate the facts of the situation).
• When you have followed all the recommendations you’ve been given and done everything you know to resolve the issue, let it go!
Dr. Fedderman (email@example.com), is a choral music teacher at Arcadia Middle School and Arcadia High School and is president of the Accomack Education Association. He’s planning a formal study on professional bullying in Virginia public schools, so feel free to e-mail your comments to him.
A Very Real ISSUE
If you think the kinds of incidents described in James Fedderman’s article are extremely rare in public schools, you may need to think again.
Last year, together with researchers from Johns Hopkins University, the NEA conducted a national bullying study. Among the findings: 29 percent of teachers say they’ve been bullied by an administrator and 45 percent by another staff member. Education support professionals reported a 39 percent bullying rate from administrators and 46 percent from fellow staff members.
In the broader working world, according to a 2011 survey taken by CareerBuilder, bullying plays out in the workplace in many ways:
• 43 percent of workers say their comments were dismissed or not acknowledged;
• 40 percent claim they were falsely accused of mistakes;
• 38 percent say they were harshly criticized;
• 38 percent report they were forced into doing work that really wasn’t their job; and
• 37 percent claim standards and policies applied to them were not used on others.
In addition, just over 30 percent say they were given “mean looks” and 24 percent say their bosses yelled at them in front of coworkers.
The majority neither confront nor report the bully.
“We are where we were with sexual harassment 10 to 15 years ago,” says Judy Skorek, associate professor of counselor education and director of clinical training at Concordia University Chicago. “We know it’s wrong. We know we need to address it, and it’s been out there for a long time.”