I was delighted to be offered a senior post at a very well-known language school. I was 30 years into my career in ELT and a published author. I knew I’d been up against strong competition to get the job as the school in question had a good reputation and the salary on offer was generous for our profession. Almost from the beginning, I realised there was a strange atmosphere at the school but it took me quite a while to work out what it was because it was quite complex. My boss was a bully.
My boss was a bully
He’d been in the school a long time and had had a negative impact on the culture. To be fair, I don’t think he realised what he was doing, and even had a nice side to him when talking about non-work matters. What I mean by that is that bullying had become normalised. He was a control freak. He would act out conversations I should have with the staff I was managing: ‘You say this and then they will say that and then you can say so and so’. I’d run my own school before so this was patronising and baffling to me. After appointing me, he seemed to have absolutely no faith in me.Soon he started to criticise me when things were not done his way. He made me cry on two separate occasions after shouting at me for things which were not wrong, just different from what he would do. On one occasion, he brought in the ‘big guns’- his boss-and I felt totally ganged up on.
This school had a toxic culture. It was not limited to one or two individuals. I learnt soon after I started that my post had been created in order to force out my predecessor. As a result of this totally unnecessary restructure, another manager had been demoted and his salary cut. I felt bad about this as I was paid more than this manager who had been there for a long time. My colleagues were very critical of my predecessor but others in the organisation hinted that all was not as it seemed and that she had been badly treated.
I found it extremely difficult to work with my immediate colleagues. The person I was supposed to work most closely with, who I’ll call Ms X, seemed to dislike and distrust me from the moment I arrived. I tried to be friendly and helpful, but she didn’t want to help me. She refused to teach me certain tasks and then complained that I didn’t do them! I soon realised I was victim of a whispering campaign. In the period between my predecessor leaving and me joining (about 4 months), a teacher, Ms X2, had been seconded into the office and she and Ms X had become joined at the hip. When I came in, they had already decided they would make things difficult for me. This took many forms. One was keeping hold of tasks that should have been passed onto me to make it look like I was not doing much. Another was by openly saying things like ‘let’s go to the pub after work’ or ‘check out my holiday pics on Facebook’, without ever inviting me to join them. No-one added me on Facebook, while constantly referring to things they’d posted in my presence.
During the summer, work took me out of the office a lot. The whispering campaign intensified, with the word going around that I was ‘never there’ and ‘not doing my job’. They knew very well that I was out at other centres, but it was the perfect excuse to blame things on me. With my bullying boss, and passive aggressive colleagues, I was desperately unhappy. There were nice people too, but my office mates tried to turn them against me. Things came to a head when the SMT decided to do a ‘staff survey’. It was ‘anonymous’ but no-one had really thought things through and many staff members- myself included- got to see the results. To my horror, there were many negative comments about me, some of them really personal. Someone told me that they knew the worst, most hurtful comments came from Ms X2 and the other nasty ones from her friends. Most of them had no direct contact with me, but just took her word for it. Although the senior managers said they wouldn’t take any notice of the comments, I knew the intention had been to damage my reputation and ultimately, get rid of me.
The reality was both Ms X2 and Ms X felt threatened by me. Ms X2 knew my arrival meant she would be back in the classroom. I knew she was insecure. I was much more qualified and experienced and yes, my arrival did mean she would not stay long in the office. But I had been nice to her and everyone else and didn’t deserve what I went through. I had only been there a few months but I felt I had been found guilty without ever being given a fair trial.
My boss left and his successor was much nicer. I confided in her about Ms X2 and she was appalled. She wanted to give her a warning, but Ms X2 was very clever and hadn’t left any evidence. I only lasted 8 months in this school because I felt constantly blamed, bullied and unsupported. The negative culture ran through the school from the top down. When people in the school knew I was leaving, they said ‘take me with you’ and ‘you’re well out of here’. So many staff members left around the same time as me, several with far worse experiences than me. I told my boss to be careful in appointing someone else as the organisation doesn’t seem to welcome’ incomers’. I predict that she won’t last very long for the same reason. After leaving, I heard that Ms X2 had been rewarded for her nastiness by being sent back to the office job she wanted. When behaviour like hers goes unchallenged, there is no prospect of change.
The stress of being at this school made my long-term health condition worse. I left without a job to go to and am, at the time of writing, unemployed and worried about paying the rent next month. My self-esteem is at an all-time low while the bullies are sitting pretty.