Though each school has it’s own unique dynamics between teachers, I’ve discovered that there are a couple common threads between the typical dilemmas. Read on as I address the five of the most common–and most difficult–teacher co-worker problems.
Scenario 1: Your coworkers pop over on a daily basis to say, “So, what are we doing this afternoon?” and expect you to do all the lesson planning and preparation for them
I know some of you listening might find it hard to believe that this happens, but I’ve seen it many times!
First off, make sure your co-worker knows HOW to plan and find resources, and give him or her the opportunity to co-plan. We never want to start with the assumption that someone is being willfully lazy or uncooperative.
So, pick a day and time that you’ll be available to your coworkers. When they ask what you’re doing with your kids, say, “I’m doing an activity with ___ today. We can plan together for next week so you’ll know what I’m doing before the day of–do you want to come by room this afternoon and we can plan?” The idea is that you’re creating boundaries around your time and announcing when you’ll be available to collaborate.
You can also offer to divide up the work. Say, “Let’s create a shared drive where we can put our resources together and come up with a plan. One of us can plan for X and one of us can plan for Y.” Use Google Drive, Dropbox, or an online lesson planning tool like planbook.com to collaborate. The idea here is turn the one-way requests into a true collaboration in which each of you is pulling his or her weight. If the team member isn’t very strong with lesson planning, you may even consider dividing up the work another way–for example, s/he could prep all the lesson materials for both classes.
However, these suggestions will only work for teachers who truly do want to collaborate and aren’t intending to just mooch off your hard work. You’ll be able to tell by their response to your suggestions for collaboration whether they have any desire to pull their own weight.
Your colleague will either be super grateful for your help with planning (at which point you can point him/her toward other resources or divvy up the work so you’re not solely responsible for their plans) or will make an excuse because they don’t want to plan, and they want you to do the work for her. If that’s the case, just keep using that same line: “I’m doing __. If you want to plan with me, let’s set up a time to do it together.”
Depending on your personalities, you could also call him or her out on it a bit: laugh and say with a smile, “Wait a second, you’ve asked me that three times this week–I know you’re not trying to get me to do all your lesson planning for you! I’ll give you the activities, but you gotta take over recess duty for me.”
Figure out some way to lightly make it known that this needs to be a two-way street, and stick to your guns after that. If things start to get tense or awkward, ask your colleague outright to do something for you (“Okay, I’ll give you my plans…if you run my photocopies.”) That way it is a collaboration of some sort and not just you giving and them taking.
Scenario 2: Your co-workers want to hang around and chit chat, but you’ve got work to do
Bonding with your coworkers is important, so do set aside a designated time to socialize–maybe during your lunch break, or a weekly happy hour after school. However, it’s important from a work/life balance perspective not to let chatty coworkers prevent you from getting work done when you’re trying to concentrate. 20 minutes a day of getting cornered in the hallway after dismissal is an hour and a half of precious time that week which you could have used for something else.
So here’s a few practical suggestions to dissuade the chatterers from hanging around your room. If you have a window in your classroom door, move your desk or personal work space away from the door so that no one can see if you’re in the room before and after school. Keep the lights off and the door locked. That way if anyone comes by, they won’t see any signs that you’re there, and when they try the doorknob and discover it’s locked, they’ll give up.
If you’re concerned your administrators will think you’re arriving to school late and leaving early, put a sign on the door that says, “Please do not disturb–meetings and projects in progress” so they know you’re working, and take the sign down when you do actually leave for the day. Or, just use this strategy during your planning time when it’s obvious you’re still in the building. An alternative is, of course, to work some place other than your room where you won’t be disturbed–maybe in a quiet corner of the library or another out-of-the-way place.
If you have to have colleagues in the room with you during your planning time or break–perhaps if you have a push-in teacher or aide, or you share a classroom–put headphones on to signal that you’re not available to talk. You can use a white noise app to filter out distractions if you don’t want to listen to music.
When you find yourself stuck in a conversation, look for the first opportunity to politely bow out. Frame your exit in a way that makes it sound as if you’re being considerate of the other person’s time as well your own. Just say, “Well, I know you have a ton of stuff to do–I won’t hold you up. See you later!”
If there’s one or two people in particular who just don’t seem to get the hint, be direct with them. Make it sound like the problem is your own temptation to waste time (which is probably at least partially true!) so that your coworker doesn’t feel like this is a personal thing against him or her. Say, “My partner/spouse has been bugging me to come home earlier in the evenings, so I’m really trying to focus on work when I’m at school so I can get out of here on time. If you see me just hanging around and chatting, please remind me I told you this so I can stop myself and get back on track!”
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This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 15 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead.
Scenario 3: A clique of teachers has pitted themselves against the rest of the staff, and if you’re not one of them, you’re either wrong or out of the loop
Teacher cliques are a really complex issue. But in general, when you feel sidelined by a group of teachers who don’t seem to like you, it’s important to conduct yourself in a way that puts you above approach.
If you want to have a voice and influence in the school but aren’t part of the clique, you need to be the consummate professional whom any rational person respects. When you have the reputation of being an outstanding, kind, innovative, dedicated teacher, you generally will have some pull and influence in the school, and most people will respect you even if you’re not part of the clique.
So basically, my advice is to focus on being a really good teacher. Focus on the kids. Focus on doing the job you’re called to do.
The people you work with don’t have to be your best friends. You don’t have to socialize with them. 90% of the time, you’re alone in your classroom with just your students, anyway. A situation with cliques is where the isolated nature of teaching actually works to your advantage.
This sort of segues into the next scenario, which is when…
Scenario 4: You don’t feel like you fit in with your co-workers and consequently feel isolated and alone
If you have just one good friend and ally in the school, that’s usually enough so that you won’t feel totally alone. Look for that one person you can count on and collaborate with, and stay focused on doing an amazing job for kids together.
Your main social group does not have to come from your coworkers–in fact, your “clique” might be a group of teachers you connect with online! Find your people, your tribe, wherever they are, and try to disconnect emotionally and mentally from the toxic dynamics in your school.
It’s really important to be patient in these situations. I taught at eight different schools in my teaching career, and in some of them I made very close friends within the first two months of school. At others, it took me two years to get beyond small talk and feel like anyone there had my back. In some schools, just about the whole staff felt like a family; in others, I felt like I could only relate to a handful of people.
Know that it takes time to build relationships and connections, and don’t rush it. And also know that that dynamics will change every single year as some teachers leave and others come in. Getting transferred to another grade level or another department can completely change things, too.
So if you’re feeling alone in your school, focus on finding that one person you can really connect with, and look for a larger group of teachers to build community with outside of your school, maybe online. Be patient. Be open. Be true to who you are, and trust that your outlook and perspective will draw the right people to you in time.
Scenario 5: Your colleagues are behind the times and refuse to change; they resist everything new you try and make it difficult to collaborate
This is another situation in which you want to remember that all your support does not have to come from your colleagues. That’s a bit like expecting your spouse to be your only sounding board for every problem. Don’t put that burden on just one person or one group of people. Broaden your personal learning community and connect with innovative teachers online and in other schools.
The last thing you want to do is focus on what your co-workers aren’t doing, because the moment they get the sense that you think you’re a better teacher than they are, you’re going to be shut out for real.
It’s very important to be very positive and supportive not only to your colleagues’ faces, but also behind their backs and in your mind. Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. And if you’re constantly bemoaning how behind-the-times your colleagues are, that heart attitude IS going to come out whether you mean for it to or not.
So offer support and resources in small doses, but never make your colleagues feel less-than because they’re not ready for the new ideas you’re wanting to try. You want to get them curious about the change and feeling confident in themselves. When they feel empowered and understood and respected, they’re much more likely to leave their comfort zones.
In terms of creating real change in school culture…this is what I did as an instructional coach. My approach has always been to work with the change makers first. Get the innovators together and so they can do amazing things, and let the effects trickle down from there to the teachers who are interested but not sure where to start. Once those who are on the fence hear about the results, some of them will willingly try it out, and then you’ve got a bigger group basically being evangelists for change.
This will then trickle down to the teachers who are a little burned out but willing to try something new, and once you’ve got them on board, the momentum has shifted, You’ve created change within the school culture in which innovation is the norm and those who resist are on the outside looking in, welcomed to join the group at any time.
So, focus on the people who DO want to change. The best stuff in schools rarely happens from the top down. It’s generally grass roots stuff with passionate teachers individually doing amazing things in their classrooms, and their ideas spread. Sometimes they spread like wildfire, and sometimes it’s just a tiny spark. Be patient with your coworkers, be supportive, and inspire them to be their best.
Dealing with a situation I didn’t address here? Leave it below in the comments–I’ll respond and may even feature your question on a future episode.
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