I'm surprised more hasn’t been made of the contemptible schoolyard bullying reported last week by TV3 political editor Duncan Garner. Presumably it was overtaken by the much bigger drama unfolding around David Garrett and ACT.
What made this schoolyard bullying unusual was that the perpetrators were grown men – two Northland school principals heavying a female colleague who committed the inexcusable sin of breaking ranks over national standards.
Donna Donnelly, principal of Tikipunga School, Whangarei, is a supporter of national standards. This was clearly intolerable to two fellow principals, Peter Witana and Pat Newman, who sent her intimidating emails.
TV3 News showed a composed, dignified Donnelly asking Witana to apologise. He refused.
An agitated Witana, an executive member of the Principals’ Federation, then turned on an extraordinary performance in front of Garner, gesticulating and speaking directly to the TV3 camera, saying things like “Don’t make me look terrible Duncan” and “Don’t make me dislike you.” He looked so emotionally unstable that Garner could have been excused for feeling slightly threatened himself – just as parents with children under Witana’s care might have been excused for wondering whether he needed to take stress leave.
The next night we learned that Newman, too, had waded into Donnelly, sending her an email in which he said, among other things, that her former colleagues in the Waikato regarded her as “the best export they ever made” [sic].
I couldn’t help wondering at the coincidence that both Witana and Newman are physically big men (overweight, not to put too fine a point on it) with moustaches, a not uncommon mark of the bully.
Interviewed for TV3 News, Newman (whom Kiwiblog's David Farrar reports is seeking the Labour Party nomination for Whangarei) tried to skew the issue, suggesting that principals and boards of trustees were not being allowed to question and criticise education policy.
I’m not aware of anyone trying to deny them that right. The issue here is one of intimidation and harassment of a colleague who dared dissent from the union line.
Intolerance of minority or opposing views can be a deeply unattractive aspect of trade union culture, and it’s not the first time we’ve seen evidence of it in the teaching unions. Attempts to introduce bulk funding in secondary schools in the 1990s were sabotaged by blatant teacher intimidation of elected school boards and the worst shame of it was that the Bolger government was too gutless to intervene.
Several of the people who posted comments about the Witana story on TV3’s website wanted to know how Wellington-based Garner happened fortuitously to be on the spot at Tikipunga School when Donnelly confronted her fellow principal. Fair question; it did look like a jackup.
Other commenters darkly hinted at issues in Donnelly’s past and suggested she wasn’t squeaky-clean herself. If that’s the case, we should be told about any relevant disputes she may have had with staff or colleagues. Could it be, I wonder, that she made herself unpopular by espousing views that were at odds with union orthodoxy?
Whatever the background factors, nothing excuses Witana and Newman for behaving like a couple of gang enforcers. It's intolerable enough that teacher activists should arrogantly defy an elected government, and in so doing place themselves above the democratic process that other public servants dutifully accept; but it becomes even more offensive when they collectively harass anyone brave or rash enough to defy them.
The irony, of course, is that schools are supposedly united in their determination to stamp out bullying. It’s officially not condoned in the playground, but a different standard seems to apply in staff rooms.
Footnote: Several of the anonymous comments attacking Donnelly on the TV3 website clearly came from teachers, some of whom displayed only a primitive grasp of grammar and spelling. Herein may lie one of the reasons for the almost hysterical resistance to national standards.