I was lost but now I’m found.

I’ve never thought that the story of the way I was bullied out of my job at a school I loved and worked hard at for over seventeen difficult years would be of interest to anyone outside my family and friends – and even they got fed up with it! – til @nancygedge blogged about her experience. It was a short but compelling post about being lost because of bullying treatment. And yes, what Nancy describes is exactly what it was like. Here’s my story and thoughts, which have turned out to be more and longer than I realised.

I was relocated to the school in question as part of an LA re-organisation. It was the very place I didn’t want to go and, believe me, I and other colleagues were most definitely not welcome. It was a 13-18 school – or exam factory depending on your view – and rather smug and self-satisfied. Like all re-organisations it was shocking and painful for almost everybody for reasons too complex to blog here. The school considered itself to be a cut above all the others and was palpably disconcerted – not to say horrified – when it was “invaded” by “toddlers” as the Year 7s and 8s were rather disparagingly labelled and, even worse, teachers from middle schools. Zut alors! Quelle horreur! What in the name of anything worth having did they know about exams and such? So there we were: a lesser breed.

For reasons I have never quite fathomed – although there was an interesting rumour that came back to me from at least six schools that I had slept with one of the advisers. (I hadn’t) – I was sent to the school with a big promotion to Senior Teacher and a curriculum area to lead. I was eminently well-qualified for this having been a Head of Year! Nonetheless, despite my terror, I knuckled down, spent the summer swotting the area I’d been given and worrying about how you teach GCSE English. When term started it wasn’t easy. The existing staff from the previous school were frequently dismissive of us – the incomers – made disparaging remarks and belittled our skills and abilities. It’s only as I write this that I realise that the bullying was often subtle and had been going on for much longer than I realised.

Not to be defeated, we, and I, slogged on and slowly, slowly I gained the respect of my colleagues – by and large for the work I did. I had a variety of responsibilities over the years and moved the school forward in lots of ways but it was always tough. I worked very long hours – the school was open until 10p.m. every day and I was frequently there until past 9 and for at least half of the holidays. I had to be – there was too much work to get through and little support in getting it done.

I had a lot of laughs there and worked with some great people, especially in the English department. I enjoyed a lot of my time there but the bullying, I see now, was a thread that ran through it. Some examples:
• The first head I worked for would frequently say things like, “Three people have been in to see me about what you said in briefing/that you were a bit sharp with them/that you said/did Y.” And they were always too afraid to talk to me/tell me/ask me. That went on for years until one day a light came on, I got brave and told him I wouldn’t accept any anonymised comments/complaints; that I would happily sit down with him and whoever was aggrieved to sort out any issues. He never did it again.
• Some staff made my elder son’s life a misery because he was mine. He was hard work but he was just a kid. He accidentally injured a boy one day. No-one told me. They sent him home on the bus on his own. It was two days before the Head had time to see me/us about it.
• The school ran into difficulty and the SLT was re-structured. Against all the odds I was unexpectedly appointed AHT for assessment – something else I didn’t know a lot about! The Head of maths lead a Head of Faculty revolt. They wrote a letter to the Governors asking that my appointment be over-turned on the grounds I had never taught 6th form (although I had been a very good 6th form tutor) and that I could sometimes be sharp. Seriously. No-one did anything, no-one took them to task. It made my life much harder.
• A colleague I did not get on with left a union publication about workplace bullying in my pigeonhole with a handwritten note saying “This is what happens to bullies”. Nobody did anything.

Thankfully, I had good friends who gave me a lot of support but it was disheartening. I did a Boxer – got on with it, worked hard and over 10 years I taught myself a lot about assessment and data, set up systems for reports and so forth – the head who came in next thought my work was great and told me I was much better than a person at his previous school for whom he’d just written a reference for a deputy headship. The next head on interview day, after an informal meeting with some staff including me, left with the words “You know your data”. Wow.

Unfortunately for me as it turned out, she was appointed. I won’t bore you with all the details of her reign but suffice to say some instinct alerted me on day one and I started keeping records – just as well as it turned out. She proved to be arrogant, bombastic, completely unself-aware, lacking in any vestige of emotional intelligence, self-centred, self-interested and a self-declared expert on any subject mentioned. The reality was a person who talked in sound bites, had no real interest in the school, the pupils or the staff and who made what frequently seemed to be capricious and disquieting decisions. She spent large sums of the school budget on amenities for her office – a large screen television an armchair costing £2k and large amounts of her time out of the school at a variety of courses and conferences where she booked – or upgraded to -the finest rooms. She had been walked off the premises of her previous school partly because of a vote of no confidence by the staff and allegations of bullying. And she had not the merest shred of humility.

Within two terms it was obvious that she had me in her sights and to this day I don’t know why. I’m not perfect – far from it – but I was well respected within the school for my hard work over a long and difficult period of time which had moved the school forward in many different ways. I was a highly regarded classroom teacher and my results were great – better than the department and faculty average.

So what did she do? As @nancygedge has pointed out, it’s in the grey areas and the trivial little things that, taken alone, amount to what might be considered a bit of a whinge. It’s only when they are put together that they suggest a more serious picture. It was things said, remarks made, emails sent – quite often late on Friday requiring a report to be on her desk on Monday morning – something not experienced by colleagues. It culminated in the events around the appointment of what turned out to be two deputy heads.

She announced one day that she was having to do too much work and was shattered so would be advertising for a deputy head and would possibly appoint two – she had a track record of this buy one get one not free approach! I duly applied and went through the process to the wire only to be unsuccessful as she appointed two male (another track record) deputy heads. This was devastating but what followed was even worse. I asked for feedback from the LA member of the panel who seemed unable to point to any specific reason for my lack of success other than “It’s in the fine detail, Julie”. His most memorable example of this was that when asked how I would deal with an angry parent I didn’t say I would offer a cup of coffee. I was dumbstruck and left the meeting commenting that there really was nothing more to say.

The new boys duly arrived in September and new job descriptions were drawn up. I alone among my senior leadership team colleagues was stripped of my entire job description (JD) which had included assessment, data, report, G&T, teaching and learning – it was a big JD as I had a reputation for getting things done. I was told “Assessment is vital and it is not in place.” By this time I was so beat I was unable to respond. Suffice to say I took everything I had been doing to my next school and have continued to refine and improve it. My work in this area saved the school from a category at the first Ofsted after my arrival (the lead HMI told me this) and subsequent Ofsteds have been pleased with the work I lead while Mocksteds have told us we’re in front of the game – so I must be doing something right.

My new JD contained nothing other than all those annoying things no-one wants to do – for example, fire drill. I was distraught – for someone on the interview circuit and still hopeful of a deputy headship (I’ve blogged about not making it) it was a serious blow. No application I could make would ever be taken seriously. And so it went on. The new boys, empowered by the Head, denigrated and sneered at everything I – and to be fair, others – had done. The school became an unsafe place. I thought I was holding together but really, I wasn’t. I became forgetful and distracted. I forgot how to smile. I tried to dress smartly and with pride as I always had done, but reflection shows that I just picked up a rag bag of clothing every day and looked often dishevelled and unco-ordinated. My shoulders drooped more with every passing day. I no longer had any faith in myself, my confidence was shot and I spent most of my time thinking about what I could do if – when – the axe fell.

I had no hope that the union would help me – mainly people developed a bunker mentality and heads were kept down. Truthfully, I have long felt that as a member of SLT my union – the one I’ve been in since the first day I went to teacher training college – wasn’t really interested in what was happening to me because I’m a member of SLT busy exploiting their members – although I did log some stuff with them. What about the Governors as @nancygedge suggested? I thought long and hard about that but where to go when the Chair and the Head were inseparable? Who would raise their head above the parapet? On one level, I don’t blame my colleagues and on another I feel they let me down. As Nancy says, it’s in the grey areas and to vocalise them can often sound like a bit –a lot – of whinging. And when people become afraid they have no time to look around at the bigger picture.

And then, a little ray of sunshine just when I was at my lowest ebb. The Head suggested a secondment and called in an LA adviser (remember when we had them?). The foolish woman had been in the authority a nano-second and being self-absorbed had taken no time to find out about who was who and what was what. Unbeknown to her the LA man was someone I had known for thirty years and met regularly for lunch and a gossip. As it turned out he was one of my two saviours. He spoke to a local Head – my second saviour – who agreed to take me on secondment for two terms. And here’s the thing, the awful Head paid my salary for five terms in the end while I worked at what is effectively a rival school!

Thanks to these two saviours, I finally found sanctuary. In the fullness of time a post was advertised which I was able to apply for – against a national field and nine (!) shortlisted candidates and I have thrived ever since. I have never stopped counting my blessings and my gratitude to the school is heartfelt, my loyalty rock solid.

I was lost but now I am found. I am home.


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