Bullying, Abuse and Toxic Leadership: It's Not Just for Celebrities

Hello everyone!

You know what's really upsetting?  When someone responsible for something you loved and recommended turns out to be a nightmare.  If you haven't heard the latest celebrity scandal, the man behind classics like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Toy Story and even Alien Resurrection, Joss Whedon has been called out for being [for legal reasons, I have to say 'allegedly'] a bit of a predatory creep.  If not that, then definitely a bully.

I'm so glad that the women involved have spoken up about it now but it is such a shame they didn't feel they could do at the time it was happening.  It isn't right now and it certainly wasn't right then.

But it's not just in celebrity land that this sort of thing happens.  Sadly, it is all too present in the provincial world of education as well.  From domineering leaders to people who shouldn't be around grown adults, let alone children, British schools feature some of the most repulsively behaved individuals.  And it's time we spoke up about it.

Pic: https://www.hracuity.com

I've been told that I had been gaslighted in previous schools but, I guess by the nature of gaslighting, I didn't realise it at the time.  Looking back, being told that there was no point in applying for more senior positions because I was never leaving my Year 6 role should have been a red flag.  However, there have been other, more obvious examples.

I was welcomed into one school with a promise of Phase Leadership, English Coordinator role and a guaranteed higher salary than the teaching agency had agreed (provided I didn't say anything to the agency), in return for an internal exploration on why the school was having difficulty recruiting new staff.  This should have been my first clue.  When the Headteacher is willing to lie in order to save money on staff, something is wrong.  Alas, it played into my ego and I signed up.

Other red flags were my first PPA covered lesson wherein I was told by one of the children that the teacher covering me (the Deputy Head, no less) openly criticised my teaching and outright said to the children that I 'couldn't be bothered' to do things 'properly.'  I had been there for a week.  How do I know that the children were telling the truth?  Because I called her out on it in the following SLT meeting.  

Obviously, she denied the whole thing but when I said that I assumed that was the case, after all, she was not only a professional but also my superior and wouldn't dream of doing something so underhanded to a new colleague, she kept asking which child had told me.  I said that I would deal with the child in question and that she didn't need to worry about it any further.

She refused to cover my lessons from then on.  Which resulted in me not having PPA time for a month.  When I raised this concern with the Head, I was told that I had brought it on myself!  

Pic: verywellmind.com

Another time, same school, one of the children needed a new pencil to write with.  I went to the supply cupboard and couldn't find any.  I went to the school office and, after a few awkward glances around the room, I was told that the pencils were kept in the Head's office and I would have to ask her directly for replacements.  So I did.  I'm not kidding when I tell you that she kept the entire supply of pencils in a box under her desk.  When I said that I needed a few I was grilled on:

  • exactly how much the children had been writing
  • how they had been handling the pencils
  • precisely how often I would be expecting to have my pencils replaced

and further to this, to obtain the replacement pencil the child in question would have to:

  • take their current pencil to the Head
  • explain why they couldn't take care of school property
  • agree to bring in their own pencil if they needed one within the next ten weeks

I wish I was joking.

I asked around the various members of staff to see if this was a new thing or a male thing (there was only one other male teacher in the school and he was the constant butt of jokes and put-downs) or if there was any kind of rationale behind the behaviour.  There wasn't.  

There was a Year 3 teacher who was fairly new to the profession.  She had been struggling with a rather difficult class and ended most of her days in tears.  This very junior teacher was the subject of many jokes in SLT meetings.  They even had a little nickname for her: The Useless One.  How lovely.  I was told that she had been useless since the day she was hired, two years ago.  When I asked how much support she had been given in that time, I was laughed at and told that there was no sense in wasting money on support because it wouldn't make any difference.  

Another teacher ended almost every other day in tears because her books were never 'up to scratch'.  Another quit mid-term because she, as a subject coordinator, was told what she could and couldn't implement.  Successes were attributed to the Head, failures were left at her feet.

If wasn't just members of staff that got the treatment.  Parents were also subjected to cliques and freeze-outs, with the Head refusing to see parents of children she had disciplined.  One child - a nine-year-old - was denied playtimes for a whole year because of something they had done in September.

On and on it went.  

In a private meeting, I told her the truth of it: she was a bullyIt was not met with grace.  I explained my reasons ('bully' is not a term I use lightly) and even suggested that it, perhaps, was a problem with the school atmosphere.  Clearly, this behaviour had been enabled in some way - people weren't standing up for themselves and this was the first time (according to her) that she had been accused of this.

Pic: themuse.com

Now, I'm not sure exactly what I expected but her reaction was to instantly belittle me.  I was told how much of a luxury it must be to 'waste time with idle gossip'.  I reminded her that part of my agreed role was to explore why the school couldn't recruit and a big part of that investigation was speaking to staff members and finding out what they thought of the school.  Then I gave her my evaluation of the situation.  She had been asking the wrong question.  The problem wasn't why couldn't the school recruit? the problem was why couldn't the school retain?  The answer, I told her plainly, was her.  

She suggested that, if I was so upset about the situation, I should just leave and was surprised when I said I would.  I would wait until the end of the academic year (because I liked my class and, quite frankly, feared for their emotional wellbeing; this woman was not beyond vindictiveness) and then leave.  And boy howdy was the rest of my year rough.

I had my PPA cut.  My books were scrutinised every week.  I was told that my lessons required improvement (despite an Ofsted inspector commending them).  I was given extra playtime duty.  If I arrived after 7:30 in the morning, I was called into the office.  If I left before 6:00 pm, I was called on my phone.  I was told that my children were falling behind despite the fact that they achieved not only higher SATs results than the other Year 6 class but the highest the school had seen for years.  It was hell.  

Eventually, the final few weeks of the year came and I finally managed to get hold of the Head Governor.  I had been emailing and phoning for weeks with no response.  I requested (well, demanded but this point) an exit interview - something I had never done in the past.  He was quite shocked and took some persuading.  He didn't actually know that I was leaving.  When the meeting rolled around, I presented my case to the governor.  And I mean, I had everything written down and evidenced - I wasn't taking any chances.  He as surprised and said that he really should have made more visits during the years.  That he tended to just phone the school and ask if things were okay.

Like I said, a very enabling environment.

Anyway, I said my piece and left.  It had become the stiff of staff room gossip and when people asked me what was going on, I told them the truth of it.  It wasn't until two or three years later, when I was working as an educational consultant for a tech start-up, that I heard anything else about it.  By chance, the other teacher working as a consultant was the lead arbiter in a disciplinary case, the centre of which was the bully Head. It turns out that, since I had left, more and more staff members had spoken out against the treatment at the school and the Head was now being told to retire.  

In another school, one that was being 'soft'-federated (there was nothing soft about it - it was a takeover and regime change), red flags could be spotted fairly soon. The serving Head was 'advised' to retire two years earlier than they had initially planned.  During their final weeks at the school, the new executive Head ordered a mock inspection, which ended up grading the school and all the staff as inadequate.  How embarrassing for them when the real Ofsted arrived a week later and graded the school as 'good with outstanding features.'  Unfortunately, this didn't matter as much as the mock inspection (which, by the way, was conducted via a company in which the executive Head had interests.  Just sayin'...).  

The staff were told that they weren't good enough.  Book scrutinies continued until they found individual pages that weren't marked (although, in some cases, this was fictionalised anyway.  My books, all of which were marked and up to date, were reported as being 'ignored for months' with no explanation as to what 'attention' in this context meant).  It was a classic case of abusive and toxic leadership.  Incidentally, when the Ofsted report was announced, the executive Head took the credit saying that was her three days on-site that achieved it! 

The following September, the incumbent Head had retied and the exec Head was in charge (the Head of School she had appointed - a friend of hers - would not be able to start until April.  She was, of course, being paid just the same).  I was part of the SLT and every suggestion I had was either belittled, countered or just plain ignored, even when I encouraged the others to give the new approaches a try, and suggested ways in which I could see things working.  

Pic: themannellias.com

One memorable exchange was when the SLT were being told to try a new way of teaching maths.  The assistant Head called me out as being very keen on trying new things.  Sounds great, right?  Some support from other teachers.  Well, the exec Head turned about and said that they didn't need a Maverick stirring things up!  To be clear, a) I hadn't said a word; and b) it had been suggested that I was the most likely to roll with the new changes!  I was also called paranoid when I called out the individualised treatment I received, like my Meet the Parents session being observed while nobody else's was.  Or my books being looked at every week although nobody else's were.  Or the daily 'visits' the exec Head would pay to my classroom.  You get the picture.

Eventually, things became so toxic and antagonistic that I had to leave, which is a story for another day.

But this happens.  I just have to find a school with a management structure I can get on with, right?  It's probably my fault, anyway?  I guess there was just a clash of personalities, or maybe I had misinterpreted what was said?  

That's how they get away with it.  From the stars of Buffy to a lowly Year 6 teacher, people are unwilling to believe that those in charge are capable of being in the wrong.  Worse, they are often in control of what happens next.  When I left the school, I managed to arrange for an agreed reference but I know other people who have had to leave the school and have received terrible references.  Good teachers unable to find another job due to a vindictive and spiteful leader being dishonest on a tick-box form.  And for those of you out there thinking 'it's illegal to give a negative reference' it's not.  Former employers can outright refuse to provide one, which sends a message in itself.  However, they can also be as liberal with the truth as they desire.  And there's very little you can do about it.  While you do have a legal right to contest a reference, your employer has a legal right to not show it to you.  Even if they do and you manage to call it out for being false, you still have to get a reference from somewhere else, and with more and more schools being federated or academised, a single person can shut and lock and lot of doors.

If anyone is out there thinking 'well, maybe they deserved a bad reference?  Maybe they were treated in that way because they did something to warrant it?', I say shame on you.  Victim blaming is not the way forwards.  Contributing to someone's low self-esteem is not the way forwards.  If a child makes an allegation against an adult, no matter how unlikely it is, that allegation is followed through.  It's investigated.  And it should be.  But the same should be true for adults.  Yes, there are whistleblowing procedures but again, once that whistle has been blown, there are consequences, and more often than not, the people in control of those consequences are the people against whom the complaint has been made.  So people keep quiet.  They keep their heads down.  They get on with it until they convince themselves that they are the problem.

Pic: workplacementalhealth.org

As a victim of this system, it saddens me.  As an observer that it still happens, it maddens me.  It is not my intention to jump on a bandwaggon nor to use the pain of others to further my aims.  But I think we should take inspiration from their bravery to stand up to our abusers.  It doesn't have to be a big public TikTok phenomenon.  It can be as simple as a private meeting with the Head Governor.  Sometimes, maybe it is a misunderstanding, in which case, both parties have a right to be made aware of it.  Sometimes though, it isn't.  It is bullying.  It is abuse and it needs to be stopped.

If you have ever been the subject of bullying in the workplace, have ever had to, or are currently working in a toxic environment, or if you know someone who is, speak up.  Talk to someone you trust.  Arrange a meeting with witnesses.  Mental Health Awareness week (in the USA) is in October but you shouldn't have to wait that long to be heard.  Say something.  I've been through it a couple of times and I know a lot of others who have been through similar and worse.  If you want to talk to someone, even if it's just to check that what you're experiencing is wrong (sometimes we're not sure), I'm always ready to listen.  You can reach me via any of the links at the end of this post.

The very sad truth is that three out of every five teachers I have spoken to have admitted to being either the subject of workplace abuse or are aware of it happening to others.  It's not the exception.  If we start standing together, maybe we can one day make it a cautionary tale of yesterday.  

Thanks for reading all of this - it's quite a long post, I know.  There was a lot I cut out, truth be told (there's a fine line between blogging and catharsis!).  I mean what I've said though, if you or someone you know is experiencing abuse at work, I am more than happy to speak and share how I managed to get out relatively unscathed.

Until next time, stay safe and look out for each other!

Carl Headley-Morris

tragiclantern@gmail.com            @Mr_M_Musings            Carl's Learning Place