Many of us in education grew up in a time where bullying was just seen as part of everyday life - something nearly everyone must endure as some sort of rite of passage. Unfortunately, that attitude not only puts our students at risk of being bullied by their peers, it also makes our own peer group vulnerable to bullying.
And by bullying, we mean the following:
- Threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or
- Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done, or
- Verbal abuse
Education is the perfect place for bullies to lead their best vocational lives. In fact, in a survey on workplace bullying, the only place considered more ripe for this kind of behavior is the medical profession.
Perhaps this is due to the fact that many in the profession are either “type A” personalities or leaning pretty close to that. Nearly everyone in education likes to be the person in the room who is in control. In the classroom, that can lead to good leadership skill development.
However, among peers, that need for control can lead to a tipping point sometimes, and teachers can extend that overly assertive behavior onto their colleagues.
This creates all sorts of problems, from attendance and tardiness issues to health and stress issues. Teachers who bully set the example for students who bully. Hostility among adult professionals trickles down to students even if the students don’t actually witness it happening.
In this age of expansion into more and more of the socioemotional aspects of learning and education, it is absolutely vital that we contribute to the mental and emotional health of every single person on our school campuses. It may feel strange to talk about feelings, emotional health, and combatting stress by focusing on being kinder, but it is a necessity. We must confront this hostility among educators and promote overall health.
While there may always be a tendency toward those with stronger personalities attempting to control those who are more passive, there are things that you can do as an administrator to keep adult bullying at bay and make the work environment a safer place for everyone.
Make Your Campus a Gossip and Rumor-Free Zone
Begin by making it clear that gossip and rumors will not be tolerated among staff and faculty.
Start this by prohibiting your own participation in furthering gossip and spreading rumors. Examples for better, more professional behavior starts at the top, and that means you.
What exactly does this mean? Can you never discuss your staff and faculty? That may seem unrealistic. Here’s a quick rundown of some guidelines that will keep you out of trouble:
- Stick to the facts. Discussing assumptions and feelings can happen, but within reason and should be clearly labeled as such - assumptions and personal feelings.
- Never discuss one staff member with another unless you’re planning a surprise party or expressing your appreciation for something they’ve done.
- Sometimes administrators need to “vent” about staff with other administrators. Limit the time in which you express your frustrations to three to five minutes (set a timer if you need to). As soon as possible, turn the conversation from talking about your feelings of frustration to a fact-based, problem-solving conversation.
- If someone tells you they feel they are being bullied, believe them. Even if they seem to be an instigator, the truth is that somewhere, sometime, they learned that behavior from someone. Getting to the root of the problem, listening, and helping them handle the situation is going to increase your overall staff health.
Next, make it clear that the same guidelines you’re adhering to are expected to be followed campus-wide by all adult participants. Post the guidelines. Talk about them. Use them in staff meetings, in one-on-one conversations, and in the break room.
Be aware of staff or faculty members who sit alone at every staff meeting, never eat lunch with colleagues, and don’t seem to have strong connections within the school family. Reach out to them and ask what you can do to help. They may just be introverts and need time alone, which you should respect, but if there are unchecked conflicts that are happening, that needs to be addressed.
In addition, watch for “mobbing”, groups who bully others. Popular groups of teachers sometimes become exclusive. They may meet after school for drinks, do things together outside of school hours and off-campus, and they may not extend invitations to some.
While you can’t (and shouldn’t try to) control how and with whom they spend their personal time, you can ask these groups not to talk about their mutual adventures in front of those they choose to exclude. Ask them to focus on work-related conversations in the company of others outside the group if you must in order to limit offense.
As a whole group, concentrate on making your campus a more inclusive environment.
Be cautious with teachers who are popular, and advise staff members to avoid “cliques”. Make vertical teaming, planning with other district teams, and reaching out to colleagues via social media a common practice so teachers can build their “teaching family” from a variety of sources.
Don’t play favorites. It’s a natural inclination, and it’s hard to appear fair and impartial, but strive toward healthy relationship-building with everyone.
Allow teachers to take truly anonymous polls about gossip, other teachers taking credit for their work, and teachers taking tangible things without asking. Ask your staff in anonymous polls about how safe they feel, not only physically but emotionally.
Ask an area therapist or counselor to come in and do presentations on healthy confrontation for the whole staff. Ask them to talk about ways to reduce stress, how to talk about issues without stepping on each other’s toes, and encourage staff participation in conversations about how to make this information easily accessible in every area of their lives.
The number one agreed-upon way to deal with an adult who bullies is documentation. Aside from making your campus or district a gossip and rumor-free zone, teach your staff about the importance of documenting everything. If you are great with creating documents, offer a couple of documents for teachers to use to quickly track incidents where they feel uncomfortable.
You don’t have to mandate documentation of discussions among your staff, but the knowledge that an easy way to document is available to staff and faculty might curb bullying on its own.
Encourage all staff and faculty members to keep a “teaching journal”. Don’t make it mandatory, though, because adding to your teacher’s plates is not going to lower their stress level.
Journaling is often important when documenting for student success, student struggle, and student well-being. Many teachers employ journaling for that reason.
It’s important to note conversations and situations with other adults, though. Documentation should include things like the date, time (a rough estimate is fine, as in time of day), details about the situation, who was present at the time, and any other pertinent details you can record to validate and legitimize your claim.
Protect Your Staff from Mobbing and Parent-Bullies
As administrators, you know that there are some parents who will just never be satisfied, and you know first-hand how issues with parents can escalate quickly and turn into an “event” before you know it.
Make your anti-bullying campaign district-wide. Let everyone know your school is a gossip, rumor, and abuse-free zone.
Parents should be notified that you will not tolerate abuse or bullying directed toward your staff and faculty. While you’re at it, notify everyone that the same applies to parents and students, just to be clear. Don’t tolerate parent-bashing or gossiping about students, either. It’s not healthy for the person or people being talked about, and it’s not fair to the people who are participating in gossip. Once you get stuck in a negative mindset about someone, it’s difficult to get unstuck again.
Of course, parents are concerned about their children. They get (appropriately) protective and emotional in situations involving their children. It’s difficult to be fair and impartial when your parenting instincts are riled up and ready to fight, freeze, or flee.
It’s important that administrators keep themselves informed about and up-to-date on conflict resolution and de-escalation strategies in order to protect themselves and their fellow school family members from parents and families lashing out in emotional response.
The truth is, most bullying happens from the top down.
The fact that you’re giving this topic enough attention to read this is likely a good sign. However, remember that your school family comes from a variety of experiences and backgrounds. You may have some who perceive they are being bullied when that is not your intention at all.
One of the most helpful things an administrator can do for their community is to take care of their own emotional health. When you’re in a position where you’re bearing the weight of the emotional burden, cutting off negativity, and inspiring the people around you to move forward, it can be incredibly draining.
Seek counseling if at all possible. You need an impartial person outside your realm of influence to talk to about the things you’re experiencing.
Find colleagues - other administrators - who are also seeking to make their workplace a better environment for everyone involved.
And be realistic with yourself. Are you raising your voice at staff members? Do you find yourself demeaning your staff? Is there a teacher who you’ve gotten off on the wrong track with, making it difficult for you to treat them fairly? Personalities conflict, and as adults, we are all aware of that. Take steps to keep yourself from being the kind of administrator who bullies.
If you’ve already gotten to the point where you are bullying, make today the day that issue stops. It’s never too late to turn your struggles into strengths.
You owe it to your students and their families, your teachers and staff, and yourself.