I recently received a message from a bullied teacher that stuck with me. It said, “When we came back to the classroom after the pandemic, I was really struggling with suicidal ideation. I finally talked to my principal about it, and she warned me that they would post my teaching job as a vacancy before my obituary.”
While this principal meant this to warn the teacher that the job was not worth her life, when the teacher went on leave a few months later, the state took her teaching license and coded her actions in the system as abandonment. And that is currently at the heart of a significant problem amongst teachers.
Despite a very unreasonable workload and the very real toll it takes on us mentally and emotionally, we aren’t allowed to be exhausted or need a break. This can lead to anxiety and a feeling of desperation that can be catastrophic. If you are being bullied or harassed by the administration as well, as I have been, it is an impossible situation.
In this article, I will be sharing the stories of some bullied teachers who suffered greatly at the hands of toxic administrators and school districts. As sensitive as this topic is, it is crucial to raise awareness of this crisis endemic to the teaching profession. I will also be sharing some personal advice on what to do if you are struggling with a similar situation.
Because I promise you: there are options available. There are solutions. No matter how dark it gets, there is always a light and a way out.
All you need is some support. Bullied teachers need to support each other. We need to have each other’s backs, no matter what.
Reasons Teachers Are Bullied by the Administration
The bullying of teachers can come in many forms and for many reasons. Usually, as it was in my case before I quit the teaching profession, it comes down to a lack of support driven by a ‘profits over duty of care’ mentality.
Lack of Effective Evaluation Systems
Harassment and even suicide often result from a school’s lack of adequate teacher evaluation systems and uniform policies. There should be a predictable and reliable system for when a teacher does something wrong, including prompt feedback with opportunities for the teacher to comment on what they did wrong.
Instead, administration tends to harass teachers they don’t like or feel threatened by, having nothing to do with performance issues.
Play Ball, or You’re Out
Weak principals allow awful and incompetent teachers and the administrators below them to “rule the roost” if they have been there long enough and play by the admin’s rules. They end up being bullies and trying to get rid of effective teachers because they have opinions and don’t go along with school politics.
Ideally, outside observers who are entirely neutral should conduct teacher and administrative evaluations.
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The Bullying of Teachers is a Widespread Problem
Recent research by a major teachers’ union in the United Kingdom reported that 4 out of 5 teachers have been victims of workplace bullying by their employers.
In 2018, The Bullied Teachers Support Network (BTSN) was founded by teachers to fight teacher victimization by administration and unions in Australian schools. And in the U.S., numerous independent studies on bullying in the workplace have concluded “that workplace bullying is consistently prevalent in the teaching profession.”
Workplace bullying is a complicated issue that I feel can manifest with unique qualities in the education sector. First, I am going to tell you the different types of bullying you might experience as a teacher. Then I will tell you various courses of action you can take if you are in a similar situation.
Finally, I will end with some heartbreaking stories of teachers who were bullied to death.
Types of Bullying Teachers Might Endure
If you suddenly find yourself on an improvement plan, observed more than your colleagues, or asked to provide evidence of your effectiveness, it might be the start of a campaign against you. But there are other, less obvious ways leadership can increase the pressure and attempt to force you out.
Bullying of teachers by their administration is so common that the various forms of it have been given terms and definitions.
- A Slow Boil: Like an innocent frog or lobster, the staff member is put into a pot of warm water where they initially feel supported. But the heat slowly increases, and the teacher doesn’t realize they are boiling to death or under an untenable amount of teaching-related stress they didn’t initially experience. Schools use this strategy to force teachers to leave, turning up the heat on targeted staff until the teacher can’t take it anymore and resign rather than continue to work in such a hostile environment.
- Death by Data: The educational world is increasingly obsessed with data and often requires so much meaningless paperwork it can drive someone crazy. This data often comes with unrealistic expectations and benchmarks, especially if a teacher has a class of students with more learning and behavioral challenges than others. If you are given an abundance of the more “challenging” classes and students and asked to have your students reach impossible goals and show data that proves they met those goals, you may have become a target.
- Reassignment Chaos: If you have taught the same grade level or subject matter for a long time and are comfortable with those classes but are suddenly given a completely different set of classes and curriculum (or no curriculum at all), they might be trying to turn up the pressure to force you out. This could include giving you the classes with the most behavioral problems, having you teach something outside of your subject area or grade level, moving you to a different part of the school (or a different school altogether), changing your classroom, making you move between many different rooms, or adding an unfair amount of responsibilities.
If there are evident inequities between your teaching load and another full-time teacher (who kisses ass and teaches electives and study halls), that’s a big red flag that they have it out for you.
- Sick over Sick Days: Teachers have allotted sick days they are entitled to, but administrators will often make the teacher feel guilty for using too many of them. You might get a lecture about it, and you certainly won’t get any sympathy or interest in what illness you or your loved ones might be suffering from. Although you are legally entitled to your sick days, the admin can use your “overuse” of them to say you lack dedication to your students.
- Scolded in Public: If you are lectured or scolded about anything you did wrong in front of students or other staff, this is a red flag that the administration feels a certain way about you, and they don’t care who knows about it. Being lectured verbally without a written report is inappropriate itself, but doing it in front of others is reprehensible. No matter what they say you did, you do not have to endure that kind of abuse.
Notable Stories of Bullied Teachers
The following high-profile cases of bullied teachers demonstrate the severity of this prevalent issue worldwide. These teachers all faced incredibly traumatizing situations and ultimately paid the price for the toxic and heinous actions of the administrators who were meant to protect them.
Mary Eve Thorson
On Thanksgiving Day in 2011, Physical Education teacher Mary Eve Thorson parked on the shoulder of a major interstate highway in Indiana, got out of her car, and stepped in front of a semi-truck speeding down the highway.
The 32-year-old’s death shocked the school district she worked for, especially because she left a suicide note and other materials claiming she’d been bullied to death by her school’s administration. It was difficult for her parents and authorities to investigate the bullying claims because the other employees were too afraid to speak about it.
One supporter created a documentary and website encouraging teachers to speak out against bullying by administration. Myra Richardson, the film’s creator, said, “I was disturbed by the fact that the teachers are afraid, and I was disturbed by the fact that nobody in management was doing anything.” Amongst the teachers who have been brave enough to talk about the situation was one woman who said, “I had a miscarriage after the harassment and discrimination that I experienced there.”
After Thorson’s death, her family was desperate for more information that might lead to holding the administration accountable for their treatment of her. “You hear a lot about kids bullying kids, but you don’t hear about teachers getting bullied by administrators,” John Thorson said. Myra Richardson also created a forum for bullied teachers and an art exhibit in honor of teachers who have been bullied – both living and not.
Richardson said, “I continue to receive letters from teachers asking me to please do something. It’s unfortunate that so many teachers have died, and the topic hasn’t been broached before.” More information and resources on the case of Mary Eve Thorson can be found here.
An anonymous message I received asked me to write about Jennifer Lenihan and help keep her memory alive. In 2013, 39-year-old Jennifer Lenihan, who taught art at Bassett High School, died by suicide. According to her colleagues, the school district where she taught art for 12 years did little to acknowledge her death.
Her family claimed that her death was the result of relentless bullying by her school’s administration, and they filed a wrongful death claim against the district.
“We believe she was driven to suicide,” her father said. “She had journals, she had emails, she has other friends willing to come forth in the trial.” In the documents she left behind, Lenihan spoke of being harassed in front of students and other staff members.
A fellow employee who spoke anonymously out of fear of retaliation recalled two administrators alongside the school leaders – the principal and assistant principal – yelling at Lenihan in a courtyard in front of teachers and students. A friend of Lenihan said she told him of being talked down to in her classroom while students watched.
The family was unsuccessful in winning the lawsuit
According to the person in the anonymous message I received, “The administrators involved were removed from the school and have not been able to find new administrative positions. The principal is still with the district as a classroom teacher. We still talk about Jennifer often, and a commemorative stone outside her classroom was part of the dedication ceremony that honored her life.”
In March of 2023, Ruth Perry, a head schoolmaster (principal) in England, took her own life after a particularly “rude and intimidating” inspection (observation) report.
The general secretaries of the Association of School and College Leaders and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) then called for inspections to be paused. Amanda Spielman, the former chief inspector of education, apologized to the family for the “distress that Mrs. Perry undoubtedly experienced as a result of our inspection.”
The inspection found the school Perry had led for over a decade to be “inadequate”.
The rating meant Perry’s job was under threat. Perry’s family claimed the handling of the school’s inspection led to her declining mental health, resulting in her death.
On June 5th 2023, South Korean teacher Lee Min-so wrote in her diary about the fear she felt in her body as she entered her classroom to teach. “My chest feels too tight. I feel like I’m going to fall somewhere. I don’t even know where I am.”
On July 3rd, the primary school teacher wrote that she had become so overwhelmed by the pressures of work that she “wanted to let go.” Two weeks later, the 23-year-old was found dead in her classroom cupboard by her colleagues.
She had taken her own life.
Following in her mother’s footsteps, Min-so had been teaching for over a year, which was her childhood dream. While her main area of pressure was from parents and students attacking each other, the administration did absolutely nothing to help her in these situations.
Her death led to tens of thousands of teachers going on strike to demand better protection at work. “They say they’re frequently harassed by overbearing parents, who call them all hours of the day and weekends, incessantly and unfairly complaining.”
Kim Werner, a Teacher Who Fought Back!
Not all victims of workplace bullying end their lives, but the road to recovery is long and difficult. Kim Werner, a school counselor and victim of workplace bullying by her former principal, has dedicated her life to creating resources for supporting bullied school staff members with toxicity in the teaching profession.
She wrote the following about her own experience of trying to heal after being bullied by her principal:
“Three years later, after the abuse, the sun is fully shining. Eagerness. Enthusiasm. I awoke with both today. I haven’t always. I’ve often gotten up with fretfulness, bitterness, and blame. I’ve gotten up worried about life in general; its unfairness: homework not done, clothes not laundered, and bullying bosses to face. I didn’t understand that my approach to life’s other “stuff” was exacerbated by the daily–Monday through Friday–worry of “what-will-happen-today?” at my school.
My former principal targeted me for bullying– pure and simple. But it’s not his bullying tactics about which I write today, for I have spent hours and hours dissecting my horror. It’s the effects of his bullying on the rest of my life–and the realization now, three years later–of the effect his disgusting behavior would have had on me now had I not taken medical leave. Had I not reported his abuse. Had I stayed.
So what is it like to get up in the morning and know you cannot please your boss? Know that you are considered a problem? Know that he does not work alone? Know that some of your co-workers take great delight in his daily torture of you? Know that others folded long before he “found you” and there will be no support from them? Know your health and your career are in danger?
What is the rest of your life like? How does this kind of injustice at your job affect your family? Your marriage? Your joy? Your happiness? Workplace bullying is not something that turns on and off like a faucet. It doesn’t disappear at 3:00 p.m. as you walk to your car in the school’s parking lot. Oh no. There is no respite for a target of abuse.
Workplace bullying, like water torture, drip-drip-drips into the most silent and still times of your life. Workplace bullying floods your mind and your heart at night with worry. Sometimes, you feel that you are drowning, that your head is barely above the water line. It’s exhausting, yet you cannot sleep because the floodgates open when you lie down.
‘Just do what he says, and you will be okay,’ his friend, the other school counselor with whom he rode to work, told me when I first started at that school. Perhaps it was her frown and furrowed brow as she sat in the passenger’s seat of his vehicle and discussed her “concerns” about me that generated his “we have to talk; there have been complaints” menace.
I would not be okay if I had taken her advice and merely did what he said—doing what he said would not have protected me. I would not have been okay because doing what he said meant lying and cheating and participating in things so ugly and awful–testimonies against fellow teachers and documenting things that had never happened–that I simply could not do it. Not doing what he said was the most difficult professional thing I have ever done. It’s only now, three years later–awakening with enthusiasm and eagerness–despite everything- that I feel fully okay, more than okay–back to my former self–joyous and happy.
Add grateful, then, to my “wake up” virtues. They’ve been returning for a long time.”
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What to Do if You’re A Teacher Being Bullied in the Workplace
Don’t take crap (or crap gifts) from your school’s administration! If you suspect your administration is bullying you, there are some steps you should take right away.
There is advice to support struggling teachers out there! Here are 10 tips for bullied teachers to help them get out of such a truly awful situation:
- It is very important that you document everything in detail. A good practice is to write a summary of what happened as soon as possible and email it to yourself to have a timestamped record. Take notes on the same administrators treating other employees the same way, and save any paperwork showing how you have been treated.
- Don’t meet with any administrators alone. Insist on having a neutral third party during every interaction, preferably from the union if you have one.
- Call your union if you have one. They might be an invaluable resource.
- Check if your school district’s “bullying and harassment” policy covers employees. If employees are “covered” under your district’s “bullying and harassment” policy, follow the steps they give immediately, which likely starts with paperwork.
- If they have taken official action against you, fill out a bullying report anyway. You have nothing to lose.
- Research “workplace bullying” and what other teachers have done in this situation.
- Talk to your district about a school transfer on the grounds of bullying. Use your documentation as evidence.
- Do not allow anyone to talk you into “sitting down” with your abuser about “talking it out”. That is not appropriate. If the situation has proceeded beyond the point of mediation, stand your ground.
- Find a therapist who understands the workplace bullying phenomenon and who will be able to help. You are not alone. There are thousands of us out there.
- The best thing to do is to take time off if you can and begin to recover. You have been through trauma and need to heal. If your doctor knows of medical or serious emotional issues caused by this situation, try to get Family and Medical Leave so at least you can breathe and take care of yourself for a few weeks.
There is Always a Way Out
If you are in this terrible situation, it can feel like there is no way out. But no job or person is worth hurting yourself over.
There are a lot of good reasons to quit teaching, and being bullied by the administration is sure as sugar one of them! Don’t let ANY reason stop you from doing what is best for you.
Please, whatever you might be feeling, talk to your friends and family. Seek help, including professionally. Take protective measures and get yourself out of the environment that is killing you slowly.
Teacher bullying is a very real crisis and disease that is sweeping through the profession and killing good educators surely and steadily. This article has been to raise awareness and to share the stories of the victims of this plague.
But if there is one true takeaway from this article, let it be this-
There is a light at the end of the tunnel. The most important thing is that you do what you need to do to take care of yourself.
Choose yourself every time. Put yourself at the top of YOUR list. Because nobody else in the industry will.
REMEMBER: There is ALWAYS help available.