- Want the Best Instructional Feedback? Ask Your Students. - October 20, 2021
- First-Year Teachers: Raise Your Hand If You've Been Bullied Too. - September 24, 2021
By Lanee Higgins
Teachers should share our workplace bullying experiences in shouts instead of whispers, but I understand why we don’t.
Seven years ago, I kept a record of the workplace bullying that I endured as a first-year teacher in 2014. Seven years later, rereading it leaves my stomach full of needles, my thoughts racing, and my mind full of doubts on whether this was even “that bad.” Writing this piece feels like reliving the belittlement, but I could not let it go unpublished. This is what happened to Me.
I Was Set Up to Fail.
From the beginning, I was set up to fail, but I believed it was because I was a new teacher. The first few months of school set the tone for the rest of the school year.
The first week of school, my department chair did not help me with the curriculum: she opened the educators’ portal and told me that “everything is written for me here” Thankfully the instructional coach devoted time to work with me, but this was met with jealousy with the principal stating, “There is no way that a brand new teacher like Ms. Higgins should know more about the Common Core than her department chair.”
I faced another challenge: the short cycle assessments we administered every two weeks with larger assessments every six to eight weeks. When I voiced to the assistant principal how much the tests overwhelmed me and frustrated my students, my department chair spread a rumor that I was too overwhelmed to do my job.
The principal addressed me during a football game, “A few years ago, this was a tough school. That is why these stands are not full. A few years ago, you could have been shot at here, and you’re just worried because you have extra grading to do.” In October, the school scheduled the district assessment and the school-level assessment the same week. I immediately addressed my concern with the administration asking them if I could move the days of the tests. They told me no. I needed to give both tests over four days on alternating days. I was frustrated, but I obeyed.
Unsurprisingly, my students did not perform well on either test. The low test scores landed me in an “emergency meeting” with my department chair, assistant principal, and grade-level team leader. The assistant principal yelled at me in a completely unprofessional tone. My department chair and team member were openly making fun of me. After enduring forty minutes of this in silence, I excused myself by stating: “I need to excuse myself from the meeting and return to my classroom.” When I returned to my classroom, I was upset—shaking and in tears.
The Meeting that Changed Everything.
In November, I was called to the principal’s office to discuss the meeting that I allegedly stormed out of. I stood outside of his door waiting, trembling with the shame of a student in trouble, but I was a teacher.
My mouth was dry.
My lips were chapped, as they get when I am nervous.
I could feel moisture gathering in my armpits.
The principal was collected. He had a bottle of water in his hand which I could desperately use. I had thought this meeting was going to be a one-on-one meeting to discuss why I told him that I felt overwhelmed, but I walked into an ambush.
The principal spoke, “Team, I want Ms. Higgins to sit across the table from me.” I was the last one to enter the room as I took my seat across the table.
Next to me sat my department chair and assistant principal. When the principal asked what happened, my department chair and assistant principal threw me under the bus sticking to the story that I walked out because I became angry. They added more lies to their story, claiming that I took an unprofessional tone and that my grades were weighted and made no sense. In response, I discussed a student who had all four grade-level teachers, shared how many points were in the grade book for each teacher and which teachers completed their grades and which did not. I was the only teacher at or above the agreed-upon number of points in the grade book. To that, neither my department chair nor assistant principal responded.
My principal broke the silence: “Ms. Higgins, two new teachers have quit, how close are you to being the third?”
I could not believe he had just asked me that. . But I could not look hurt, so I shakily said the first thing that came to mind: “Far off…” He cut me off--
“Ms. Higgins, would you have walked out of that meeting if they were white?”
His question caught me off guard. Here was a Black man asking a Black woman if she was an “Uncle Tom.” He must have read the disgust on my face because he left it as a rhetorical question. He continued by stating that my actions shocked him and he should suspend me without pay.
He added, “Any teacher who feels as though they could just walk out of a meeting should not be working here. We are prepared to replace any teacher at any time. You know, there were 26 other teachers who were more qualified who interviewed for your position.” He paused. “You know, Ms. Higgins, 30% of new teachers in the district have left, and I really hope that you do not become part of that 30%.”
This man threatened my job, but he wasn’t finished.
“Regarding your evaluation, you will get ineffective because you are a new teacher and all new teachers get ineffective. You know, you cannot learn professionalism from the first and second-year teachers that you hang out with. You need to learn professionalism from your department chair. You're coming off as a new teacher who thinks that she knows too much. You've only been teaching for three months, you have no idea what you are doing.”
He then asked my department chair and the assistant principal to leave.
“I would like to speak to Ms. Higgins alone.”
We Were Alone and I Was Uncomfortable.
“Would you like a bottle of water?” My hand was shaking as he gave me a bottle of water. “Ms. Higgins,” smiling at me he started again, “I do not care about the grades of the other teachers. It’s the fact that you walked out. You made me look bad. I took a chance on you, and you need to remember that. In the back of your mind, you should always think about how you need to impress me.”
I said nothing.
“You need to apologize to both your department chair and assistant principal before you leave tonight.” And with that, he dismissed me.
I was insulted, threatened, and treated like a child, but I did as I was told. I apologized to my department chair first. She told me that, “I called the whole squad out,” with my evidence about their grade books. Then she claimed that she was not the person who told the principal that I walked out. Later, I apologized to my assistant principal, and he made the same lie.
That day, I did nothing. I carried on as if nothing had happened. I discussed the meeting with colleagues who I had grown close to, who were having difficulties with the administration as well. They asked me how I was so calm? How could I not be upset by what the principal said to me? That day, I met with parents and students and acted as though nothing had happened. The next day, I cried. This man had threatened me. This man had insulted me. And I had done nothing. It was time to act.
I Reported the Workplace Bullying, But Nothing Happened.
A colleague and I drafted a letter of grievances, quoting exactly what the principal, department chair, and assistant principal had said to me. I cited parts of the teacher’s contract and the union’s definition of workplace bullying. My letter was thorough and included dates of all of the meetings with links of evidence such as emails and meeting requests. The letter later became part of a bigger document written with other teachers. We submitted the letter to the department in charge of teacher evaluations, the teachers' union, and labor management-employee relations (LMER). I thought that the union would intervene on my behalf or do something to change or intervene against the inappropriate behavior.
I thought the union would save me.
The department in charge of teachers’ evaluations said that they would look into it; however, they told the principal which teachers wrote the report about him. He called my colleagues into his office, asking them if they had written the document. They denied having anything to do with it, but neither mentioned my name. He never called me into his office.
During a conference call between a union representative, the head of LMER, and me, the department head condescendingly said that this probably was just a difficult transition for me being that I was only 22, and I was dealing with adult problems which I had never had to deal with before. Before he could be more patronizing, I fired back with “So, it’s okay for my principal to talk to me like that because I’m 22?” His best solution was to confront the principal, but I could not remain anonymous. The union rep immediately scolded him, letting him know that I would face retaliation. The head of LMER had no better solutions. Meanwhile, rumors spread around the school that Ms. Higgins and other teachers had submitted a 20-page document to the central office.
The only thing that came from the letter is that the principal never spoke to me directly again.
It Was More Than Administration.
The technology liaison at the school refused to supply me with a printer, projector, document camera, and laptop-like all other teachers because I did not have a key to my door. For weeks, I emailed my department chair and asked administration when I was going to receive my key with no clear response. Then I found out the truth. The teacher who had the classroom the previous year had her purse, wallet, laptop, and projector stolen because of the broken door. The technology liaison refused to give me any of the technology that I needed because of what occurred the previous year. After eight weeks of fighting, I eventually received a laptop, projector, document camera, and printer, but not without a threat: “If any of these items go missing, you are liable for replacing them.”
I faced the constant undermining of my authority in my classroom by the climate for the learning (CFL) team and school security guards. Members of the CFL team would enter my classroom as many as five times per class period and yell at students while I was instructing. When I let students use headphones to focus, they would come into my classroom and take them away from students even when I explained why students had the headphones. When I would try to send disruptive students out of the room, the security guards would send them back in and yell at me in front of my students.
A member of the CFL team once came into my classroom and yelled at me for only writing one pass for three students who were going to the same room to take the same test. Five minutes later, a student walked into my classroom to come to talk to a friend and charge her phone. I opened my classroom door and yelled at him back, “So, I have to write individual passes for my students, but a student who is not mine can just walk into my classroom without one?” He sat in a chair outside of my classroom scrolling through Instagram ignoring me. After surrendering his headphones a student once said to me,
“Ms. Higgins, you’re the teacher. You’re supposed to have power.”
Not even my grades were in my control. My assistant principal encouraged me to just pass students., “If they show up every day, just give them a D.” When I replied absolutely not, to him, absolutely not, he told me that I have had to do it, or I would look bad. I will gain a reputation as the teacher who fails her students. I'd make the school look bad because we had to make our percentages look good on paper. What disturbed me most was the fact that the other teachers were chiming in to agree with him. One teacher commented on student plagiarism, “Well if they did not copy, they would not pass.” I was appalled. Once, during a parent-teacher conference, another teacher took a shot at me, saying to the parents, “I did not fail anyone who showed up every day last term.”
After submitting my first-quarter grades, there was a false report throughout the district that only 49% of my students were passing English. The assistant principal reprimanded me in front of my colleagues saying "such a number was disgusting.” I waited until he had finished his rant, which made a mockery of me in front of the grade-level team before asking, “How were those numbers calculated, because when I calculated it, I had a pass rate of 72%.” He refused to answer me. Eventually, they discovered that I was correct. No one apologized to me, and the incident was still my fault.
I heard "Play the game,” repeatedly during my time at this school .“That is the nature of this school system. You have to play the game.” I never understood how these people could “play” with others’ lives so easily. I said to a colleague, “If you ever hear me say ‘play the game,’ slap me hard.” I refused to “play the game,” so I was stubborn, young, and naive.
These Bullies are a Symptom, Not the Disease.
A wise educator once said to me, you’re mad at the wrong people. When I reread these events seven years later I am not mad at the people who bullied me. I am angry with the system that encouraged it. By creating a culture that incentivizes metrics and data over genuine human connection and contribution, the school system births these bullies who seek to destroy anyone who refuses to “play the game.” As a result, the fate of teachers’ professional livelihoods rests on the motivations of our supervisors. Until empathy and appreciation are valued over reward and appearance, educators will continue to suffer.