Page 723 - Week 03 - Tuesday, 8 March 2005

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We are fortunate in the ACT that the situation is not as severe as in other states and territories but, as recent incidents demonstrate, we have no cause for complacency. It is always easier to destroy than to create. These incidents are not isolated. It is essential we deal with them right now before they become the norm. There is no aspect of the problem that does not receive the attention it merits. There is the documented increase in the bullying of junior teachers by their senior colleagues. In a twist on an old joke, the saying being increasingly heard in the nation’s classrooms is that “Those who can, do; those who can’t, bully”. The results are as costly in dollars as they are in personal trauma and impact on the quality of teaching.

According to the Australian Education Union in Victoria, between 1996 and 2003, over 1,000 teachers were awarded more than $34 million in compensation for stress and injury to health, caused mostly by excessive workloads, abuse, lack of support, and dealing with difficult students. The NSW Teachers Federation has encapsulated the problem by stating: “The culture of fear has become the norm and systemic bullying has become an accepted practice, with many teachers too afraid to question the unacceptable actions of others.” In these cases, the abuse is rarely physical, but more often verbal and psychological. It includes, but is by no means confined to, endless direct and indirect criticism, unrealistic work demands, sarcasm, abuse of authority, belittlement, blocking of promotions, malicious gossip and ostracism.

Among the more unrealistic work demands is that of forcing teachers to take classes for which they are not qualified and which expose them and students to avoidable damage. The Supreme Court recently ordered the ACT schools authority to pay $58,000, plus costs, to a former student who was seriously injured in an industrial design class taken by an inexperienced relief teacher.

The bully’s target varies. It may be a young, conscientious teacher whose ability and perhaps popularity with students is resented by an older, ineffectual colleague or it may be an older more traditional teacher whose experience and authority expose the shallow learning of younger generations. Teaching has always been a difficult profession but in today’s competitive work environment, where rights are so often divorced from responsibilities and individual advancement so often thought the only good, bullies feel more confident than ever in throwing their weight around.

For both students and teachers, the long-term consequences of these developments are very serious indeed. Almost all reports about the recent spate of incidents involving the torture and dismemberment of kittens have mentioned the well-established link between cruelty to animals among children and later serious violence against human beings. How much stronger is the link between untrammelled bullying of other children at school and the later propensity to violence? There are also the longer term consequences for individual teachers and the teaching profession in general. It is already difficult to attract teachers to the profession.

Bullying is a major institutional issue at ACT schools, having an impact on students, parents and teachers alike. Given its several dimensions of potentially damaging long-term consequences, we all have an obligation to investigate the issue as thoroughly as possible with a view to minimising damage and, as far as possible, preventing it in future. The government will not acknowledge that the problem exists.

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