What if your workplace bully is your principal? Read this opinion piece about how a teacher overcame her bully.

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Teaching was my dream job until the new principal/sheriff came to town.  As I sit here typing this submission, I am at home because I need a mental health day.  I have only been at work 30 days since 12 weeks of FMLA  and approximately $15,000 in lost wages due to anxiety and depression. But you can’t put a price on peace. For almost two years, I held my peace. I was too afraid to speak out or file a grievance.

Now that I have finally found my voice, my mouth is a volcano. If you have ever read the book by Julia Cook,  you know it’s a story about a young boy whose mouth is always erupting. In this case, it feels very cathartic.

I’m not sure how it all began, but I know it ends with my resignation. I am hanging on by a chin hair as  I attempt to finish the year and fulfill my contractual obligations. Sadly, it’s not the first time I have experienced a toxic work environment as an educator. It has been a recurring common theme during my tenure as a veteran educator.  Perhaps Dr. Simon Crawford Welch said best, “Believe it or not your boss has more of an impact on your health than your doctor; choose wisely.”  But I did choose wisely.

Seeking Safe Work Environments

I intentionally chose a male principal. I have been seeking male principals for the past 22 years, but you rarely find them in elementary school. My best school experience was teaching middle school students with emotional behavior disorders because I had three principals. I hit the lottery with Mr. G. Mistovich, Mr. E. Arena, and Mr. J. Peek. That was 2003-2006.

Fast forward to 2021, and I finally found a unicorn, a male elementary school principal.  He had an even temperament and was the same every day of the week. My principal would rap Llama Llama Red Pajamas, dance, and roller skate around the building, delivering donuts to staff. Even though he dressed up like a Grinch around Christmas, he was the direct antithesis. I didn’t walk on eggshells around him.  I never detected a mood change, and he always supported me. Then along came Mean Jean.  Unlike the old nursery rhyme by poet Robert Southey, she was not made of sugar, spice and everything nice.  She came in like a lion, and it was July. 

Fear, Humiliation at Work

The first time that I got “lollapalooshed” by my principal was very unexpected. I was going about my day, minding my business, when I got called into the lion’s/wolf’s den; that’s code for the conference room. I will spare you all the details, but there was gaslighting, intimidation on her end, fear, humiliation, and approximately 60 hours of tears on my end. 

Then there was the time she got up in my face and the time she just excluded me from the leadership team after returning from a leadership conference. That was just one of a few too many incidents for me. Perhaps you have encountered belittling or ridiculing in front of coworkers, being assigned trivial tasks, ignored, verbally abused, blamed, or made to feel your job or contribution is insignificant. Maybe you are in your building right now, fearing no one can be trusted. You are not alone. I’m grateful that I had an empathetic therapist who validated my feelings and experiences. 

Workplace Bullying

“The Recess Queen” may be a fictional account of a playground bully written by Alexis O’Neill, but workplace bullying is all too real. According to The Journal of Bullying and Social Aggression, “Workplace bullying is repeated verbal abuse, psychological abuse, or both within an organizational environment. This mistreatment is typically coworker to coworker, supervisor to subordinate, or group to individual (Cranshaw, 2009)”. 

“This type of bullying is an interpersonal hostility that is deliberate, repeated, and severe enough to cause harm to the targeted person’s health or economic status (Namie & Namie, 2009).” The problem is rarely addressed because many victims, like myself, reluctantly resign, transfer, or have their contracts not renewed. 

This type of environment can damage employees’ mental health and wellness. My own personal experience has been traumatizing. I came across an article on LinkedIn that really resonated with me. It was entitled, How to Heal After a Toxic Incident at Work by Deepa Purushothaman

Purushothaman said, “When you’re the target of a discriminatory or hostile incident at work, it not only shakes your sense of psychological safety; it raises critical questions about how you should address the situation.”

I was torn between staying and transferring. If I stayed, I feared filing a grievance against my principal would worsen matters. Then, the grievance process itself was not easy to navigate. I have never had a bad evaluation, have always been overly compliant, and have always been passionate about my job. After doing a thorough self-examination, I have concluded that my work environment has negatively affected my mental health in more than one school district, and I value my mental health more than any position in any school district. 

Teacher Crisis

According to the Georgia Department of Education, Georgia has a teacher retention crisis; the DOE reports that 47% of teachers leave the profession within five years. School/district-level leadership is a major factor. Perhaps that factor is exacerbated due to the toxic work environment and lack of administrative support. Job satisfaction and educator well-being are at an all-time low in the K-12 educational system. It’s why I am ready not to walk but to run away after 23 years in the field.

How do you handle a bully when the bully is your principal? 

A Law Against Workplace Bullying

Somehow, our congressmen, district leaders, and lawmakers have failed to realize the need for not only mental health days but also for a law against workplace bullying.   As a former Special Education teacher, school counselor, and current mental health and wellness facilitator, I can no longer sit back and watch district leaders who sacrifice good educators for horrible leaders who lack compassion and competence. 

Their horrible behavior is rewarded with promotions to the district office, transfers to another school, and other meaningless accolades. I have news for all of you brave enough to listen: no amount of jean passes, self-care tips/calendars, Sunshine committee treats,  or spirit weeks will fix a horrible school climate and culture micro-managed by fear and intimidation. Educators know how to take care of themselves. We don’t need any more junk email reminders. We demand to be treated with dignity and respect. That looks like zero tolerance for and laws against workplace bullying. 

Sadly, no federal law protects against workplace bullying in the United States. However, 32 states and Puerto Rico have introduced the HWB (Healthy Workplace Bill) provided by the Workplace Bullying Institute, but currently, it is only active in Massachusetts, New York, and West Virginia.

Advocating for Legislative Change

Could this be the biggest issue affecting teacher retention rates in education?  But this problem is bigger than education. Grievously, many hard-working, voiceless citizens have encountered similar experiences. I am advocating for additional legislative change. No one should have to sacrifice their mental health to make a living.  I implore state lawmakers to take action to create the necessary policies and procedures to protect and provide a healthy workplace for their constituents.  

About the Author

Maria Moore is a veteran educator with over 20 years of experience. My career in education began in 1998. I worked with children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as a discrete trial therapist. In 2000, I entered the field of education full-time. I earned my certification in interrelated special education. I taught elementary interrelated Special Education for three years, and middle school students with emotional behavior disorders for three years. Prior to my current position as a mental health and wellness facilitator, I worked as a professional school counselor for 14 years. 

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