Here she was, drilling youngsters on how best to escape the wrath of bullies, while she herself was being targeted on campus.
But here’s the catch.
Her perpetrator, she insists, was the very person entrusted to nurture and protect the wellbeing of all staff: the school principal.
“People expect kids to be bullying each other … but it’s too embarrassing to say that leaders of schools are doing worse,” Steele says.
Steele quit her part-time teaching position in 2014 after 28 years in the Australian education system, broken, she says, by monstrous conduct from above.
You can hear the hurt and indignation still ringing in her voice.
“He was a very, very experienced bully. And he just bullied me into the ground. I stayed to defend my career and the kids, because I loved doing this work, but I became very ill.
"And the day I decided I was leaving, I got the letter of his lies and complaints about me, full of lies … some of them were absolutely salacious.
“He told the [Australian NSW Education Department] that he had talked to me about every one of those complaints. He talked about none of them. None.”
You might think that this is an isolated case; an unfortunate professional experience marred by one powerful individual whose behaviour went unchecked by the relevant authorities. Not so, it seems - and yet there is a lack of New Zealand- specific research to prove it.
What we do know is that recent NZ Council for Educational Research surveys have uncovered about a sixth of teachers disagree that staff “treat each other with respect” (18 per cent) and that their schools are “a safe social and physical workplace for staff” (17 per cent).
Late last year, EducationHQ launched a national survey in Australia, asking educators to share their brightest highlight and thorniest challenge from their year.
The majority of participants explicitly noted serial bullying from school leadership, and the toll it’s taken, not only on their careers, but their physical and mental health.
“The biggest challenge I have faced is my principal!” wrote one educator.
“She is very clever at covering her tracks with policies and procedures … since her regime we have lost our whole executive team and many other great teachers … someone needs to help us and other schools like us!”
Another defined their greatest snag as “bullying from other staff and leadership, to the point I planned to take my own life. I left the workplace of eight years ... after being accused of grooming students because I call them all ‘darling’. Limited union guidance and zero support from school.”
Toxic culture: a breeding ground
Workplace bullying expert Caroline Dean, a consultant, coach and trainer, visits schools with staff bullying concerns to conduct “root cause analyses”.
That is, she helps people pin-point where and why bullying and/or conflict is occurring, and guides them in long-term strategies to weed it out.
Dean says that workplace bullying is really a glaring red flag – a sign that the underlying culture has turned toxic.
“My take on bullying is that it is always cultural, in that behaviours and conflicts will rise up from a culture that is not working very well, so the behaviours and the conflicts are symptomatic of a culture that hasn’t had any attention paid to it.
“…it is never just about two individuals,” she explains.
So why might serial bullies be making it to the peak of our school leadership teams?
According to Dean, when promotions occur in our workplaces, including schools, there tends to be a blinkered focus on an individual’s “technical expertise”. Thus, those with less than lacklustre social skills can easily slip their way up the ladder.
“Just because someone is a good teacher doesn’t mean they are a good leader as a principal … people might have good technical or operational expertise, but they don’t have good people, personal or emotional skills,” Dean begins.
“The other thing that happens in schools is that we don’t spend enough time in skilling up people so that they are conflict capable or have skills in conflict management.”
The expert says that leaders who bully their staff tend to exhibit the same character DNA: a lack of self-awareness and perception, coupled with an inability to “walk their talk and model appropriate behaviours”.
“A lack of will, if you like, to be accountable for the culture that they create – that’s what I see a lot of.”
Teachers band together
For Steele, the escalation of covert comments and spiteful “collusion” between her principal and his secretary became too much.
“I was ‘disappeared’ from that school,” she says.
“The principals are supported in their bad behaviour. I am glad to say that not every principal is like that, but it’s attracting [people] with personalities that when they get this all-powerful principal job, if they are sociopathic in any way, they use it.
“There is nobody overseeing what they say and do. In my case, I won a WorkCover case, myself and [another] teacher have cost the department nearly (Au) $100,000 dollars.”
Her name might have been blotted off the teacher registration list, but Steele’s fight for “a total investigation into the dodgy practices of people not following code of conduct procedures” is only getting started.
Banding together with another outraged ex-educator, Peter Parker* and Martin Hughes*, now a full-time carer for an ex-teacher, last year the trio launched the Bullied Teachers Support Network – an online community where bullied teachers from all corners of the world can rally together to seek support, share stories and shine a very public light on their offenders.
Member numbers, currently hovering over 200, are growing by the day. Facebook posts (mostly naming and shaming principals and allegedly corrupt department practices) are rolling. Their @bulliedNSW Twitter feed is humming.
In short, the group are ready for some real action.
“We formed the [Support Network] because like many teachers we have realised that our union in NSW, the Teachers Federation, is disinterested in individual cases of bullying, and we’ve got that in writing from the secretary,” Parker shares.
“They turn a blind eye, partly because they are powerless to do anything about it…”
Parker also argues there is a conflict of interest at play.
“Principals are members of our unions as well, and they don’t want to get involved in expensive legal cases and scuffles and fights between members in the union, so wash their hands of it.”
Maurie Mulheron, president of the NSW Teachers Federation, is skeptical of the group and their claims.
“Many of them are not teachers,” he notes.
“They are members of a thing called ‘Bullied Teachers Support Network’ and they are not teachers. So you know, they have often made outrageous, inaccurate, inflammatory, and defamatory comments about people working in the system.”
Mulheron points out that an allegation of bullying is just that – an allegation.
“Bullying occurs in all industries and all workplaces, and we have procedures within NSW to try and minimise and prevent [it] – but an allegation of bullying doesn’t necessarily mean that there is bullying; just because someone makes an allegation or perceives they are being bullied is not necessarily the case.
“We also know that bullying isn’t simply a matter of people in positions of authority bullying, the top down approach, it is much more complex than that…”
TIPs – a tool for bullies?
Parker paints a bleak picture of his time at school in the lead up to his dismissal in 2016.
“It was like being in some sort of conspiracy movie where you are part of a plot of somebody trying to get rid of you but nobody is being honest about it.”
The principal’s twisted scheme to show him the door, Parker claims, centred around placing him on a Teacher Improvement Program (TIP) – a departmental process to “support the teacher to improve their practice in a fair and consistent way”.
“It’s their method of exiting people they don’t want ... it’s awful, it’s very demoralising, it affects your psychological health: you start doubting yourself, you fear, and anxiety and depression come into the picture and you get isolated by your colleagues, because they don’t want their careers to be affected by somebody who is on the outer with management,” Parker says.
Dean, for one, says that a culture of fearful silence is a characteristic of a bully-ridden workplace.
“…one of the things with a toxic culture is that it often separates people out, so people are then afraid to talk about it because they feel they might be silenced.”
If you think of school staff as a tree, Parker and Steele say the TIP is a tool that principals and their accomplices are using to effectively lop off the dead wood; to chop off those mature-aged branches that cost more to keep in classrooms. It’s about making space for casual, lower-paid young shoots.
Parker says that he was put on a TIP simply because he was the scapegoat for a “very toxic political situation” that had arisen in the school.
“They were basically looking for the weakest link to blame … I am not talking about the weakest teaching link, I am talking about the one with the least power in the school,” Parker says.
“And that’s what they do – they scan the group and say ‘OK, we want to get rid of this and this teacher, all the older teachers who are costing us a lot of money and are not necessarily doing everything that a young teacher would do, who is trying to get themselves a permanent job’.
“And so you get targeted and from there on it just becomes a big conspiracy nightmare.”
Mulheron is adamant that the TIP is not a tool that’s open to abuse or misuse.
“The Improvement Program’s primary focus is not to dismiss or get rid of [educators]. The primary responsibility is to ensure they improve as a teacher, grow as a teacher,” he says.
The union president says that employers have a right to question the competence and performance of their teachers, and that the TIP is a formal “negotiated” process that is designed to ensure that people are “working to a satisfactory standard to maintain their accreditation as a teacher, and they are doing the right thing by their colleagues and the students in the school.”
This is not simply bullying from above at play, he argues.
“So, yes, it is difficult for people when they are placed in that situation and their performance is called into question. It’s difficult, it’s stressful for everyone concerned, but it’s not necessarily bullying.
“And that’s why I’m saying the situation is multifaceted and quite complex.”
So what is Mulheron’s “strong advice” to public teachers who feel they are being unfairly targeted?
Seek the advice from a professional support officer from the union, as well as from the department.
The NSW Department of Education was contacted for comment on this story. In a statement, a spokesperson said the department “...has a zero tolerance policy towards bullying, harassment, or abuse of any kind.
“We have a clear Code of Conduct that sets out the behaviour expectations for all staff and has mechanisms incorporated into the internal complaints handling procedures which include allegations of bullying behaviour.
“There is a range of prevention and support programs in place in addition to the Employee Assistance Program to reduce psychological and stress related absences, and promote health and wellbeing of staff.”
However, Steele and Parker maintain they and many other teachers have felt the sting of foul play.
“Out of all our members who have written stories ... one of the common things is that witnesses are not even interviewed,” Steele says.
“If the principal said they didn’t do it, it is accepted…”
Parker says the whole complaints handling process needs a rigorous shake-up.
“People are sick to death of this business of internal investigations, which all the government departments adhere to.
“…when it becomes obvious that a teacher is being bullied, we can put a complaint into EPAC (the Employee Performance and Conduct Directorate). The problem with that, is that EPAC then send that report back to the principal – now how ridiculous is that?!
“It’s like giving the criminal all the paperwork (and the information) so you have this collusion going on between the principal and the department, and the department always wins.”
Parker believes that the situation is now at a crisis level, and he’s calling for urgent change.
“When we use the term ‘bullying’, we’re not talking about minor staffroom disagreements; we’re talking about the prolonged and intense disregard of a teacher’s basic WHS – their right to feel safe and psychologically supported in the workplace,” he says.
“Like the corrupt practices exposed by the Banking Royal Commission, the BTSN call on the Government to hold a Royal Commission into [education] practices, and have the bullies removed from the system.”
*Names have been changed
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