I was a public middle school teacher in a large city district with a few years of experience under my belt when the bullying began. The bullying began in earnest after being elected by my colleagues to a staff representative position but even after my tenure ended the bullying did not. There are no laws against workplace bullying in my state and within my school system there is no explicit language that prohibits principals from treating teachers the way I was treated by my principal. The principal had come to power during a time period when politicians had dismantled previous accountability structures and principals were being treated like mini-CEO’s with full autonomy and discretion over all matters, which turned many of them into petty tyrants that ran their buildings like small fiefdoms. There were no longer any supervisory channels to seek relief in this new culture. You were stuck with the choice of either trying to survive and somehow not lose your job or trying to find a position in a different building, which was nearly impossible. Most people targeted just gave up and either retired early or completely switched careers while still young enough to do so. Neither of those options was available to me.
I was officially observed at 3x the amount of my peers. In addition, I was unofficially observed on an almost weekly basis, on days immediately before and after days off and sick days, on half days and during parent/teacher conferences. On average, I was brought into discipline meetings a minimum of 2-6 times per year, while most teachers make it through entire careers with maybe having suffered through one. I was expected to follow strict administrative mandates that none of my colleagues were subjected to. I was required to do 5x the amount of emergency duties as my peers and was denied access to basic materials needed for my job. My administrators ignored me except when I was being reprimanded. I was excluded from meetings, events and information and chosen for the most unwanted assignments. My social media accounts and work computers were monitored regularly. I was switched between subjects/grades/rooms almost every year. Parents were allowed to monitor my class upon demand, scream and curse at me without intervention and kids would naively explain to me that everyone knew how “easy” it was to get me “in trouble” with my administrators. Secretaries screamed at me, colleagues threatened/sexually harassed me and friends secretly shared words of encouragement because they often witnessed what was happening but were too fearful to know how to help and I think secretly afraid that the same thing would happen to them.
My position was eliminated every year for 7 years in a row. I was lied to and gaslighted at every opportunity. It was a living hell and I cried almost every morning in my car before entering the building. At one point, I came very close to a nervous breakdown. I did not seek medical help because I was afraid that the only solution would be medication and that would just dull the symptoms and not cure the causes. I belong to a teacher’s union but despite public perception they have become neutered entities that are no longer able to intervene in any significant way unless something blatantly illegal or not contractional had occurred. Nothing that ever happened to me was illegal or against the terms of my contract. Despite it all, I never lost my love of teaching but the only reason I did not leave the profession entirely was because I support myself and could not afford to abandon a career that had taken so long to achieve.
The bullying only stopped because I got lucky. Information had been shared with me regarding two potentially illegal acts my principal had taken to defame me that clearly fit the legal definitions of libel and slander. I used this information to make sure that this principal could not put any obstacles in my way to prevent my chances of finding a position in another building, which I had long suspected might have been occurring. I was able to finally find a position in another school and that is the only reason the bullying came to an end. I thank god every morning.
I am firmly convinced that I have experienced after-effects of the bullying similar to PTSD. I have terrible anxiety and I don’t trust anything or anyone. I am always afraid the other shoe will drop. I have nightmares in which I relive what I used to go through. I make choices at work that are based on trying to avoid punishment at all costs but come across as paranoid to my new colleagues. I try to stay to myself because I’m terrified that anything I say to anyone will be reported back to my new admin and be used against me. I jump when anyone comes into my classroom unexpectedly and I am never really relaxed and always on edge. My new bosses have taken to reminding at the end of every conversation that I’m not getting “in trouble” because I think they recognize that I am terrified every time we have to interact.
I don’t know if I had any special qualities that gave me the ability to weather this horrific storm but there did come a time when I finally accepted that I was not causing it to happen because I am not that powerful and I wasn’t going to doubt myself anymore. Because of the power imbalance between a boss and an employee I was limited in how I could respond to any given situation but I made it clear that I would not be broken. I have a very happy home life and that provided the comfort and safe haven I needed to survive the daily onslaught of abuse. I also love teaching the more I do it and I was not going to let this principal get in the way of what should always be the highest priority—the kids and their education. If they were going to try and take me down I wasn’t going to go down without fighting the good fight. And despite my efforts to take different approaches each year hoping to dodge the latest mode of attack, I can only recognize now that you can never win a game when the person in power keeps moving the goalposts on purpose in order to trip you up.
I gratefully made it out and am more committed to my teaching than ever. But there are many others like me that have not been as lucky. My advice to others would be the following: remember that it is not you and you are not causing it; stop trying to figure out what the person bullying you might be thinking or feeling or saying and judge them by their actions and that will provide the evidence you need to see that you are not going crazy; never lose your cool and protect your self-respect; recognize that you’ve been put in a position where the intention is to unfairly make your job unstable so you might as well fight back because they’re already trying to get rid of you, so don’t make it easy for them; find a shoulder to cry on and allies to support you and if you need any other tools to cope, use them, because workplace bullying is meant to harm the victim so protect yourself in any way you can; document and keep copies of everything; and finally—get out if you can because it’s not going to stop until you do or we decide as a society that the laws should change.
This is a real thing happening to more people than you realize. It is the product of a toxic corporate culture that has infiltrated spheres in which it does not belong and needs to be put back in its place. The private powers that be silently and implicitly encourage and condone these tactics for it is a means to their ends and no successful society should accept that development. It is a sickening symptom of what we are allowing ourselves to become as a people and it is the example being set in front of millions of kids. We need to do better because we all deserve better.
1. Documentation/record keeping
2. Never acting less than professional
3. Finding outside opportunities to enhance my career as evidence to contradict the "official" record
4. Never stopped looking for another position
5. Refusing to agree to let it affect how I feel about myself or teaching my heart out for the kids
We are collecting stories from people who have successfully navigated workplace bullying for a book project. Our goal is to create an anthology – a collection of stories from those who have overcome the challenges this traumatic experience brings. We are looking for true stories about your extraordinary experience with workplace bullying and how you navigated and ultimately overcame it. We are looking for stories that will touch the readers – other targets of workplace bullying – and help them discover tools and principles they can use in their own life. We are looking for stories filled with emotion, vivid images, and a clear path to resolution.
If you are interested in submitting your story, you can learn more, and submit your story, here.