Gillian Bowditch’s description in The Sunday Times this week of the attack on a schoolgirl at Waid Academy in Anstruther, Fife, brought back memories from 50 years ago. In 1973, I became a pupil at the Waid. On one of my first days, another pupil pulled a knife in the modern studies class and a mild-mannered teacher didn’t appear to know what to do.
Most Fridays, beatings were administered in the PE changing room. No teacher intervened. I avoided the physical violence. For me, bullying was mental in nature, the anticipatory fear of what might happen. In my report to the Scottish government in 2019, on allegations of bullying in NHS Highland, I described the fear: “That nauseous feeling in my stomach. Hyper-vigilance . . . The intimidation was horrible. I would do everything I could to avoid it. I never told anyone at the time. They, those in charge, must have known. But I felt powerless. Ashamed. As if it was my fault. It affected everything. I suspect it has had a huge impact on my life.”
I suspect that Waid Academy is no better or worse than many schools over the years. This is not a new phenomenon. Bullying behaviour has its roots deep in who we are. I also described a more recent experience: “I found it really hard being called a bully. It was shocking in fact but I couldn’t admit it to anyone outside. I hadn’t been trained to take on this role. I had tried my best. But there was huge pressure to conform, to do things a certain way. I knew I was hard to work for at times [but] in reality, I was struggling . . . I didn’t mean to cause harm. Sometimes, it felt like I was the one being bullied.”
Often, the person perceived as a bully also feels bullied themselves. Again, this need not be physical or even direct. It can be insidious, affecting us in so many ways. We see it in the behaviour of politicians, officials, managers, those on the front lines. Fear induced by bullying shuts down the creative, thoughtful parts of our brains. If you constantly feel threatened or blamed, criticised for failing, for not meeting targets, instinctively you protect yourself. Fight or flight. Fear kills, ultimately, whether it’s a person, an organisation or a community.
Breaking the cycle of fear needs the kind of leader who can say: “I hope I leave . . . with a belief that you can be kind but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused.” Jacinda Ardern’s words resonated so profoundly because they seem rare. In Scotland today, whether in education, the health service, local government or business, this surely is the kind of leadership we need.
John Sturrock, The Times, Thursday 26 January 2023
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