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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. ♥