She stood at the front of the room, hands on hips, and faced us all as if we were prisoners. "Keep in mind that I'm the boss," she said. "You will do as you are told, and if you don't, I'll make your lives miserable!"

This was my first faculty meeting of the year — as a new teacher, my first ever — and this woman was my principal.

Fresh out of college, I had accepted the position of kindergarten teacher at a public school. The principal arrived at the same time. From day one, she made it clear that it was time for some changes. Instructors with seniority were dismissed — and quickly replaced with the new principal's close friends. An elderly teacher with a physical disability was moved upstairs to a new classroom. When she asked if she could return to her former room, the principal replied, "Deal with it." Upset, the staff began to complain, but nothing changed. New and inexperienced, I decided to keep my mouth shut.

Young, vulnerable, and reluctant to stand up for myself, I was the perfect victim. While everyone labored under the tension, by my second year it became a personal battle. She was out to get me. Her first hostile action was to move me, without cause, to a different classroom in a noisy, high-traffic area. When I told her that parents had protested that this environment interfered with the children's learning, she lashed out: "You're staying exactly where you are, and you'd better deal with the parents, because I won't!"

She would yell at me in front of my colleagues. "Can't you do things right?" "You're still a baby wearing diapers." "Come down from the clouds." "You're too much of a dreamer." She never missed an opportunity to humiliate me.

In my third year, my classroom was moved once again, this time to a small, depressing storage room without windows or fire escapes. Occasionally the principal would stalk into my classroom, demanding that students "shut up." Sometimes she scribbled notes, occasionally giving me a contemptuous glance. I knew that even though I did my job to the best of my ability, it was never good enough. Although the performance assessments I received were acceptable, she never discussed them with me. She simply grunted "Sign here," thrusting forward the evaluation sheet.

After three years of working in this environment, my health became affected. I experienced bad headaches and grew increasingly depressed. Day after day, I woke up with a knot in my stomach knowing I had to face "the monster."

Then I found a ray of hope. I'd read these words by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt: "You're nobody's victim without your permission." I knew that I had to take control of my life and stop blaming my principal. I couldn't control her behavior, but I could control my reactions to it.

I decided to attend a seminar that emphasized effective communication strategies. There I learned that bullies are usually cowards who act upon their fears and insecurities. I also learned nonconfrontational phrases to use in conversation, such as prefacing a statement with, "In my opinion. . .". I also planned ahead for when I knew I would have to speak one-on-one with the principal. First, I would gauge her mood that day, and if I found her unapproachable, I would write her a note requesting a meeting. And I mustered my courage and contacted my union representative for advice. She recommended I document everything my boss said and did to me. If she asked to meet with me, I should insist on having a third party present. In addition, the representative provided me with a guidebook listing my legal rights.

 

A group of teachers and I formed a support group, where we brainstormed ideas on how to handle our boss. Our most successful tactic was to substitute positive, self-supportive thoughts for negative ones, such as "Problems can be seen as challenges instead of setbacks," and "Somewhere in this experience is an opportunity for growth." When repeated again and again, these affirmations became believable. We also studied books on the topic of dealing with difficult people, which gave tips such as: Stand up for yourself; stand up straight and make eye contact; and take time to know the person.

I proved one of these maxims true while chatting with my principal about the beautiful performance of the leading dancer in the Nutcracker Suite. Coincidentally, my boss shared my passion for ballet and had seen the same performance. I discovered that she had another side to her, previously hidden. I began to see her with different eyes. We now had something in common, and her abuse slackened.

Little by little, I regained my confidence and started to see changes. My principal began communicating with me without yelling. She began making time to listen to my thoughts and opinions. One day after a classroom observation, she actually complimented my creative writing lesson. Although my principal and I never became friends, by the end of the school year we managed to develop a healthy respect for each other.

Two years later, I was given an opportunity to teach at a superior school — one with a supportive and encouraging principal — and I chose to make the change. I do not regret, however, my time at my first school, because I came away with a valuable lesson. I learned that I would never again allow myself to be a victim.

Resources

  • You Can Be Happy No Matter What: Five Principles for Keeping Life in Perspective by Richard Carlson and Wayne Dyer (New World Library, 1999).
  • Dealing With People You Can't Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst by Rick Brinkman and Rick Kirscher (McGraw-Hilll 1994).
  • The Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (bullybusters.org) provides support, advocacy, and education for people whose lives and careers have been affected by workplace bullying: http://www.bullybusters.org/