“If we don’t model what we teach,
then we are teaching something else.”
Several years ago, I worked with two middle schools that were nearly identical in every way. Now, I believe that every school is a unique learning community with unique learners, unique educators, and a unique school culture, but these two schools were about as similar as two schools can be. They were about a mile apart and had nearly the exact same number of students enrolled. Moreover, the demographics at these two schools were almost identical in terms of race, gender, economic status, limited English proficiency, and students with disabilities. The schools had the exact same level of staffing and program resources. The parent community at both schools was equally similar. In short, these two schools were way more alike than different.
Interestingly, however, one of these schools had what some deemed a student bullying problem. The other middle school seemed to have very little in the way of student bullying incidents. At first, I was puzzled by this and could not determine why two schools whose students were so similar could have discrepant instances of student bullying. The more I observed in these two schools, the more the answer became evident: the school with significant student bullying issues also had a significant amount of teacher bullying occurring. The vast majority of staff at both schools was comprised of dedicated and passionate professional educators. Yet, at one school, there were a few powerful teachers who bullied certain colleagues. For anyone who thinks professional bullying does not exist, I encourage you to read “When Teachers Bully Teachers” and “Let's Be Honest: Professional Bullying in Schools Is a Thing.” Sadly, although it may not be as common, teachers bullying other teachers is just as real as students bullying other students.
Some teachers who bully other teachers do so because they feel threatened. They see a colleague taking risks in the classroom, going above and beyond in their work habits, working closely with the school’s administration, and building such positive relationships with students that they become the “favorite” teacher of many. Although working hard, taking risks, working closely with administration, and having kids genuinely like their teachers are all things I want to see happening in schools, unfortunately, teacher bullies view these differently. It threatens their status and challenges the status quo. Perhaps one teacher had been the students’ “favorite” until another teacher came on board and students started gravitating toward this teacher. Maybe another teacher is resistant to change and views a colleague who is willing to change and try new things as a threat to them. Yet another may resent the fact that a colleague arrives early and stays late each day, thinking this makes her look like a slacker. Student bullies behave the way they do for a number of reasons, many of which we fail to understand. Sadly, teacher bullies are no different.
So what can we do?
- If we are the victim of bullying by a colleague, it may behoove us to first try to understand why the person is behaving as they are. Determining the “Why?” behind the behaviors might drive our subsequent actions, including standing up to the bully. One approach, suggested by Angie Miller, is simply sharing the following: "My feelings were hurt today when you did this. Can you tell me what I've done to upset you?" Of course, confronting a bully may be no easier for an adult than it is for a child. Sometimes we simply need to recognize the behavior for what it is, ignore what we can, and stay positive at all times. George Couros often states, “We need to make the positive so loud that the negatives are almost impossible to hear.” No matter how we are treated by staff members who bully us, we must take the high road and not fall into the trap of becoming negative or acting in kind. This is difficult. Being bullied hurts, whether we are 12 or 42.
- Another thing we must do when we experience professional bullying is realize that the issue is about the bully and not about us. Moreover, we must remember that the bully is the exception, not the rule. Find your tribe, remembering that “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” Find those colleagues both within your own school community and educators around the world who are equally passionate and energized about students and our profession and who refuse to be distracted by the vocal few who behave otherwise. Connect with like-minded colleagues who will help you stay the course.
- Finally, if we are not the target of adult bullying but recognize it happening in our school, we need to speak up and call out our colleagues who bully--respectfully, privately, professionally. In schools with the most productive and positive cultures in place, all staff members--not just principals--hold each other accountable for adhering to group norms and modeling for students what we expect of them. If we cannot muster the courage to approach a bullying colleague about their behavior, we can at least do something almost as effective: don’t join in any conversation in which one staff member is making fun of another. Remain stone faced silent. Walk away. Do not laugh or play along. Let it be known by your actions, if not your words, that this is something you do not support.