Saturday, April 7, 2012

Karl du Fresne: What happens when the school principal is a controlling bully?

I was contacted recently by a primary school teacher. She tracked me down after reading something I had written about a nasty incident in which two Northland school principals bullied a colleague who had dared to speak out in favour of national standards.

I was alarmed by what this teacher told me. A relative newcomer to New Zealand, she had been attracted here because we had a high literacy rate and, in her own words, “seemed to be doing all the right things in education”.

She had 25 years’ teaching experience in her home country, working mainly in schools serving poor urban communities, often with a high ratio of pupils from ethnic minorities. She enjoyed working in that environment so was happy to accept a position in a decile one school with a predominantly Maori roll in a small, economically backward country town. As she explained it to me, she relished being confronted with a class of “challenging” pupils and motivating them to succeed.

After three years, however, she was disillusioned and disheartened – if not with the state of New Zealand education generally, then certainly with the potential for abuse of power by dysfunctional individuals within the system. She was so disquieted by what she encountered that she began a blog, seen by only a few close friends and fellow teachers, in which she catalogued her experiences and impressions.

In this case the school principal was a controlling bully who ran the school as his personal fiefdom, rewarding teachers who were on his side and punishing those who dared to make waves.

Often it was the pupils who ended up being penalised, since the principal exercised control by withdrawing resources and privileges from the classes of teachers who were seen as troublesome.

The principal also had what are euphemistically known as anger management issues. According to my informant, it wasn’t just pupils who were subjected to his rages; parents and staff copped it as well.

She told me of one girl who was so distressed by a tirade in the principal’s office (for the offence of chewing gum) that she wet herself. In another incident, a pupil was grasped by the shirt, lifted to eye-level, slammed against a wall and told never to “f***ing do that again” after overturning a rubbish bin.

On another occasion, three staff felt so intimidated by the principal that they stood outside his house, too scared to wake him and ask him to move his car so that the school vans could be backed out and used for a scheduled field trip.

My informant listed several other incidents, but you get the picture.

The principal’s techniques for managing staff are worth noting, too. Favoured teachers were promoted without vacancies being advertised. Extra payments known as units, which are meant to compensate teachers for taking on special responsibilities, were handed out as rewards, like lollies. Though they were supposed to be allocated transparently after consultation with the staff, no one but the principal knew who had been awarded the units or even how many were available for distribution.

When an Education Review Office team visited the school, the principal warned teachers beforehand that jobs would be lost if the school got a bad report, and that he would insist on knowing the source of any adverse comment made to the ERO reviewers. My informant wrote in her blog: “The [ERO] report came out glowing with plausible explanations given for the high turnover in staff, dropping enrolment and low test scores.”

The teacher concerned has now left the school after being declared surplus, partly due to the school’s steadily declining roll.

In the course of several conversations with her, I concluded she was a dedicated professional who was genuinely distressed by what she saw. This impression was confirmed by a neutral third party who was familiar with the situation at the school.

Now, here’s the bigger issue. If this were just one dysfunctional school with a rogue principal, that would be serious enough. But what if it’s not simply a one-off aberration? Could there be other schools in a similar predicament?

The answer seems to be yes, because my informant’s observations point to a critical deficiency in the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms of 1989, which bestowed autonomy on school boards of trustees, concentrated power in principals’ hands and stripped away a layer of supervision previously provided by district education boards.

In theory the reforms sounded fine. But what happens when the board of trustees is controlled by an alpha-male principal and effectively does what he tells them?

In this case, according to my informant, the man had been a principal for a long time and the board of trustees rubber-stamped everything he proposed. “When he offered me a job I assumed I would have to be interviewed by the board, but he told me: ‘The board does everything I say’. I thought, okay, this is the way they do things in New Zealand. I didn’t want to rock the boat.” It was only later, when she talked to another experienced teacher who had recently joined the school, that she realised it wasn’t the way schools were supposed to be run.

But it was even worse than that, because the principal effectively chose the board himself. He would invite community members to put themselves forward but no elections took place because the number of individuals asked to be on the board always equalled the number of vacant seats.

In her blog, my informant wrote that the several levels of checks and controls she was used to in her home country did not exist in New Zealand to oversee and monitor individual schools.

Education minister Hekia Parata, who is currently overseeing a review of school governance, should take note.

A lot has been said and written in recent years about the inadequacies of the Tomorrow’s Schools model, especially in isolated rural communities such as the one described above, where it’s hard to attract board members with the required skills. It has also been noted that the 1989 reforms greatly enhanced the position and control of the principal.

Combine those two elements – a weak board and a bullying principal – and the consequences, as my informant’s experience shows, can be very damaging.

Karl blogs at


Anonymous said...

What is not being stated here is the cultural affiliation of the principal.

I bet he is a "Maori" and people are at least in part too scared to confront him for fear of being labelled "racist."

There's no way a European male (the whipping boy of the world) would get away with acting in such manner!

Anonymous said...

Surely, anonymous, you mean he is probably "part-Maori"? Why is it that so many prominent part-Maori proclaim their minor part-Maoriness rather than there majority non-Maoriness? It could not possibly be anything to do with the benefits falling their way from the Treaty settlements, could it?

Anonymous said...

I recently had a run in with the Principal of my children's school. I requested that the National Anthem be displayed in school assembly so the parents could sing along properly - many did not go through the school system in NZ (including myself who is 6th generation kiwi). What a nightmare! There is an overhead projector on during most assemblies that I thought would be ideal to use. I resorted to a petition and had 20 signatures in 20 minutes representing 40 children. I was abused because admin staff shoved the petition under a door while she was in a meeting. After many heated emails, the following week's newsletter announced that copies of the Anthem would be available to parents during assembly as requested by a group of parents.
I can't say I am looking forward to raising another suggestion any time soon.

Sally said...

Whilst reading this article my mind kept jumping back to a Southern Rural Council. A bully of a Chief Executive, intimidated staff too scared to speak up for what is best for the ratepayers and incompetent councillors allowing the bully free range. A mayor who comes across as a nice guy but is of the same ilk as the Chief Executive.

Denis McCarthy said...

I am a retired primary teacher. The only way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them. I suggest the following:

1. Don't let things build up. First of all tell the bully that his/her behaviour is unsatisfactory and that you will not tolerate it. If you receive no satisfaction at this stage put your concerns in writing, have the message witnessed, and give it to the Principal. (Keep a copy.)

2. If no improvement submit a formal complaint to the Board of Trustees even if you have doubts about their competence. (If you don't do this they can rightly say later that no one told them what was happening.) At the same time consult with your teachers' union.They take in your union fees so let them earn their money!

3. If the problem contines get some legal advice from an independent soliciter - someone who is familiar with Workplace Law.
It goes without saying that you have to stick absolutely to the facts. Now and again you read about damages being awarded to bullying victims and it would do no harm for your soliciter to send the BOT and the Principal a letter pointing this out.

No doubt there will be a certain amount of stress involved in all this but let the bully experiece some stress as well. If legal action is taken his or her reputation will be seriously compromised if not destroyed.