An external report from the Vancouver School Board was released to the media on Friday morning. The redacted report claims that some elected School Trustees created a “a toxic work environment in which staff were bullied and harassed.”
I have spoken to colleagues who were present at some of the public meetings where the “bullying” took place. They witnessed first hand, the disrespectful comments made to School Board upper management. They also experienced the “toxic work environment” that was created in a public space.
I am not a fan of the word “bully” in as much as it creates a black and white illusion of good people and bad people. Bullies are bad. Victims need protecting. My other problem with “bullying” is that we tend to think that in any given case there is one person who is the bully and one person who is the victim. The truth, I think is far more complicated. In my 25 years working as a teacher, a vice principal and a counsellor in the Vancouver School Board, there is a mix of bully and victim in every scenario.
You Teach People How to Treat You. We all take turns being unkind. We practice words and actions that are about standing up to unkindness. And we hope that others will do the same for us when it is our turn to be unkind. That is the social emotional curriculum that I am teaching elementary school students.
Learning to take accountability for the way others treat you is a life time practice. And it sometimes requires more than our own single practice to make people who are unkind change their behaviour. We take responsibility as individuals but we also do it as families, communities, cultures and public school boards. In order for an external report to use the words “bully” and “harass” it would mean that the disrespectful behaviour was repeated. That means, the systems in place that create the checks and balances for holding power accountable, did not happen.
Disintegration of a “toxic work environment” doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in bits and pieces. It happens in small practices repeated over and over. Someone mutters something nasty under their breath and no one says anything. Someone is left out of the communication loop. Someone is prevented from speaking. Alliances form. Us and Them. The most important social capital, “trust” disintegrates.
When no one pushes back and holds the “bits and pieces” of disrespect, you finally get harassment and bullying. The quiet repeated blows culminate into the disintegration of a safe and constructive work place.
What is happening with the checks and balances that usually hold positions of power accountable to their words and behaviour? What were the past conditions that happened with the Vancouver School Trustees and with the Vancouver School Board employees that ultimately culminated in the “toxic work environment?”
The Vancouver School Board isn’t the only political body that suffers from disintegrating work spaces. Distrust and policies of distrust seem to be sweeping both local and global systems. It seems to be everywhere!
There is a disturbing irony that BC’s New Curriculum places greater emphasis on social emotional learning. I am clear this is definitely the way to go. At the moment, my problem is that this requires 6 year olds and 16 year olds to work on taking responsibility for their feelings and practicing self responsibility and compassion while the adults and political infrastructures around them are doing the complete opposite.
Perhaps it is time for all the foxes running the chicken coop to commit to the same standards they are requiring schools to teach children.