Teachers, advocates warn of bullying in ECE centres: ‘It’s a horrific industry

Teachers at early childhood centres are speaking out about a toxic culture of bullying saying they’ve been sworn at, abused in front of children and some have felt suicidal.

Schools, school bags

File photo.
Photo: Marika Khabazi

Employment advocates spoken to by RNZ said the sector was grossly over-represented in complaints about bullying.

They warned that centre managers and owners often used Teaching Council complaints as a way of intimidating teachers or retaliating when they complained.

Members of an online support group the Teachers Advocacy Group, told RNZ they had suffered or witnessed multiple instances of bullying.

One teacher described relentless criticism of her work including formal warnings for minor mistakes such as using the wrong nappies.

“It got to the point where I was almost suiciding. It was non-stop,” she said.

Another teacher said his bullying involved “being sworn at, being yelled at, being told that I’m incompetent, that I’m a failure,” in front of children.

A Māori teacher said she was the subject of racist comments and witnessed similar comments and homophobia directed at other teachers.

Another teacher said he quit the sector because he was constantly criticised for minor problems and he had heard of many other cases of bullying.

“It’s just a disaster of an industry and things need to change,” he said.

Several teachers blamed the high incidence of bullying on centre owners with no teaching experience or qualifications, and on managers who had no training in managing people and who worked with little or no oversight from anybody else.

“I can go to an owner and say ‘we need resources to function at a basic level’ and the owner says no because it comes out of their profit and that’s where the bullying culture starts,” said a teacher with 20 years’ experience.

Another teacher described a situation in which the head teacher of a non-profit centre was able to bully teachers because of a lack of oversight from the centre’s governing board.

Employment advocates told RNZ they worked with far more early childhood teachers than school teachers.

One said she had worked with just a few school teachers in her career but had lost count of the number of early childhood teachers she had helped.

Another said she might see about six cases a year that went as far as the Teaching Council, compared with just one or two school teachers.

They also said some early childhood centres seemed to have cliquey cultures which made it easy to ostracise teachers who did not fit in.

Maryline Suchley from Employment Resolution Consultants said she had worked with about nine early childhood teachers in the past year, but also gave a lot of advice to other teachers who said they were bullied.

“Education is most definitely the worst sector followed by healthcare,” she said.

Suchley said bullying was often accompanied by exploitation such as not paying staff properly.

“It’s sort of psychological, it’s manipulation, under-mining, belittling, that passive-agressive kind of bullying and it’s going on for a long time and the person that’s the target doesn’t really realise until it’s too late and it’s got too much,” she said.

Suchley said managers sometimes threatened to report teachers to the Teaching Council to stop them complaining about problems at their centre.

“It’s just retaliation for either raising a complaint and leaving or raising a complaint and being there but unfortunately the power is in the centre manager’s hands.

“Another big thing is refusing registration. You’ve got to get your centre manager or principal to sign off your teachers’ registration. If you don’t get sign-off on your teachers registration you can’t teach,” she said.

Suchley said the Teaching Council needed to ensure managers and principals could not use the mandatory reporting and registration systems to target teachers.

Employment advocate Rachel Rolston said if teachers complained about problems in their centres, the centre owner or manager would go after them.

“They will start encouraging, soliciting, false complaints from other teachers, from the other ECE teachers who themselves are so scared for their own jobs that they’ll do it. They will put them into a disciplinary process that will result in complaints to the Teaching Council.

“They will put them in a position where they effectively will end up losing their careers, one way or another they will lose their career, and so they leave and they tend to leave quietly,” she said.

Rolston said more than…

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