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One of the most painful experiences of my teaching career had nothing to do with difficult students. It didn’t involve being challenged by an angry parent or getting negative feedback on an observation. In fact, my actual teaching skills and my relationships with students and parents were all good during this time, but every morning as I entered the school building, I still got a wrenching feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Through a series of incidents, I had come to realize that some of my colleagues didn’t much care for me. I don’t know the exact number, nor do I know the full extent of their dislike, but it was becoming clear to me that in the minds of my fellow teachers, I had become one of the chosen ones, the principal’s pet. Once that was decided, school became a chilly place for me.
Here’s the story.
Part 1: The Preferential Placement
When Debbie walked into my classroom, I could tell right away she was pissed. She never just popped in for no reason; in fact, I didn’t think she’d ever been in my room before. Debbie taught in a different grade, in another part of the building, and though we’d occasionally sat at the same table in meetings and exchanged cordial smiles in the halls, we didn’t really know each other.
I was pretty sure Debbie’s arrival had something to do with my principal’s recent decision to move me to seventh grade language arts for the following school year. Seventh grade was considered the “challenging” year, the year when students in our state were most heavily assessed in writing, and a spot was opening up for next year. Being asked to fill that slot felt like a vote of confidence for me, and I was pretty pumped up to take it on.
But I’d heard that Debbie felt the job was promised to her. She’d been at the school much longer than me. She had more experience. Unlike me, she grew up in the area, knew a lot of people, had family and connections all over the place. I had just shown up from out of state less than two years before, an outsider, an intruder.
And that’s what Debbie was there to talk about.
“I just have one question for you,” she began, skipping the formality of a hello. “What gives you the right to take a position from someone else who it was promised to for years before you even started teaching here?”
At first I just stood there. Yes, I’d expected Debbie to not be happy about the decision. What surprised me was this new twist on the official story—I had deliberately taken the job from her. This was new territory for me: I didn’t typically get involved in drama. I’d never been in a fistfight as a kid, never “chewed someone out.” I kept to myself, worked my butt off, and tried to steer clear of conflict. But it looked like the drama had come for me.
After a few tense, heart-pounding seconds, I finally spoke. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Mr. Thomas offered it to me. I didn’t ask him for it.”
Debbie snorted. “Oh, so now you’re trying to say you didn’t want it?” She planted her hands on her hips. “I don’t believe that for a second.”
I thought about it. “No, I do want it. Of course I want it. But I never went to him and asked for it.” I held her gaze. “He approached me. I had no idea you were interested in it.”
This was mostly true. When Mr. Thomas had initially asked me about moving, I knew nothing about Debbie’s intentions. I did hear about them later, but still, I didn’t realize she thought I just demanded the job, then got it. Who had that kind of power?
“Well, I was interested,” she said. “But he told me that you’re some kind of published author and that I just need to accept his decision.”
I tried to hide my reaction, but in my mind I was thinking, Where the hell did that come from? I had no intentions of telling Debbie that I wasn’t actually published anywhere, but I racked my brain trying to remember what I’d said to give Mr. Thomas that impression. This was 2002, long before I started blogging. I hadn’t published a thing. Mr. Thomas must have misconstrued something I’d said about the graduate writing program I’d been in. I didn’t know. Still, something told me this wasn’t the time to clear that one up.
I wish I could say we reached an understanding that afternoon, that Debbie believed me when I denied any foul play, that she walked away with a clearer picture of how things actually went down. But that didn’t happen. Debbie was firm in her belief that I had set out to take that job from her, and she left just as angry as when she’d arrived.
The upcoming months, which should have been an exciting time for me as I prepared to move to a new grade and a new classroom, were stained by that incident, and by the small, not-so-subtle ones that followed: The silence when I came close to certain tables in the staff lounge, the overly polite, strained smiles when I said hello to certain people, and the fact that when I said “Debbie can’t stand me” to another teacher friend, she didn’t correct me. Over the summer, Debbie and I attended the same PDs and were sometimes grouped together—our subject area was the same, after all. And the whole time she just kind of glared at me. As someone who already felt like an outsider, I now had confirmation. And maybe it was my imagination, but it felt like Debbie’s acrimony toward me spread to other teachers, like my team leader from the year before, who barely looked at me.
It hurt. More than I even wanted to admit. Intellectually, I could take the advice of my husband and friends who said Screw them, they’re just jealous. But it didn’t feel like jealousy. It felt like they just didn’t like me.
So I did what I’m good at: I hid. I never, ever ate in the teachers’ lounge. Instead, I worked through lunch in my classroom. And I kept my mouth shut. At faculty meetings, when I had something to contribute, I would keep it to myself. I stuck closely to the people I felt the safest with and just avoided contact with everyone else.
Part 2: The Special Committee
Not long after this, Mr. Thomas assembled a special committee—I believe we were called the Leadership Team—a task force to study a set of research-based teaching methods, then share them with the rest of the staff. It was an exciting opportunity; he’d only asked eight teachers to serve in the group, and I was flattered to be chosen. When the committee first formed, he asked us to keep it a secret. Knowing there would be some backlash to the idea of a special committee, he opted to keep things under wraps for a while.
At our first meeting, he told us why he’d chosen us: Unlike many of the teachers at our school, who had a strong negative reaction whenever he proposed a new initiative, he had seen in us a more positive attitude, an interest in getting better and growing. He figured if we piloted these new strategies, then presented them to the staff, we could sort of steer the ship and motivate everyone else to get on board.
Things didn’t quite go as planned. Yes, we dug into the strategies, studied our material carefully, talked about what we were learning in our committee meetings, and it was good. But there was also something else: A spirit of Us versus Them had taken over, a divide between “teachers like us,” who truly wanted to improve, and other staff members, whose consistently negative attitudes merely stood in our way. I don’t recall any discussion of how we could lift them up, how we could empathize with or better understand them. We didn’t reach out to them or include them in our planning. They were not viewed as individual, complex human beings, but as one lump—the negative teachers—and in our private meetings, when we should have been talking about student learning, we spent a whole lot of time trying to figure out what we would do when they gave the inevitable pushback.
Mr. Thomas revealed his Leadership Team at an all-staff PD before the start of the next school year. He explained that we had been selected for our dedication, et cetera, and talked about what we had been working on for the past few months. He named us one by one and asked us to stand for a moment. I’m sure in his mind, he was trying to hold us up as examples or role models, but it was embarrassing. The gazes from my colleagues were not full of admiration; instead, they looked confused and resentful. Awesome.
And the next day, when the time came to present the strategies to our colleagues, they pretty much fell flat. No one was excited. No one was inspired. In fact, when we explained that the first step in rolling out these new strategies would be to have teachers visit each others’ rooms for informal observations, everyone pretty much wigged out. No one wanted someone else in their room to observe. Very few of the strategies ever got implemented in any kind of school-wide way. The negative people got more negative and the elite teachers threw up their hands. See? we said. We knew this would happen.
And the gap widened.
Part 3: The Shiny New Classroom
Around this same time, our building underwent a major renovation that added a wing of eight new classrooms. Brand-new desks, bright white walls, a fresh start for anyone lucky enough to get one. And guess who got one of those classrooms? Yep, me.
Of course, I wasn’t the only one: Three other members of my teaching team also got them. But one didn’t. And lots of other teachers didn’t either, experienced teachers who had put in much more time than me. From what I was hearing, plenty of people were fuming about who got what. Regardless of the rationale behind the decision, it seemed that once again I was being given the keys to the kingdom.
And so instead of delighting in my new classroom, I felt guilty. I tried to find small faults in it, to casually play up the downside. “It’s kind of a long hike to the office,” I’d say, or “The new rooms have those thermostats that can’t be adjusted.” It didn’t help. Probably made it worse. Once people make up their minds to believe you get special privileges, there’s pretty much nothing you can do to change their minds.
Especially if you think they might be right.
Ten Years Later
I don’t still carry negative emotions from those years. Actually, that’s crap. Writing all this down definitely brings back some pain. I know what was in my heart during that time: I wanted to do a good job for my students and I was willing to work incredibly hard to achieve that. But I also wanted my colleagues to like me. I have always admired people who could barrel through life saying “I don’t care what people think.” But I was never one of them. I care way more than I should.
But my hurt feelings have definitely evolved over time. Instead of seeing myself as some kind of victim in that situation, I see my role in all of it much more clearly: I didn’t value relationships with my colleagues. I didn’t put time, energy, or creativity into building bonds with other teachers. Instead, I poured everything I had into my students, into the quality of my own work, into the pursuit of pedagogical excellence. I didn’t realize how much happier my work life could have been if I had put even a fraction of that time into building better friendships with my peers.
And there’s more: As much as I hated feeling divided from some of the other teachers, I enjoyed the ego boost that came from being among a select few. It felt good to be chosen, to have students tell me I was their favorite, to have my principal say I was one of the good ones. But that feeling is soul candy, a momentary high from the drug of competition, and it’s totally incompatible with something that would be far more sustaining: collegiality.
If I could go back now, I would do things differently. Since I can’t, here’s my advice to principals and teachers to help you avoid similar problems in your school.
Advice for Principals
Make staff relationships a priority. When I interviewed Carrie, a teacher who left the profession after five years, she told me that one big contributor to her desire to leave was how isolated she felt as a new teacher. In some schools, staff “fellowship” is something administrators take an active role in, planning informal get-togethers and celebrating teachers on a personal level. But in other places, where the administration leaves the chips to fall where they may, faculty members just clique up, sticking only to their small circle of friends, and this is a fertile breeding ground for teachers to feel isolated and shunned, even when they’re not. Research has shown a strong link between social relationships and mental and physical health, so if you want happy, productive teachers, take active steps to improve their relationships with each other.
Be transparent in your decision making. It’s tempting to hide unpleasant news until the last minute, but that just makes the final explosion bigger. If Mr. Thomas had notified ALL language arts teachers when the position was going to open up, and if nothing else, at least given a surface-level consideration of all interested parties, his final decision probably still would have made Debbie upset, but it might have at least diffused some of her anger.
Praise privately. Don’t brag about one staff member to another one. This does not motivate people. Instead, praise individuals directly, in private. Write notes of appreciation giving positive, specific compliments about the things your teachers are doing right. ALL of them. Everyone wants to be noticed, and a little goes a long way.
Avoid secret missions. Assembling a team of motivated teachers to pilot a new program or run with a new idea might seem like a good idea, but a secret committee will ultimately be not secret. Then everyone knows you have made an unofficial team of favorites and you end up with a divided faculty. Instead, share your vision with the whole staff, no matter how cranky you think most of them are, and open up the opportunity to anyone who’s interested. You may end up with the same group of people in the end, but at least you gave everyone a chance.
Diversify your focus group. It’s more comfortable to seek feedback from people whose company you enjoy, who share your philosophy about teaching and whose work you respect and admire—people who like you back. But when you really want to know how a new idea is going to fly or what problems are happening under your radar, you need to actively seek out feedback from other teachers as well; teachers with whom you don’t have the best relationship. If the only opportunity they have to give their opinion is when they summon the courage to complain, then they are already at a disadvantage. By inviting their feedback, you’re not only taking a proactive step toward building a better relationship with those teachers, you might also get some really good ideas.
Advice for Teachers
Prioritize relationships with your co-workers. Although it’s important to have good rapport with your principal, I would argue that your job satisfaction relies even more heavily on your relationships with other teachers. Your work life will be a lot more enjoyable if you make a concerted effort to get to know your colleagues. Attend social functions, and not just for a quick pop-in. When the conversation turns away from school and toward personal lives, show an interest. Ask questions. And share of yourself—letting your co-workers get to know you will go a long way toward forming strong bonds.
Show your flaws. It’s hard to get close to someone who seems to have it all together, all the time, so stop shooting for perfection. Be vulnerable. Ask for help. Though it may not be apparent right away, every single teacher in your building can teach you something, and when you ask, you’re recognizing and respecting their experience.
Validate other teachers’ feelings. Understand that even if you are in the same school, every teacher experiences the culture differently. Other teachers’ relationships with students, parents, and administrators are not the same as yours. And what you might perceive as negativity from them probably has a long and complicated history behind it. So listen more than you talk, reflect what you’re hearing, and really try to see things from the other person’s point of view.
Use your powers for good. If a colleague is being treated unfairly, but they don’t have a great relationship with your administrator, go to bat for them. If you feel you are being given preferential treatment, say something. Yes, it would be so much easier in the short run to take your goodies without question, but those goodies will eventually turn sour.
Navigate the teachers’ lounge strategically. Although the fastest antidote to negativity in the staff room is to avoid it completely, doing this only drives the wedge further between you and other teachers. So show up. Show up on a somewhat regular basis. Sit and eat and make an effort and be brave. And if you need to escape to your room occasionally, then do it. But go back. Know that your goal is to keep building small delicate bridges, and go back.
These suggestions won’t make everything perfect, and you’ll still find yourself at odds with some of your colleagues, but if you recognize the value of the relationships you have with them, the time you spend with them day after day and year after year will be richer, happier, and ultimately better for all of you. ♥
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Thank you so much for sharing your story, Jennifer! I haven’t experienced anything quite like your situation, but your advice to teachers for creating a happier work environment is invaluable! Thanks!
Thank you for this. Entering my second year, I’m facing the same scenario. I work in a fragmented department, and the relationship between most of my colleagues and administration is tense, at best. Meanwhile, it feels like I’m being championed as an agent of change with more innovative ideas and a fresh perspective. In fact, I made a strong case with another teacher for new math books, much to the disappointment of the others, who were happy with outdated books unaligned to the new common core standards. Now, it looks like I’m going to get my way (in addition to the preps I want), and I feel like I’m going to walk in wanting to collaborate with a team who didn’t like me from the beginning.
Thank you, Wendy. Maybe it will help you recognize this kind of situation in the future and help yourself or others avoid it. It took me over 10 years to see it clearly.
I just had the most horrific teaching experience of my life-I was under hired as an edtech(I have a master’s degree and 10 years as a head teacher) in a k-3 resource room-I was told the previous person had been moved-I found out they walked out the door at lunch and never came back!The head teacher was one of the most controlling,non innovative ,condescending,non-communicative teachers I have ever met-the lessons were all based on speed and basically the same for every group,I did not receive info I should have on the kids,received it from head teachers-to make a long story short-every area I excel in was given a 0 in a review,I was accused of non -confidentiality(could give no examples) the list goes on and on-I was fired based on the supposed breach of confidentiality which they could not give any examples of-the union rep said that it was clear they were lying-the head of special Ed could not even give me eye contact-I have never been fired in my life-I had a connection with the kids,was making progress,and had a good relationship with the homeroom teachers-I had been told by others this teacher was vicious and she was! I ran into 3 teachers afterwards and they said they thought I had moved,which is what they were told-I told them the truth and they couldn’t believe it!All three teachers told me how much they had appreciated me and that the kids I worked with had all bloomed in the areas of reading while I was working with them-at the end of May,there were only subs in the room!I am still very angry about what happened to me,but it has made me very cautious in applying to new positions-I have decided to apply to be head teacher again to most jobs and have requested the head teacher(in ta positions )to be part of the interview.
Thank you for this Jennifer. Not just for the advice, but for your honesty telling your story. It fills in some blanks I was wondering about. As a person who feels things acutely, and consequently avoids the lounge, I’m going to rethink my coping strategies.
Come back later and tell me how it goes. Anything but 100% avoidance will take courage, so I’m curious to hear about the steps you take!
Hi, and what an eye opener into the ways of people.
My story is really simple but I am still, after many many years still perplexed about it.
I was the Statistics lecturer for a class of catering Science students in HE. One day, in the staff common room the head of that department sat down with me and began a long diatribe about me, the students, how useless I was, what I was doing wrong and on and on..
When he finished he patted me on the knee and said “Thank you, Howard”.
That’s just bizarre, Howard. What happened after that? Did you stay on? What was your relationship like with that person from that point forward?
Jennifer, I plan to share your post in a school leadership course. Your summary points are excellent — may hold those back while others cogitate — and then share. I’ve subscribed to your blog and so appreciate your thoughtful contributions. Warmly, Sarah
Sarah, thank you! I am thrilled to hear that you will be sharing this — and I think it’s an excellent idea to withhold the second half until they have a chance to discuss the takeaways themselves. If other insights develop in those discussions, I would love for someone to come over and contribute them in these comments!
Thank you for such an honest depiction of your experience. I especially like how you were able to look back at what you might have done differently. I recently dealt with a principal who played favorites and the atmosphere it created was toxic. She enjoyed having staff compete to be top-dog and thought nothing of the fact that she was destroying staff relationships. I wish principals received more training in human resources and staff management. A good principal can invigorate a school while a poor one can destroy it.
Thank you so much for your post! I am one of those isolated teachers in my school. In my district, I’m on tons of committees because no one else wants to do it, and I think that is a source of some divisiveness. I get along great on those district committees and have even considered once or twice trying to transfer to seek out a more congenial group of colleagues. But, deep down, I know it’s me.
I get along great with my kids, but with colleagues, not so much, so your story really resonated. After 25 years, I’d decided to focus on my students. My two best friends on the staff retired last year, and I was awfully lonely. I do think that the best teaching occurs when an entire faculty works together. I’m privileged to team-teach next year with a great teacher, and I think this will be a rewarding experience. Your post gives me hope!
Jennifer and Tracey:
Thank you to you both for your stories. I feel the pain acutely. I tried the “building bridges” and peaceful approach… one colleague snarled viciously and told me I wasn’t sincere. She has turned our department inside out and upside down. It got to the point that I had to approach an administrator. Thank goodness I did –I chose the correct administrator and said things in the right way. There are no “fixes” for the situation at the moment. I just continue to be professional and love my kids. Walking through the hallway is like walking on icy nail spikes. Hugs to you both.
Ugh, Wendy! I feel for you. It sounds like you’re taking the right approach, though…be professional and love your kids. I hope things get better.
Reading this hurt. I have been in your shoes, with a variety of principals and teachers over the years. While I do agree that it is important to work on relationships with coworkers, it is important to remember that some would rather blame others for their unhappiness than change anything themselves. I seek out those who are HaPpy!
Thank you for sharing your story. I had a very similar experience several years ago. Due to low student performance, a teacher was removed from his position and I was put in his place to improve scores (which I did significantly). He resented me, bad mouthed me to students, parents, and colleagues, even went so far as to lie to the principal about me. It made for an incredibly awkward, difficult year. I was fortunate that I had very good relationships with my colleagues and parents and most of his bad mouthing fell on deaf ears. What got me through was knowing that I was doing what was best for my students, and that was what was most important, not matter how I was being treated.
Great story!! I can totally relate!!
Thank you so much, Jennifer, for allowing yourself to be vulnerable in sharing this story. I have been a teacher for 35 years and, yes, there are difficult years that we all go through, for whatever reason. Your advice in this blog is top notch; well thought out, timely and with a very common sense approach. I enjoy sharing it with my colleagues. This is definitely shareable!
Thanks for sharing about your experience. It’s the same story everywhere. Leaders need to reflect before they implement any decision. Self-reflection is the key for anything we do – for those inside the classroom and out.
Good stuff as usual. My favorite part is about how not everyone experiences the school’s culture in the same way I do. I think that’s true of students in my classes as well. Validating and trying to understand and empathize, etc— not easy to do but so so worth it. Thanks for this!
Jennifer, thank you for sharing your story with us. I am in the opposite position. Admin has routinely given me unjustified, negative evaluations for the past three years. I have been asked to change grade levels (a demotion) and have had to change classrooms three times in the last five years. I will be teaching Kinder this year. Most fortunately, my new room partner is wonderful and willing to help. Any advice on coping with Admin? Thanks.
You’re right — situations like you described can and will pop up in just about any workplace. People are naturally competitive and want to be recognized for their efforts. Your experience was greatly exacerbated by your principal’s very poor management style. And I agree that spending time to build relationships with your colleagues is well worth it.
Jennifer, I tripped across your blog several months ago and have enjoyed it so much that I have shared it with my colleagues. Your experience rings so sadly true: I have been on BOTH sides of the equation over the years and liked neither. Your words inspire me to be a bit more vulnerable and intentionally nurture collegiality when I’d prefer to insulate myself from the occasional drama.
Jennifer thank you for this wonderful sharing which I will keep in the forefront of my mind as I return to teaching this fall after a 12 year absence because of these kinds of problems. You’ve given me a new perspective to create a new experience for myself.
Hey everyone. Jethro Jones, a middle school principal in Kodiak, Alaska, and host of the Transformative Principal Podcast, has written a thoughtful response to this post on his own blog: http://www.jethrojones.com/blog/2015/7/9/teachers-bullying-teachers
Good food for thought. I’ve worked in just two district in the past 17 years. In the first I felt surrounded by colleagues who were supportive and positive. I didn’t love everyone, of course, but there was an overall level of respect. In the second, I found it hard to break into cliques, which meant that over time I have found a niche in a newer clique. I avoid the staff lounge because of the negativity about students, but that also isolates me even more. I’m going to try to be a more engaged colleague again this year!
Hey Wendy! Here’s a strategy that might help: Focus on individual people inside those cliques with whom you can make connections. Same with the staff lounge: It’s so easy to see the whole room as negative, but if you walk in and look at the individuals, you’ll have an easier time finding positive people. Even now when I look back at my own past staff lounges, I can picture lots of positive people in my mind. They just happened to be sitting by–and quietly tolerating–a few Debbie Downers who dominated the conversation. Go to those quiet ones and strike up a conversation.
So very true. I believe every staff room / lounge has positive vibes from some and head in their direction. Avoid gossip and learn from those conversations how NOT to join in the negativity.
We are here to educate, inform and inspire each student AND hopefully, each other as colleagues of the teaching profession .
thank you for this article/post. I have been in both positions in my 22 years. Most currently the one of outlier. I blame the principal more than the favorite, but I had learned your lesson long ago so it pained me to watch good teachers fall into this trap. One that will take every ounce of comradare they can muster to escape.
“Make staff relationships a priority.” This is great advice. I identify with your situation and loved reading the article. I also got out of the school setting because of the “us versus them” mentality with the teaching staff. I once had a principal tell me after I expressed my concern about another teacher feeling upset, unappreciated and overwhelmed, that “It’s not my job to deal with people’s crap.” Hopefully, they’ll find their way to this post. We spend so much time worrying about how we treat the students, but often forget to spend time working on how we treat each other as professionals and co-workers…as people. As Parker Palmer says, “You teach who you are,” and if you’re upset, feeling unappreciated, and not feeling valued as a part of the team, well, of course your teaching will suffer. Thanks for the work you’re doing!!! It’s much appreciated and much needed!
“If we want to grow as teachers — we must do something alien to academic culture: we must talk to each other about our inner lives — risky stuff in a profession that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract.”
― Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life
I share a similar story to the one you tell here. The principal was ill for a PD session and I was asked to lead it–on formative and summative assessment. Apparently some felt threatened as they hadn’t heard of these terms before. So the principal told me I shouldn’t talk to other staff! Seriously. Shortly after, the principal came and asked for exemplars of some of my assessment. Later, I walk into a colleague’s classroom after school, and there are two teachers going over my rubrics that they were instructed to learn from. Yikes! I didn’t visit the staff room much either. It was until the last few years at the school that I said, enough of this bullshit, and worked hard to connect both personally and professionally with as many teachers as possible. The teacher and administrator advice here is “bang on.” Amy Edmondson’s work on psychologically safe workplaces is also good.
Wish I had read this the year I started teaching. I’ve never been a principal’s pet but spot on for what I did as well as neglected when I began teaching: trying to be perfect in content for the students and focused all my effort in content. No time for the people I taught with, You don’t get a do over on first impressions. Wishing I had invested more up front in building relationships with colleagues.
Hey Susan. It’s never too late to start working on your relationships with colleagues; maybe today?
Thanks for taking the time to share this.
Oh man, do I wish I had read this 5 years ago when I began teaching. I could have authored this very story as it perfectly describes my experience as a teacher for the first 4 years. For many reasons, I ended up leaving the school in which I was perhaps the “principals favorite”, but more so had not prioritized relationships with colleagues. I’m at a new school now and feel I have done a better job at building bridges, however I find myself again moving very quickly into leadership positions: the PD team, interim Department Chair, and now part of the Literacy Team for next year. I’m eager to pursue my dream of becoming a .5 coach/.5 teacher and eventually a teacher in a master’s program, but I want to maintain better balance in the meantime. Any further advice or anecdotes for how you were able to evolve professionally while not being party to any kind of “divide”?
Jacque, I don’t know if I ever actually achieved that. All I know is what I would do differently if given the chance again, and I think I would definitely prioritize socializing with my colleagues more than I did. I would force myself to attend social events and actually talk to people I didn’t know well. This would require me to override my natural introversion, but I would try to look at it like working out–not something I feel like doing at the moment, but afterward I’d be glad I put out the effort.
Reading this brought up a great deal of pain that I have felt the past few years. I am still working on getting over it, but events keep happening that make it very difficult. I have never been the pet, but had felt that I was well liked by the longstanding administration. We have gone t through way too many administrative changes in a five year period. I had always been willing to be a team player and do what was asked of me. Right before the longstanding administrators left, they asked me to change grade levels due to many teachers retiring that year. It was not a negative change, rather a move to balance grade levels with experienced and new teachers. Although it was difficult to leave my team, especially one person who I was good friends with I was excited. I always wanted to teach the younger children and it was a kindergarten position. I loved it! My second year teaching that grade level, my friend from my former team told me that she wanted to move to kindergarten also. I commented that it would be great to be on the same team again, but that I did not think anyone on my team planned on leaving in the near future. The next year, right before school was about to begin, everyone on my team got a call from the vice-principal saying that our numbers were low and that we had to cut one class for just that year. She was hoping that one of us would volunteer. She added that if no one did, she would have to either choose me or another teacher because we were the newest members of the team. I decided to volunteer because the other teacher had young children and mine were older. I figured I could handle the change easier. I agreed to it on the condition that I could return to kindergarten the next year and was assured by both administrators that I could. It was the principal’s first year and she was young and facing a great deal of obstacles, especially rapidly increasing behavioral issues of many students. Many of the students live in high poverty and have experienced trauma. The vice-principal did not especially like me or anyone who stood up to her. I had done so because she would often behave very unprofessionally and. embarrass staff by yelling at them in front of others. I had not been known to do this until then, but she had her favorites and treated everyone else with contempt. When it became time for me to return to kindergarten, I was shocked and deeply hurt when I was told that I would have to stay at the grade level I volunteered to go to for just one year. I was not given any explanation! I was additionally hurt when I found out that my “friend” who had wiggled her way into the favorite category was going to be taking the position. To further the drama, a teaching assistant who was very chummy with the principal would be joining her. Looking back to the conversation with my former teammate, I remembered that she had stated that this was her plan. She had boldly said that she felt that they could bring up the scores of the younger children working as a duo. I remember thinking how insulting that was to myself and many other teachers. The administrators conveniently forgot their promise and the few conversations we had about me being able to get my former position back. I can not express how hurt and betrayed I felt, especially by my “friend”. I always knew she was a shmoozer, but never thought she would go to this level. I would tease her about it. The most difficult part about it is that she has never had a conversation with me about it. I became very angry about this and the declining state of our school that I love so much. I know that all of our students can be successful if given a fair chance. I have said and done some unprofessional things around my peers since then and have been working hard to get back to my old self. I have chosen not to leave yet for many reasons. One of them is that I refuse to go out on a bad note. I have spent too many years working on building up my self-esteem to let people who are out for themselves keep me, the students, their families and most of the staff who I love and consider family from being successful. We now have new administrators again. I was feeling very hopeful until I heard today that a new leadership team was formed without giving everyone who was interested a chance to be involved in it. I bet you can guess who is on that team! As I like to say, I will just laugh so I don’t cry.
As a newer principal, I appreciate your insight and story. So much to ponder and think about. Love your blog- so may articles that I read and reread.
I taught for just 2 1/2 years. I love teaching but I was one of “them”. I didn’t get support or help, other teachers were cliqued together and purposely didn’t pass on information and at times lied to new teachers faces. I can deal with parents and students but I can’t deal with the playground politics of colleagues and admin.
I understand. I taught for 5 years as a part time Special Ed teacher in three different districts. In each district I found cliques and if you were not part of the cliques, you were not only isolated, but also rumors would be spread and many other teachers would give the cold shoulder in hallways or if I walked into their rooms to say hello. I always found a few teachers who were encouraging and wanted to talk and share with me. I got excellent observations and made wonderful relationships with students and parents. But it took five years for me to realize that schools tend to be places where if a teacher is a little different, she is shunned by many other teachers. I would walk down the hallways where signs were posted that said no bullies, no place for hate, we are all different, and wonder why admin felt it applied to the students but not to the teachers. Our education system needs an overhaul. It needs different leadership. I put my heart into teaching and found it to be a sad place to be. The students and parents are amazing. But the leadership leaves a lot to be desired. I hope this will change someday.
Wow! Your tweet couldn’t have come at a better time as I have been grappling with this for a few weeks. I’m kinda on the opposite side of the issue; my content partner is the pet. My principal does show favoritism with praise, perks and worst of all, eyeful of disdain. I’m also on the “special team” but I’m not a favorite. I’m kinda ok with it because I really don’t need the praise or perks but…I’m feeling like I’m perceived as less than because my peer needs the spotlight. To add, she is always highlighting my creative ideas as hers. Ex: She was ask to lead a PD over some of our collective work but mostly my innovations without credit. I sat though the PD fuming. I’m at a loss for how to proceed because I don’t want discord and believe we are better as a team. Please advise what to do when you are on the other side not getting credit because If I see another tweet of my shared strategies….I’ll do more than silent scream.
Sadly, the resentment you spoke of is building.
This is a tough one. It sounds like you have some legitimate reasons to be resentful. I wish I had an answer for this! I hope other will add their thoughts. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking that there’s not much you can do about the past, but moving forward, be more vocal and assertive when an idea is yours. So instead of sharing a new idea, in private, with your content partner, do it when someone else is present, or CC someone else on an email about it. Then the next time you bring it up, refer to it as “that idea I shared with you.” Just repeated labeling of the idea as yours? I don’t know. I think I’m grasping at straws here, but I feel like you need to start tooting your own horn a little more. I’m not sure that helps.
Ha! Start a blog, post your ideas there. And then refer her to that. There it is with date/time. 🙂
Eliza, I know you posted your response in 2017, and it is now 2020, but I would like more information on how your partner teacher acquired your ideas in 2017. Did you both plan together at the time when you came up with the creative ideas, then she put your ideas into action by developing them further? Or, did you both plan together at the time when you came up with the creative ideas, and you both put your ideas into action, and you both developed your ideas further? How exactly did your partner teacher take credit for your creative ideas? I just need a little bit more information before concluding. Now, moving forward to 2020, how has your situation changed? Has it improved? Is it worse? Are you still teaching with the same partner, or even at the same school? Thank you Eliza ❤️
Great stuff Jennifer!! Also applicable for other scenarios. In a previous life, I was a software programmer and very much engaged in pursuing perfection in my code and always wondered why my colleagues felt distant. This article reminded me of the importance of investing time and effort into relationships with the people we see everyday. Thank you!
You’re welcome, Arthi. Yes, I imagine this dynamic would transfer to other industries as well. I’m glad it helped.
Thank you for this article (and well all of yours- I’m a faithful follower!). I have experienced very similar situations at the school I am at now. The current principal and I came to the school the same year and had similar educational backgrounds. We developed a friendship and that was fatal to me with other teachers. I didn’t realize it until too late and have spent 5 years in a building eating lunch by myself. I have tried to get closer to my colleagues, but haven’t been able to break through except in a few circumstances.
Wow. Great article. Thanks Jennifer, it is so painfully relevant to the situation many of my beautiful, accomplished, dynamic but older teacher friends find themselves in.
I am not surprised since this sums it up: “(A faculty ) who had a strong negative reaction whenever he proposed a new initiative.”
And Debbie assumed the worst – unbelievable. I changed schools from the “Best International School” in the country to a “less well known smaller school” and the difference is amazing. i am leanring again and have lovely colleagues. I wish you the best Jennifer.
I just read the whole thing. The advice for admin is spot on. The advice at the end for teachers is actually very poor.
The women in the story were very sour and not her friends. She should NOT have chased after relationships with them. And she sure as hell should not have worked to ‘appear vulnerable or flawed’. What KIND of advice is that?
What she should have worked on instead is her self confidence. She worked her ass off but she felt guilty for succeeding. WHY? Doubtless it is because of the way she was raised. If you are a girl of a certain age then guilt for success is in your hardwiring. But it doesn’t NEED to be. The other teachers would have acted less resentful if she hadn’t let them. You teach others how you wish to be treated and what you allow is what will continue.
When ‘Debbie’ confronted her she needed to offer NO explanation. None. Were I in her shoes I would have given Debbie an annoyed look and said “Excuse me?” Then I would have followed it up with “You do not have the right to speak to me this way. You are being rude and I am going to ask you to leave. This was an administrative decision and you need to take it up with him.” And then I would have given her a hard, angry look.
Debbie would have then been slightly afraid of me. She would have worked like hell to ingratiate herself towards me. Instead she actively worked to turn the entire staff against the author. And the author left the experience feeling guilty. As if it were her fault. Oh hells no.
I call this approach the “Wait! Come back! There’s a part of my face you haven’t stepped on yet!” Mentality. Sometimes women can be their own worst enemies. We often were raised to take responsibility for things that are not our fault.
The author did not create the cliquey negative culture in this building. In fact she admits she has only been there for TWO years. She was brought in as one of the principal’s ‘chosen’ and now she thinks she is going to make friends? Girl, you never had a shot at getting these teachers to be your friends. Given the chance, they would exploit any vulnerability to destroy you. They will never be your friend. But, handled correctly, they can come to respect you. You teach others how you will be treated. Period.
Rachel, you sound like a much stronger person than me, and if I were more like you Debbie probably never would have felt bold enough to confront me the way she did. I will probably come back to this comment over and over anytime I am in need of some bolstering. This approach is not at all part of my hard-wiring–you’re right about that–but it feels empowering just to read it.
You are not the first person to push back on my advice here, and I definitely don’t want to advocate becoming a doormat. I just know that I didn’t make much of an effort from the beginning (before there was ever any tension) to build relationships with most of my colleagues, and it was only in retrospect that I realized it would have been helpful. It’s hard to convey the subtle difference here in writing, but I’m not urging people to go around kissing the asses of everyone in the building and begging to be liked, nor am I encouraging teachers to “appear vulnerable or flawed” or be somehow less than their fabulous selves. My advice about vulnerability was about relationships; I see vulnerability as a necessary component for building relationships of any kind, and I know that in my own experience, I was more likely to keep my distance than to get to know people I saw as different from me.
Anyway, thanks for this. You’ve given me lots to think about.
I am so sorry if I came back as critical. Overall I did love the article. But I also think that every school has these jealous, territorial types. The reality is that in a meritocracy nobody is entitled to a promotion. Sometimes a young new teacher can accomplish something and sometimes a more experienced teacher can. Professionally it does take a village. Both types of teachers are needed to create a strong culture for learning. But personal relationships and work relationships can be separate. You can be a great team player without ever going into the teachers room or attending parties. You didn’t create the divided culture in the building. It wasn’t your circus. Those weren’t your monkeys. You were just a teacher doing her job. Administrators get paid a lot of money to lead. The divided building was solely on him.
No worries. I just wish I had you as a co-worker back then so you could have taught me how to be tougher. 😉
I agree that the divided building was the admin’s responsibility, but I’m not so sure aspiring school administrators are ever taught about this aspect of the job. I do believe he was doing the best he could, but I wanted to tell this story so that others in his shoes might be able to do better.
I have been thinking about this article lately and why I am so judgmental of ‘Debbie’. For so many years I have been in Debbie’s shoes but I would never ever act that way. She’s an awful person.
Here is my story: I always wanted to be a high school art teacher. Got hired in 1989 at the age of 23 as an elementary teacher; art on a cart. Over the years the high school art department was reduced by two teachers. I switched to middle school thinking it would help my high school prospects should anyone ever retire. For the next 22 years, when the high school art department finally did begin to grow, I was then told ‘you are needed at the middle school. Nobody else wants to teach there. Nobody else has the classroom management skill.” For 22 years I applied for high school jobs and watched them go to young teachers right out of college. It was maddening. It was frustrating. I KNEW I could do a great job. Why wasn’t I good enough? What did they have that I didn’t? I couldn’t compete on the basis of youth or malleability. I couldn’t be that non tenured slave who didn’t know how to say ‘no’. So I focused on skill. I blogged. I began writing for a national magazine. I began giving online PD for Education Closet. I worked on a STEAM Dodge Foundation grant through Rutgers. I initiated arts integration with classroom teachers. I was chosen by my school as teacher of the year.
And one day, it happened. After 29 years. I will begin my 30th year at the high school. The powers above finally see me as the leader and team player I am. It took years of work to finally get to the point where, as a nationally recognized art ed blogger, contributing School Arts editor and award winning teacher, they could no longer ignore me. I was the clear choice when someone retired. Finally.
Now, imagine Debbie, the bitter sour older teacher, with her haughty attitude, negative energy, and seething resentment in my shoes? I am about to walk into a high school art department where EVERY SINGLE OTHER TEACHER was hired over me at some point in time over the years. I applied to each of their positions and was heartbreakingly passed over. Would anyone in their right mind ever put the unprofessional ‘Debbie’ in that department? Her entitled resentment could destroy the workplace dynamic. She must be a peach to work with 🙄. Who cares about her ‘seniority’? Even in a union setting that only entities you to a job and a salary, not your choice of assignment. In any workplace I have ever heard of, you get those plumb assignments the way the author of this article did, based on merit. Didn’t get chosen? Become more awesome. Certainly don’t take it out on those who were chosen instead of you. All they did is apply in good faith for a job. How are they to blame? They had nothing to do with the hiring decision. Debbie is a bully and a jerk. Plain and simple. And frankly it’s a shame nobody in this story put her in her place.
It doesn’t just happen to teachers with less tenure! I’d been teaching 30 years and was named Nebraska’s Teacher of the Year in 2011. As my peers from other states gathered during our TOY year activities we all traded stories of animosity, both covert and overt, from our colleagues. It was so universal we gave them a name “Negative Nancies”.
I couldn’t understand why they felt as they did, I hadn’t prevented any of them from earning recognition but it certainly seemed as if they felt I made them look lesser in what they had or hadn’t done. All of what I had done to be recognized was done for the good of my students and not myself. I guess maybe my sin was applying for the recognition?
One situation I recall vividly occurred during my TOY year. I’d used a $1,000 grant to purchase some books for a Habits of Mind study for the entire district and then successfully wrote a $2,000 grant to get a professional trainer to come to our district for a day of professional development. The granting business want a picture for their purposes and I posed with some of their representatives and a giant check mid-morning. As I was walking through the office I got a cynical, “what’d you do, win another award”? I didn’t feel as that I deserved that at all!
I had a friend who had won a state level award for teaching mathematics and swore those in the know in our district and in attendance at the conference swear to secrecy so the word didn’t spread in our system; that’s a sad statement! She didn’t want to be “negative Nancied”!
Seems as that this culture is widespread in our profession and wish I knew how to combat it! I’ve retired from the classroom and am in my second year of tenure as an elected school board member now and promote our principals to encourage the great teachers in our system to apply for recognition without much success but absolutely understand why so many are reticent to do so!
Yes! Very helpful. I,too, like many responders to this post, have experienced the deep freeze of colleagues. What might we have in common? I suspect it is a desire to enrich our knowledge and enthusiasm for growth. Very threatening to those who want to do their job without stretching. I’m not a teacher but have been a substitute this year on a northern reserve school. I love the school and the kids, but keep my enthusiasm under some wraps. Why? Because I’m 66 years old and recognize the behaviour of threatened colleagues. I hang out with just a few who see me as a wealth of knowledge and a rebel and keep my mouth mostly zipped with the rest. I’m here to teach and learn from the students. I found your site because I needed help. Thank you so much! And for those of you who are passionate about your career – don’t tamp down your fire – just be judicious with it. Students need your willingness to explore and grow.
Thank you so much for this column. I was also a star teacher and although I had several teachers support me in the English department, the others tried to sabotage me. I had been the department head for several years, and at the end of every year, I asked if anyone else wanted the job. I never had any takers, but one year some of the teachers plotted after school how to “take away my power.” Their words, not mine. They stopped talking to me and when I talked to them, they literally rolled their eyes. One of the other teachers informed me about what was going on, so at the last meeting, I stepped down as department chairman, and they basically did a high five right in front of me. It was a really low period in my life.
The following years were really tough for me. When I finally retired, one of those teachers came to my room and said, “I am really glad you are retiring because now some of the rest of us might be seen as the best teacher in the school.” I am now an adjunct professor at our local college, and there is no faculty room or jealousy. I love getting your newsletters and I put many of your ideas to use in my college classes. Thanks again..
Hi Jennifer as a new principal, but not new to school admin, I remember reading or hearing the phrase it’s lonely at the top. I don’t believe I am at the top, but, to quote a phrase. I work in a school with a handful of expat staff who seem to have clicked well together without any effort positive or negative on my part. I do not socialize with staff outside of school and have not made the effort to have any informal get togethers. After reading your post I think I should be making this effort though before my first year is over! The challenge for me as principal is to be connected to each staff member in a positive way, but professionally. Knowing well that schools and staff rooms are fertile ground for gossip and conjecture I made it known to staff that I love having conversations about learning, which is true. It is a balancing act though for me, and others I imagine as well, to maintain the professional relationship and appearing as a human being and not just a human doing. Reading about all those teachers, and you, held hostage in toxic environment, makes me worry now that someone on my staff may be feeling isolated. Thank you for reposting this.
You are brilliant to put this out there. Everything you say is true and right on point. I was just like you! And now I’m doing what you would do if you went back. It’s made my teaching life so much better. If only a couple of my admin would take your advice…maybe I can send them the link anonymously lol. 😉
While I agree with all of your advice (and love your blog), I’m deeply concerned about the sense of entitlement some veteran teachers seem to have about who teaches what, and why. In addition, I’m baffled by some teachers’ view that it’s not their job to adapt to a changing world, just as we’re asking students (and adults in most other professions) to adapt (and be creative). As a school leader, I try to cultivate a mindset that all students are all of our responsibility. I also try to appreciate all teachers for their unique contributions to students’ learning and to the professional team. Ultimately, though, the students each teacher works with are the ones they’re most effective at building relationships with, creating a positive culture with, and sharing their expertise with – not a select group that’s supposedly easier than others. All that said, the principal you referred to also made a few mistakes that proved divisive, rather than motivating. Sorry to read about this experience, which is probably far more common than it should be.
I have recently had a similar experience, and your advice is spot on. I taught at a University Intensive English Program (IEP) for international students. The director offered me the testing coordinator position when I first arrived for a level 3 position (the highest). I was more credentialed but less experienced than most of the faculty, which bred resentment immediately. I found myself in an uphill battle for connection and respect. I always ate in the teacher’s lounge and often tried to relate with others through shortcomings; this helped. But the biggest thing I took away from this experience is that the workplace atmosphere is better when opportunities are open to everyone and applied for, not appointed. When people feel like you deserve your position, they’re more likely to listen to you… and like you.
I work in my dream school – my 4th and hopefully last school, so I don’t face the issues listed above- but this year was truly difficult. I am a veteran teacher, but the interpersonal dynamics of our 5th grade class were extraordinarily challenging and I was diagnosed with breast cancer on February 1st. I taught until the last two weeks of school and did the best I could, but I will never forget the calls from doctors’ offices relaying bad news to me as I stood on the playground or in the hallway, and I think I earned a gold medal in compartmentalizing. My prognosis is very good – but man, what a year.
I don’t know what states you all teach in, but I feel like when mine started including an average of the state test scores across the building in teacher evaluation equations, it was too easy for teachers to ask, “which teacher’s student results brought down our building’s scores? Who caused my rating to drop?” We all work our tails off, but when principals comment on how we should all be looking at what Joann is doing because almost all of her kids were in the blue range, the small rifts grow at an alarming rate. It will take real finesse on the part of a principal to knit the staff together, to value the strengths of all.
This comment gets at what I’m becoming more and more frustrated with at my workplace. It’s not that teachers aren’t doing great things, but that the admin is allowing or even fostering a culture of openly congratulating or highlighting people in a way that is not even, which creates subtle competition and divides. If admin decides to point out somebody doing a good thing in the school as an exemplar, since their accomplishment was easy to notice, it’s admin’s responsibility to also seek out and praise the less visible hard work and accomplishments from other teachers whose dedication and contribution isn’t as obvious. Admins need to find a way to sincerely highlight everyone equally, or just make very clear expectations that they insist everyone follow, since they get paid the big bucks, without waiting for an over-achieving teacher to have a good idea, (which they probably developed outside of contract time above and beyond their paid job requirements) and then announce that idea as exemplary and what everyone else should strive for. It’s basically a culture of rewarding scabbing behavior that I find really insidious and abusive of laborers. I’m also just tired of seeing the same three teachers spotlighted at faculty meetings because they are openly expressing enthusiasm all the time and acting like eager beavers when I know that nearly every other staff in that room works damn hard, often way beyond contract time, but has the maturity and grace to just chug along without their efforts being obvious.
Reading your post almost gave me PTSD. I have had a very similar experience, and it still hurts when I think about it. I loved your advice for both principal and teacher. It is easy when you are at a new building to get lost in your students and not have an enormous amount of time to create relationships with the people who have been there; however, I believe they should have made more of an effort to be welcoming. They were new once.
I would add to your advice that we, as teachers, should make newcomers feel welcome. Check in with them. See if they need anything. Wouldn’t we want our students to do the same?
Also, we should never have to apologize for doing our best. If others feel threatened by that, well, they may need to step up their game. At the end of the day, I want to be able to look myself in the mirror and know that I brought my A game for my students. It’s unfortunate that it may bring out the worst in others, but the work still needs to be done.
Thank you for your advice. It does you credit to accept some of the responsibility. Truthfully, though, it sounds like you were working with some people who may have let their own issues guide their unprofessional behavior. I hope I’ll feel a little better about my situation when some time has passed.
Thanks for sharing your story and your thoughts here. Based on my own experience, I would guess that you will definitely feel better about it with time. That perspective can also help to guide you in future situations, and like you said, will make you more apt to welcome newcomers with more intention.
Thank you for sharing your story. I agree that it would be helpful if principals opened up opportunities to all teachers instead of picking just the teachers they want to work with. I also agree with making an effort to eat in the staff room on the regular. Powerful podcast.
Thank you. I know this is 2 years after you posted, but it REALLY was something I needed today. Being in a small school, being on our District Leadership Team and working on a school redesign has left me feeling this way. I definitely will take some of this advice
Thanks for sharing, Janine.
Not very related, but your podcast spawned an idea for a blog about problems we have with teacher relationships in Thailand, and I used your podcast as a bouncing board. Just thought I’d share the link, and say thanks for your podcast.
Thanks so much for sharing this, Steve. Our relationships really do make such an impact on our work. I’m glad this prompted you to write that post!
I have been searching for teachers who have gone through what I went through last year. My 3 boys have some type of disability which led me to go back to school to become a special education teacher. Last year was my first year to teach. I was in a public school. The principle bullied me all year and made my experience a living hell. I was an easy target. She intimidated me, chastised me, interrogated me every time I was in her office. She never praised me, never said one kind word to me. She pointed out every mistake I made. After the first month she moved me to the life skills class, where there were students with extreme behavior issues. I did not have experience in this area and it was horrible. After thanksgiving, she moved me back to 5th grade special ed. Two weeks before school let out she fired me and and I can’t get another job in the school district. I was alianated. I was in a toxic environment. Teachers around me were always negative and complained about everything including parents, the students with disabilities exspecially the kids with ADHD. The district lost a good teacher. I was motivated, inspired, and excited at the beginning of the year. I am now broken, traumatized, and angry. It shouldn’t have happened. But it did. And I can’t do anything about it. She is the one who should be fired.
Dena, I am so sorry to hear about all of this happening to you. It sounds truly awful and I really hope you are able to find a completely different school to start over. I have heard of other teachers with similar experiences who switched to different districts and they say it was like night and day. Will keep you in my thoughts.
Sheetcake, drive go-carts, play games (Murder in the Dark), arrange drop of the hat meet ups, travel, and create run clubs with your coworkers outside of school. We do some the dumbest stuff together as a staff- not everyone shows up but most do- and have the best time together. It makes a world of difference when we come together at school to support our kiddos. We laugh and love each other outside of our building so we can do the same within our building. It is the best.
I think your principal handled the committee and room assignments poorly. He also erred in praising staff in the manner in which he did. Unfortunately, you were the victim of his poor management skills. The changes you and your fellow colleagues proposed would have eventually been realized had your principal planned more strategically and had keener emotional intelligence skills with which to manage the more negative staff members.