How to stand up to bullies is one of the most important lessons many of us learn in school.
But a recent rash of teachers’ strikes against heads trying to ram through cuts shows that pupils aren’t the only ones who can discover the power to resist.
Teachers at Selwyn Park school, in east London, struck earlier this month against bullying and job losses.
Strikers there described how their new head teacher refused to talk to them and imposed changes with no discussion.
The picture of work life they painted was one where management attempts to isolate, intimidate and undermine those beneath them—it is a depiction that millions of other workers will recognise.
“Our head is dictating our job to us,” said one striker. “But the things she wants us to do aren’t good for children.
“I’ve refused to go along with some of them, and now she doesn’t even look at me. It’s very intimidating.”
A few miles away at Islington Arts and Media School teachers struck last week against job cuts.
Their action revealed awful treatment at the hands of management.
One teacher threatened with redundancy said the head hadn’t even bothered to tell her that her job might be axed.
“She just put a different timetable in my pigeonhole,” she said. “It’s probably the most disrespected I’ve ever felt.”
The idea that teachers are easy victims for headteacher bullies is being knocked back as strikes become an ever more common response.
Ralph Dyson is the NUT union rep at Rawmarsh community school in Rotherham, south Yorkshire, where workers took 12 days of strikes against job cuts.
“I think the powers that be thought we were going to be easy pickings,” he told Socialist Worker.
“But we’d had enough. In the run-up to the job cuts we’d had attacks on our workload and things like that. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
In fact, teachers are striking more than many other groups of workers. There have been at least 44 strike days across 21 different schools since January.
And this doesn’t include strikes that swept more than 100 schools across the London boroughs of Camden and Tower Hamlets in March.
Not all of the disputes are a reaction to offensive management tactics or cuts—they reflect the range of attacks that the Tory government is trying to drive through education.
Many strikes have been against attempts to turn schools into academies—at Chestnut Grove school in London, Tile Hill Wood and Woodlands school in Coventry, and a range of schools in Lancashire and Derbyshire.
Teachers decide to take action because, after years of attacks, they have decided enough is enough.
These strikes are important because they show that even those who feel the most intimidated are still able, and prepared, to fight back.
And the experience at Rawmarsh shows how key individuals can make a key difference in the strength and outcome of disputes.
Ralph said, “We were 100 percent straight away and I think it’s partly because of the mix of people at the school.
“I’ve been through the miners’ strike and it’s influenced me. Lots of others are the same. I’ve been brought up to be a socialist and to fight for my rights and the rights of others.”
The strike at Rawmarsh didn’t win a total victory—some jobs and hours were lost.
But management had wanted to cut the teaching staff by 25 percent—and the strikes stopped them.
The experience of fighting back also had an important impact on those who took part.
“Once we started to fight, people became more confident to stand up to management over other things,” said Ralph. “The union has grown. We started off with about 20 members and now we’re up to end of 30s.”
And the strike showed that resistance to the Tories’ agenda was possible.
“Our dispute wasn’t just about teachers’ jobs, it was about working class education,” said Ralph.
“Rawmarsh is a working class area, there’s not much there for people.
“The pits and steelworks have gone. People have to have something to look forward to.”
The wave of school strikes is relatively small but they are significant.
As Ralph put it, “I think we can stop the Tories if everybody works together. We’ve got to stop them. What else do we have?”