When the Principal is a Bully

*Please note that due to the personal nature of many of the responses to this post, I am no longer approving further comments.  This post has had a large number of visceral responses, which tells me this is not an isolated problem.  I hope that everyone reading this will recognize the signs and work to end this practice in schools.  I have not been bullied by a principal myself, but I am close to someone who has been, and it is gut-wrenching to see what it can do to a talented and caring educator.  

Thanks for reading.

Since International Day of Pink  this past week (April 11, 2012), bullying in schools is once again a hot topic. But what if the bullying in the school isn’t among students?

What if the biggest bully in the school is the Principal?

Many people would be surprised to hear that the teachers who spend each day working to prevent bullying among students in schools can themselves be victims of bullying in the workplace.

What does bully leadership look like?

Image shared under a Creative Commons License by Meredith Farmer

Bully leadership is authoritative.  It can be very uncomfortable.

There is the overwhelming feeling of anger. It can mean slamming doors for effect.  There can be psychological bullying, like dropping statements that cause stress for a teacher at inappropriate times.

It can mean undermining the efforts of teachers and jeopardizing their success.  It can involve threatening and abuse of power.

But do bully leaders consider themselves to be bullies?

Principal bullies often believe strongly that they are very capable leaders, and are unable to distinguish between the qualities of good leadership and bullying.

Often bully leaders believe that they are simply getting everyone on side, focusing on the current initiative.  They see success in their actions. Bully leaders get results.  And they get attention from senior management. Upper management sees the results, cheers the Bully on, holding up to others the “great results” – something all the other Principals should aspire to.

But that “success” is short-lived.  When teacher motivation rests in fear of the Principal, it is not sustainable.

How can Senior Management Recognize the Bully Principal?

It can be very difficult for Superintendents to identify a bully principal.  Bully principals don’t show their Jekyll sides outside of their school while they are focused on showcasing and taking credit for their successes.

Trustees, Directors and SO’s want to see success, and it’s easy to be blinded by a bully principal’s charm and confidence.  There is no reason to delve deeper into what is going on.

What are the signs that something is not right?

  • Good teachers are being let go and weak teachers are being brought in.  A bully principal needs teachers who can be controlled.  Teachers who stand up to them are dangerous.  Is there a school where the hiring pattern causes surprise?
  • Vulnerable teachers are doing extra work.  Look deeply into the new projects and ideas.  Are they being run by teachers whose position are in danger of termination?  Are they being pressured into taking on extra work with their job on the line?
  • A pattern of attack on an initiative.  Is an initiative consistently interrupted or questioned by a Principal?  Who is in charge of the initiative?  Is this teacher being bullied by the principal?
  • Is there a principal who is not openly welcomed to collaborate with the others principals?  Why is that? Often other principals are fully aware that someone in their midst is a bully – and they steer clear.

How does a Bully Principal affect the organization?

  • Good people leave.  Effective teachers will not stick around in this environment.
  • Senior management loses credibility when they unknowingly favour and promote the work of bullies.
  • Future leaders in the building need to take time to re-build trust, which means a longer time before issues of student achievement are addressed. Children don’t have this kind of time to waste.
  • Desperate bullied teachers may behave unprofessionally out of frustration.

Ontario has legislation that prevents bullying in the workplace, but teachers are reluctant to report when the bully is their boss.

Victims understand the power structure and the preferential treatment their “model Principal” receives from upper management, and they are afraid to complain.

Bully Principals have long-term effects on schools throughout a District.  Supervisory Officers need solid training on how to recognize when leadership has gone wrong.  Teachers need a safe method of reporting bullying, without fear of retribution.

Photo shared under a Creative Commons license by Eddie-S http://www.flickr.com/photos/13542313@N00/2500644518/

Do you have more to share on this issue?

Can you suggest solutions or sources of information?

November 2013: Here is an awesome post by Seth Godin on the cost of Bullying in the workplace: Bullying is Theft

“The end to bullying starts with a question: does senior management see the cost? Do they understand that tolerating and excusing bullying behavior is precisely what permits it to flourish?”



Those Who Can Do, Those Who Can’t Bully

A Rant About Leaders Who Are Bullies

How To Recognize a Bully Manager in Your Organization

Narcissistic Personality Disorder Leadership: Are You A Bully Leader?

Leadership or Workplace Bully?

*Update August 13, 2012 – Here is a link on workplace bullying that may be helpful for Canadian readers: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/careers/career-advice/life-at-work/is-your-boss-just-tough-or-a-bully/article4469548/ *

7 thoughts on “When the Principal is a Bully

  1. My first principal was a bully. I was 24 years old, a new teacher and the first time she slammed the desk as I sat across from her, while she tried to chastise me, I had to threaten her with calling my union rep to get her to stop. She was replaced the next school year, as she was finally deemed to be incompetent, after treating several other teachers (and parents) in this manner over the years. This was an extremely stressful experience, one that I’m happy to share was never repeated. My finest examples of leadership were my Uncle,and Dad who were both principals, as well as John and Anita, my two mentor principals. They modeled firm, fair and consistent leadership. They were kind, caring, supportive and could always be counted on to be trust worthy. They were beloved by students, and school communities and by “most” of their staff. Had to frequently make tough calls and decisions, but tried to do so in an inclusive manner. Years later, I became a principal and served with integrity and caring as my vision for 14 years. I tried to lead by example, cared deeply about my school community and at times had to make unpopular decisions. It was lonely “at the top” as is the case for most in the position, but very rewarding. I stood up for the rights of my teachers, students and parents, and because of this, I ,unlike those you mention, was not always popular with all my superintendents. However, I have no regrets. The issue you share is quite familiar to me. The solution, sadly is complicated and fraught with politics. Until a group of teachers band together, attend board meetings, and get the parent community involved, when indeed their is a “bully principal” the status quo will remain. The power really lies in the collective, but they have to be ready to stand up for what they believe in and be willing to bring solutions forward. My last offering would be to share this book http://goo.gl/k1fpe. It was my “bible” and supported me through many years of school leadership. Best to you for having the bravery to share this important piece.

  2. I have taught for 19 years and for the last 3 years have been a victim of a bully principal. Last Thursday, I decided was that last yelling and degrading in front of peers and open door to public. There has almost been a complete turnover with a handful of teachers left. This principal said she was the Anti-Christ. Now I’m in Gods hands fighting for His Justice.

  3. Reblogged this on Blogging in Chaos and commented:
    My husband Travis actually found this but I felt compelled to share. I know that many of my educator friends will apprecitereciate this. Even if you haven’t personally been in this situation, you probably know a colleague who has. Let me go on record & say that I ? my principal & this is definitely not a reference to him! ? My prayer is that one day this type of leadership will be eradicated. Should you decide to comment, please be sensitive & withhold any personally identifiable information. Thanks!

  4. What if you are an assistant principal and your principal is lying about you and trying to get your fired. You have followed the chain of command and told if you don’t like it leave and go back into the classroom? What can be done when no one believes you and you are close to giving up?

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