National bullying week: it's time to take a stand

Bullying is on the rise in teaching - and it's not just the weak who are the target, explains Louisa Leaman
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The Independent Online

According to recent research, workplace bullying is on the rise, with millions of working days being lost to stress and anxiety annually. The problem is thought to be most widespread within the caring professions, and notably within teaching.

It seems incongruent that, in an environment that actively seeks to prevent conflict between pupils, bullying should be so prevalent among staff. Perhaps the general stress within the education profession may help to explain this; put people under pressure and they will not get along as peacefully as they might have otherwise. But regardless of this, the situation is unacceptable. I may be a little sensitive, because I have had first-hand experience.

Some years ago, I joined a school in London. Apprehensive about what I had let myself in for, I was relieved to meet my line manager, Jo, another confident young female teacher, who had been appointed as curriculum coordinator. We bonded immediately. We were both hard workers, but both liked to have fun. I was impressed and inspired by her sense of drive, and found working with her easy.

After 18 months, however, things were drastically different and, to this day, I have never understood why. It took me a long time to realise that I was being bullied. This was partly because I was confused by Jo's manner - the initial change happened quite suddenly. One day she just stopped talking to me, both at work and socially. She pointedly ignored me, as though I'd done her some terrible injustice. I thought it was my fault. I wanted us to talk, but each time I tried to start a conversation, she walked away.

Over time, her hurt manner turned to a scowl, and instead of behaving like the injured party, she was now investing her energies into making me feel miserable. Her actions were never overt, but they were continuous, like a dripping tap. Little things: odd criticisms of my schoolwork written on Post-its and stuck to my desk; shutting the door whenever I happened to walk past her classroom; new "rules" just for me about when I could and couldn't take my breaks.

It also seemed that the rest of my colleagues were turning against me. She would be laughing with them in the staff room, but as soon as I walked in, there was uncomfortable silence. I was feeling increasingly alienated, but also disempowered. I couldn't do anything about it. I couldn't confront her. My self esteem had been battered.

When it finally dawned on me that I was being bullied, I was shocked. I had always thought of myself as a confident, happy individual: not the type to be a victim, or to be weak - but now I was questioning myself. I searched the internet and found comfort in an article, which suggested that victims of bullying are just as likely to be targeted for their qualities, as well as their perceived weaknesses. They have something that the bully "wants".

I eventually plucked up the courage to talk to senior management. They were sympathetic, said they had noticed there was an "atmosphere", and that they would monitor it. Unfortunately, the anxiety had already got the better of me. I found myself constantly trembling and feeling sick. I also developed chronic insomnia, to the point where I was coming into work and falling asleep under my desk. The crunch point came when I collapsed, and was sent to my GP, who diagnosed stress and signed me off for six weeks.

I contacted my union, and the school tried to arrange several reconciliation meetings - all of which Jo refused to attend. It seemed that they were just as scared of her as I was, because they let her call the shots. I decided to leave, and I think they were quietly relieved, because it solved their problem.

Without the energy to pursue a legal case, I got over the experience, although it took time. The worst thing was the debilitating insomnia. I now teach part-time, and have a successful career as a writer. My life is great. Maybe this is the best revenge I could have. But I recently found out that Jo had been asked to leave the school where we worked, after other bullying incidents. I am glad they finally stood up to her. It is time to blow the whistle on the workplace bully.

If you have a problem with bullying at work, go to www.workplacebully.co.uk

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