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/ *

Recovering from EQAO

For the first time in many years, I arrived home from school yesterday feeling the physical side effects of intense stress.  I had pain all through the right side of my body and I could feel the muscle spasms in my neck and shoulders.  It took most of last evening to try to relax, to run, to take a bath and then finally get a good night’s sleep to get back to something approaching normal.

That’s because I can relax now.  The blue plastic bucket full of the OSSLT tests is safe in the vault, ready to be picked up by the courier this morning to be whisked away to EQAO.

But this isn’t about me.  If I felt this much stress, and I am just the Principal overseeing the test, what about my students?  It isn’t over for them.  They still have to wait several months for their results.

I was comforting students who were in tears before the test even started yesterday.  I know there are students who will not pass this test, and it has nothing to do with their ability to read and write.

I have written often on high-stakes testing, but in today’s economic climate when governments are looking at freezing teacher salaries as a way to balance the books, I really have to wonder at what our priorities are.

I stumbled across this blog: SheilaSpeaking: Standardized Testing – Teacher Reflections on EQAO which questions why we continue to believe that EQAO testing is what is best for our students in Ontario.  She also refers to the blogs listed below, which are very good conversation starters.

Teaching to the test: Jamie Reaburn Weir

Let’s Scrap EQAO: Andrew Campbell

You Can’t Cancel the Redundancy: Timothy King

(Check here for another look at the conversation on whether standardized tests should be used as part of a student’s grade in a high school course)

Question Everything

In my last posting, I stated a few of the findings in the Hole in the Wall experiments.  The last was that schools need to include a rational system to know what to believe in.

Tonight I read a post by Ira Socol called “Question Everything” that really helps me with my thinking on this one.

In particular, I love this section that so clearly demonstrates the cycle of memorizers getting good grades and becoming teachers:

The teachers can almost always rattle off what is wrong with this projection, including the innate cultural bias attached – the diminuation of the southern hemisphere (Greenland, 1/14th the size of Africa, appears larger than that continent), the Americentric splitting of Asia, et al – but if I ask why this map is important, where it would be valuable, those same educators often freeze.

but will this map help you get home?

They know what they’ve “learned” (memorized) about the Mercator Projection, but as generations of U.S. educators never questioned the map which unrolled over the chalkboard, our educators today fail to question the shortcomings of the new maps.

So whether it is homework or due dates, school bells or school desks, or any of the “facts” we tend to put before students. You, them, we all, should be doubting everything, questioning everything.

That process not only builds a real kind of learning unavailable through memorization, it will create a next generation unwilling to accept the mistakes of the past and present.

And to me, that’s what education is about.

– Ira Socol

And maybe then we will be educating citizens who think like scientists, and we won’t need videos like this on climate change: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/james_hansen_why_i_must_speak_out_about_climate_change.html

SIM 2012

Image shared by Bricolage108 under a Creative Commons License

I have been fortunate to spend two days at SIM 2012 in Thunder Bay.  It is the third SIM session I have attended this year, and it is always a time of intense learning.

The question is always, “What will I take away and integrate into my practice?”.

While I continue to ponder that, here are some of the topics we covered.

Before the event, we read three articles posted on my Scoop-It page here: http://www.scoop.it/t/leading-learning/p/1468464263/watkins-09-collaborative-pdf

or on Chris Watkins’ site at the Institute of Education, University of London.

All three articles provide very practical suggestions for enhancing student learning.

During the event we used some of these resources to help focus our conversations.

1) Sugata Mitra and the “Hole in the Wall” experiments.

Here is a link to the 2007 TED Talk in case this is a new concept for you: http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_shows_how_kids_teach_themselves.html

“Minimally Invasive Education is defined as a pedagogic method that uses the learning environment to generate an adequate level of motivation to induce learning in groups of children, with minimal, or no, intervention by a teacher.”


(Research findings here.)

From this research stems the need to teach three key things in schools:

a) Reading comprehension

b) Information searching and retrieval skills

c) A rational system to know what to believe in

(I think a lot about the third suggestion.  Should the indoctrination of children be permitted?  Would the attacks on Michael Mann (see former posting:https://fryed.wordpress.com/2012/03/14/considering-how-we-teach-science/) be happening if we were doing this well in schools?)

2) Dr. Allan Luke

Some of Dr. Allan Luke’s earlier work can be found here:


At SIM we watched Dr. Luke speak about the importance of rich content in spite of the level of basic skills.  We can engage learners in meaningful “sustained, rich, scaffolded conversations”.  “The dumbing down of the curriculum because we believe the students cannot handle complex topics when they have deficiencies in basic skills is insidious.”

While engaging students in important inquiry and rich content, every teacher should be trained to work to enhance reading comprehension in every student, from the phys. ed. teacher to the math teacher.  We all have the responsibility to continue to improve literacy skills.

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

I am a scatterbrain today.  I am excited about all the the reading I am doing but I can’t pull it all together at this point.

I am exploring three things right now.

1) We don’t know what we don’t know, so how do we direct our own learning?

Photo shared by Helga under a Creative Commons License.

This thinking is a product of my frustration over the last year as I have been learning with my elementary school colleagues.  I was astounded at how much further ahead they were in their learning than I was, and I was impatient to “catch up” with them, but I couldn’t figure our where to turn!  Now that I have developed a more complex schema around learning theory, I am looking for ways to guide my secondary colleagues through this process – of feeling behind and left out but not quite sure how to move forward.

I wonder how often our students feel the same way as we work on gradual release (acceptance?) of responsibility for learning.  We need to ensure that we are sufficiently scaffolding their learning as they work on self-direction.

2) Reluctant learners.

Photo shared by Zen under a Creative Commons License

Every high school has this issue, but our unique geography and culture can lure us into the trap of giving up or lowering expectations.  I don’t think we have worked hard enough on our inquiry into how to reach reluctant learners.

Here is a piece based on Carol Dweck’s work (see yesterday’s posting) about motivation.  I would love to hear how you are engaging reluctant learners.

What I Wish I Had Known about Student Motivation (ASCD blog) http://edge.ascd.org/_What-I-Wish-I-Had-Known-about-Student-Motivation/blog/5869251/127586.html

3) Integrating Technology and Creativity into every classroom.

I am exploring this as we make the leap from aging desktop computers in a sign-out lab, to wifi and BYOD.  We know we have to go there, but it is a big leap and I need to think about how to prepare teachers.  They range from “I would not be caught dead on Facebook” to “Well sure, I could try that” and, “Yes, I already use that app. Do you have another suggestion?”.

How do I prepare teachers in my school to be ready for this huge leap in how we do business?  In particular, how do we work with teachers who currently do not use technology at all in their own lives?

Again, they don’t know what they don’t know.

This is worth a read:


“Technology is the driving force behind most of the education innovation. It is impacting not only what we can do as educators, but it is also changing how we approach learning. These innovations may have not all reached the education journals yet, but they have been presented and are being discussed digitally and at great length in social media.

A few of the recent topics include: the Flipped Class, eTextbooks, PBL approaches to learning, blended classes, Edcamps for PD, BYOD, Digital classrooms, Tablets, 1:1 laptops, digital collaboration, Social Media, Mobile Learning Devices, Blogging. Some of these topics have made it to the print media, but all are being delved into at length through social media. It is a disadvantage to be a print-media educator in a digital-media world. I can understand how a majority of educators whose very education was steeped in print media is more comfortable with that medium. The technology however, is not holding still to allow educators to dwell in a comfort zone. Just as the technology of the printing press got us beyond the technology of the scrolls (Parchment & Quill), Technology is now taking us beyond print media to digital publications and boundless collaboration.”

Exploring further:

A webinar that I am watching today: Ask Dr. Judy: How to create a learning-receptive emotional state (available on iTunesU through ASCD)


I am also doing some reading on the Finnish education system (isn’t everyone?).


A source for all things Finland (in education) http://cybraryman.com/finland.html

Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? http://store.tcpress.com/0807752576.shtml

We Know It’s Broken, But How Do We Fix It?

Shared by zen under a Creative Commons licence http://www.flickr.com/photos/54289096@N00/354274498/

It’s March Break.  It’s beautiful outside, but I am inside researching.  And I am frustrated.

There is plenty out there telling me that we need school reform.  Granted, most of it is actually aimed at the US, but as a current secondary principal, I know Ontario secondary schools have to be a target as well.

The question is, what do we do? As a Principal, what do I do?  The system still supports old thinking, and we need massive structural change if we are going to make a real difference.  The change we try to implement at the secondary school level is opposed by the structure of the “credit” system, the need for “high marks” to get into university, “awards” and scholarships and competition rather than collaboration.

What small changes can we make to engage students and improve learning while working to change the system as a whole?

As I work through this question, I will share my thinking and my challenges here.

In the meantime, here is some of the reading and listening I have done today.  I hope it challenges your thinking too.


Children Stressed to the Breaking Point Due to Standardized Testing

Recently New York City made public teacher evaluations based on student standardized test scores.  This proceeded the state of New York’s decision to change how educators are evaluated, in part by connecting the standardized test scores of students into final ratings.  The following letter was shared with me by a friend whose daughter is in the New York City Public School System.  She plans on sending this to officials in the NYC Department of Education to inform them of the potential that more standardized testing will have as a result of recent reform efforts.

Ben Levin’s book: How to Change 5000 Schools http://www.hepg.org/hep/book/93

Carol Dweck: Mindset Podcast http://blogs.hbr.org/ideacast/2012/01/the-right-mindset-for-success.html

Rethinking School: http://hbr.org/2012/03/rethinking-school/ar/1

“The test of a successful education is not the amount of knowledge that a pupil takes away from a school, but his appetite to know and his capacity to learn” Sir Richard Livingstone, 1941 (p. 28).

“No curricular overhaul, no instructional innovation, no change in school organization, no toughening of standards, no rethinking of teacher training or compensation will succeed if students do not come to school interested in, and committed to, learning.” Steinberg, 1996 p. 194

“The need, rather, is to free ourselves from the collective conceptual blinkers which the existing apparatus of educational assumptions represents.  At the heart of such a project for comparitivists, I suggest, must be the recognition of the central role of culture in facilitating and shaping the process of learning and thus, of the need to study the part played by the perceptions and feelings of the individual learner.

Broadfoot, 2000 Comparative education for the 21st Century: Retrospect and Prospect Comparative Education 36(3), August 2000: 357-371

Considering How We Teach Science

Tree Frog
Shared by AlphaTangoBravo under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Harassing phone calls, personal threats, intrusions on personal privacy – this is what scientist Michael Mann has endured.

He was interviewed yesterday on The Current, by Anna Maria Tremonti.  His new book, “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars”, chronicles his personal journey, attempting to deliver an unpopular message to the American public.

He faces climate change deniers to this day, and the interview highlights the struggle to sell science to a public that does not understand it, a public that will believe what they hear from politicians or talk radio over the results of scientific inquiry, if it suits their purpose or supports their current belief system.

What does it say about our education system when people will so easily believe what they want to believe?  When people confuse science and belief?

Science is about inquiry.  Science is about questioning.  Science is about getting to the truth.

What are we doing wrong in the science classroom?

When politicians can convince the public that they are right and scientists are wrong, the school system has failed.

Have we so conditioned the public to simply listen, memorize and regurgitate that we can tell them anything and they will believe it?  If a myth is repeated often enough, the public will see it as truth.  Why do so few people even question the validity of what they are told?

Is it because they have spent thousands of hours in classrooms being taught to listen and memorize rather than to question and explore?

Michael Mann has lived the result of this type of indoctrination.

Grant Wiggins* questions the entire idea of a standard curriculum.

Broadfoot**, back in 2000, writes about how our current system of education spread throughout the world and as such, is not questioned, even though it was developed for a world that no longer exists.

Promoting student inquiry*** in our schools will encourage our students learn to examine and investigate rather than to simply believe authority without question.

References and Resources:

The Current on CBC Radio: Anna Maria Tremonti interviews scientist and climate activist, Michael Mann. http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/podcasts/current_20120314_79182.mp3

Follow them on Twitter @MichealEMann @TheCurrentCBC

Michael Mann’s website: http://www.meteo.psu.edu/~mann/Mann/index.php

*Grant Wiggins:  Granted, but…
Everything you know about curriculum may be wrong. Really.

**This article: Broadfoot, P., ‘Comparative Education for the 21st Century: retrospect and prospect’ (Comparative Education, 36(3), 2000) though I cannot find it online outside of a library.

***Capacity Building Series: Getting Started with Student Inquiry: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/CBS_StudentInquiry.pdf

by Donna Miller Fry (@fryed)