Tony Parker, a former high school geography teacher, isn't allowed to fully share his story of being bullied.† Legally, he is prevented from doing so. That's not, however, the kind of silencing he and his peers, Peter Anderson and Kathy Simpson, are aggrieved about.†
They are protesting what they view as the NSW Department of Education's (DoE) complicity with perpetrators in bullied teacher cases.
They believe that school managers are bullying older staff out of their jobs to employ younger, casual teachers - who are both cheaper and in need of jobs.
As at March 2015, there were almost 47,000 people seeking permanent employment as a teacher in NSW. This accords with Simpson’s estimate of 42,000 casual teachers in the state.
A 2015 DoE report on teacher supply and demand in NSW - the latest available - reveals that "output from teacher education programs continues to be well in excess of the Department’s needs for staffing its primary schools."
The government fosters the conditions for this to occur and for it to result in impunity, the protesters claim. According to them, because it allowed universities to produce an oversupply of teaching graduates, it's in their interests for these graduates to find employment.
"[Also] then-NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli changed the teacher employment rules," Anderson said.
"He deregulated the market around the same time as the NSW government introduced the 'local schools, local decisions' policy."
Anderson is referring to that fact that in 2014, Piccoli changed the length of teacher improvement programs (TIPs) - a 'procedure for managing underperforming teachers' - from a maximum of 16 to a maximum of 12 weeks.
"This makes it much easier for principals to get rid of dead wood." Though he doesn't disagree with the change in theory, Anderson says that in practice, it's abused.
"It empowered principals to do the government's dirty work, meaning principals could be coerced into getting rid of baby boomer teachers and re-employing casual labour on lower rates - solving the government problem of all these unemployed casuals."
Between 2015 and 2017, the rate of NSW teachers dismissed by their schools, either for misconduct or after failing TIPs, increased by 50 per cent. The DoE attributes this increase to a rise in teacher numbers generally.
In 2017, 52 teachers were involved in teacher improvement programs.
A 2016 report by the NSW Auditor-General revealed the cost of workers' compensation claims against the NSW DoE, relating to psychological injuries, had increased by over 70 per cent since the previous year. Over 300 employees cited bullying, harassment and violence as the cause of their injury – nearly 34 per cent more than in 2014-15.
The DoE says these numbers have since decreased, with the current rate being 0.38 per cent, and notes that "incidents categorised as alleged bullying, harassment and violence include incidents involving staff, students and members of the community".
Anderson reports that his following is growing rapidly, "to the point where it's getting fairly overwhelming". New members to his campaign all have the same story - believing they've been bullied out of their jobs due to their age and the concordant cost of employing them.
"Principals use mischievous ways to get them on [teacher improvement] programs," Anderson said.
"You have one principal putting a teacher onto the program but another principal saying, "You are the best teacher I know".
"Then the Department uses an unfair process to validate what principals are doing." For example, in at least one known case, it was alleged that a principal flouted TIP procedures and no departmental action was taken against him.
This is a view shared by many teachers, not just the protesters, as per a September 2017 NSW Legislative Council report on Education of students with a disability or special needs in New South Wales.
"The most significant concern raised by inquiry participants about complaints handled at the local level, and then beyond if escalated within the Department, is that it is an inherently biased process that carries a risk of victimisation for complainants," the report provided.
"The committee received evidence questioning the efficacy of a process wherein the principal, who represents the first port of call for complaints at the school level, is the same person who ... may often be the subject of the complaint.
"The committee acknowledges the concerns raised by inquiry participants about a potential conflict of interest with the Department, at all levels, having responsibility and authority to investigate itself."
Despite this, the DoE dismisses all claims of unfairness, including the specific ones levelled against it by the protesters.
"There is no evidence that older teachers are being targeted through Teacher Improvement Programs," a DoE spokesperson provided.
"Teachers who are dismissed can appeal decisions to the Industrial Relations Commission. This is an external legal process."
Yet a member of the protesters’ campaign, Joe Taylor, also blames revised, nationalised teacher accreditation standards, introduced in 2012, for fostering the conditions that allow bullying to go unchecked. He explained his position:
"Before such changes came to be, teachers were qualified by their study and the award of certificates, diplomas and degrees, which stood for all time. They were free to pursue inservice training according to their own perceived needs, and while some courses were compulsory, it was generally a matter of choice, and interesting courses were on offer from time to time.
"As things became more mandatory - and who can argue against 'working with children checks' - teachers became increasingly entangled with bureaucratic procedures and compulsory practices upon which their entire standing as a teacher depended. This alone allowed bullies to have control of the oxygen supply to a teacher’s career."
As a bullied teacher who resultantly developed PTSD, depression and anxiety, Taylor, like the others, is taking matters into his own, protesting hands. He has launched a petition calling for an end to the workplace bullying of teachers in Australia. To date, it has garnered 465 signatures.
The protesters aren't just complaining; they've formulated a plan to challenge the system.
"We're busy writing to politicians, bureaucrats and fellow supporters to expose the rorting that's going on," Anderson said.
"We've been encouraged to write a book by a colleague. There's plenty to write about."
Once exposed, they will push for an independent teacher misconduct review process, via a claim to the ombudsman.
They say that the union, the NSW Teachers Federation, has been unhelpful to their cause - if not, by design, antagonistic.
"The union pay lip service to us, but because they allow principals to be members, they have a serious conflict of interest. Until that is resolved, the union won't be able to have very much credibility," Parker said.
Naturally, he laments that the bullying occurred in the first place - but not for the obvious reason.
"It's a tragic shame really, because pretty well every person in our group is a very strong supporter of public education.
"This situation is likely to drive parents away from the public education system. That's the last thing we want."
Anderson says this is happening in his local area, where he claims DoE employees are increasingly sending their children to private, rather than public schools.
At the end of 2014, someone made allegations against me that were proven to be false. A colleague made claims and her friends backed her up. She basically lied. It was me against three or four other staff members.
At the beginning of 2015, a new principal joined the school. He was extremely inexperienced. He wanted to make a big mark very quickly. Within a couple of weeks, he pounced on me over the allegations of teaching inefficiency.
The principal sent the complaint to EPAC - the Education Department's Employee Performance and Conduct unit. They look into complaints regarding performance and conduct issues. EPAC investigated the complaint in their evasive way, and reported back that there was no problem.
The new principal decided he would bare his teeth to staff by putting me on a teacher improvement program (TIP). He called me into his office. I asked him who the complainant was. He said, "I'm not obliged to tell you that, but before I sign off on your teacher accreditation, I want to observe your lessons. I said, "That's fine." I've been teaching for 30 years; for eight years at that school.
The principal looked at one of my lessons and outright lied about what he was observing. He wrote a derogatory report about it. From thereon, it was obvious he was targeting me, he wanted me out.
When confronted like that in a fight-or-flight situation, I had to decide whether to grovel or stand up to him. In retrospect, I made the wrong decision. I just said, "This is a clear-cut case of you taking sides with people who are making false allegations. EPAC has affirmed this. It's time to get off my back."
I called in the NSW Teachers Federation. The principal was bullying and harassing me. He was telling me off in front of other people in the corridors. His behaviour was completely out of the realms of fairness.
The underhanded way in which this was contrived was appalling. It turned out that the head teacher was good friends with the woman I had the initial disagreement with. That's where it all came from.
I was put on TIP. All the way through, people said, "Get out of there, take leave, it's going to destroy your health, it's obvious he's targeting you." Some confidants recommended I stand up to him. How naive. It turned out that the new TIP was very easily falsified.
I requested independent supervision. This was declined. The Teachers Federation started backing away from supporting me. Unsurprisingly, I failed the TIP. It went way over the time frame that the guidelines insist on. Nothing was done about that.
The main protest I had with the whole thing is that the department has this complaints management program that is completely internal. This leaves it open to the suggestion that it's bosses investigating bosses, that the whole situation is very corrupt. They give you the right to appeal decisions, but the process that they use to investigate appeals is completely unfair.
For example, in my situation, two deputy principals were called in to review my appeal. Not once did either of them go to my former school to interview witnesses or call my referees or colleagues who support me. The only person they contacted was the person that my complaints were about: the principal. His word was sacrosanct. That's not a fair and reasonable appeals process.
If you fail a TIP, you're treated like a criminal. In fact, it's called a disciplinary process. The principal calls you into their office. You then have 20 minutes to get out and report to the Department of Education head office until your appeal, if you have lodged one, is completed. In my case, it took the Department six months. In that time, I was made to sit alongside criminal teachers such as a couple of guys who were accused of sexual offences, and one who was accused of drug dealing. That was shattering to my self-esteem as well. The whole process is designed to break you.
I got a nasty letter from EPAC, saying that I had been dismissed and placed on a 'not to be employed' list. This means you can't teach at any school - public or private - in NSW. It is like a gestapo, police-style procedure. So, I organised a lawyer and took my case to the Industrial Relations Commission. Before I walked in door, the Department offered to take me off the 'not to be employed' list, but they didn't offer me my job back. I haggled over this, because once you're dismissed, your teacher accreditation is taken off you.
About three weeks ago, I wound up accepting an out-of-court settlement offer, which included monetary compensation. I received a letter saying I had resigned - rather than being sacked. I can now go back and look for a job. I still don't have accreditation, though. This basically means I'd be going back as a first-year teacher would. I would have to start all over again - ensure I accumulate professional development hours, and so on. It's pretty hard to do that if you're a 58-year-old teacher returning to the system with a cloud over you.
I taught as a NSW government teacher for 35 years before a serial bully principal* made me disappear** from the school I dedicated myself to for half my life - 28 years.
I was a successful primary teacher, popular with the students, parents and all but a few executive staff members. Those few were the bullies; the principal, the deputy principal and the worst bully of them all, the head of admin (a secretary). The beginning of the end for me was when, after the bullying, harassment and lies became too much, I reported the principal to the Director of the local school network. The principal denied he'd done what I reported, and all but two of my complaints were deemed unsubstantiated. My witnesses were never interviewed.
I continued teaching despite this, because I was very passionate about my role and didn't want to desert my 200-plus students. Also, I needed to earn a living. I became very unwell as a result of trying to battle it out.
The principal saw an opportunity to prove I was no longer fit to teach and organised for me to attend a medical assessment. He wrote a fallacious report on my conduct and performance to inform the doctor.*** The complaints included that I hadn't told him what medication I was on. He was desperate to get an impressive list of 'sins' and repeated some for effect. He told my DoE injury management officer he'd discussed all the complaints with me. He hadn't discussed any of them.
The psychiatrist recommended that I be given six months away from work to recover, then be reassessed or medically retired. The DoE directed the doctor to make a decision and she recommended I be medically retired. I was too unwell to request a review of the decision.
I, just like the teachers who were dismissed for sexual misconduct, drug use and other breaches, was placed on the 'not to be employed' list. I wasn't informed that I couldn't do casual teaching until I was invited to teach workshops. The DoE organiser of the workshops had to break the demoralising news to me. She knew I was a great teacher - thus the invitation.
I recently obtained my files from the DoE and in it the injury management caseworker uses the principal's language to support the case for my medical retirement. There was corruption at every step. Whole pages of documents were redacted to protect others, presumably the bullies.
*I have met one of the principal's previous targets, who was suicidal and hospitalised after being relentlessly bullied by him. She is still very unwell and is agoraphobic. I have talked to several other female teachers who would attest to his misogynist, bullying behaviour at other schools.
**I use the word 'disappear' because the school community was not informed of my leaving until a year after I last actually taught there, and I had to request that they were informed.
***I have witness statements, photographic proof and survey results of eight teachers, including an assistant principal, who supported me. The witnesses were not interviewed.
† All names have been changed for legal reasons.Do you have an idea for a story?
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