This communicate episode of the Truth for Teachers podcast is more informal and off-the-cuff than normal. If you’re new to the podcast, I typically try to keep things structured and focused on practical info. This episode will be different.
Sometimes, I like to just speak directly from the heart, without rehearsing or planning what I want to say in advance.
Our topic is communicating with difficult colleagues. I’m hearing more and more teachers having this problem in recent years, where coworkers are making people really anxious and stressed. It might be because of passive-aggressive behavior, bullying, gossiping, complaining, or being really controlling.
I’m not going to provide a transcript here because this is more of a flow-of-consciousness episode. Instead, I’ll give you the key highlights:
* The goal is to provide the best possible instruction and learning environment for children. The goal is not avoiding tension, making everyone feel comfortable all the time, or being besties with your team. You want to be collegial and professional and come together to get things done, but you do not have to be friends to do that.
* If coworkers say inappropriate things, use facial expressions to let them know you don’t agree. You can also say something like, “Wow, do you really think that?” and give an incredulous look (like, “Wow, that’s how you really feel?”). They feel comfortable saying what they’ve said aloud because they assume you’ll agree. Responding in this way lets them know that their attitude is not the norm and not everyone feels the way they do, which will hopefully prompt self-reflection or second-guessing without you have to engage further.
* When something really egregious is said that reveals a coworkers bias or harmful views about kids or families, I prefer to be really direct. You may not be able to think of the right thing to say in the moment, but let your facial expressions show the conversation is not okay. You can always approach the person afterward and say, “Hey, can I talk with you about something? When you said XYZ the other day in our meeting, I feel like I need to really share with you how that phrase or that perspective can be hurtful to some people.” You can’t make excuses that certain coworkers are “just like that” if they’re harming kids. We don’t have to normalize their viewpoints. Everyone has access to the same internet and we can all educate ourselves and do better —point these colleagues toward resources that will help and hold them accountable.
* In true instances of bullying, your administrators or union (if you have one) need to be made aware of the situation. It needs to be taken very seriously and the proper protocol should be followed.
* However, a coworker hurting your feelings is not bullying. A coworker being rude to you is not bullying. They’re just being rude. And similarly, someone pressuring you to do something is not necessarily bullying. There will always be people who are more aggressive or a bit more forceful in their speech, and those people tend to have a bigger influence than the folks who are more quiet, laid back, or introverted.
* It’s very hard to have a good working relationship with someone that you have placed a label on. So if you and your friends are referring privately to a person as a bully, then every time this person speaks directly about something, you’re going to see that as bullying, when, in fact, it may not be.
* If you have a group of colleagues who all agree this person is bullying others into submission, dominating your team, or not letting anyone else talk, then you have power in those numbers. You have the strength together to stand up for yourselves. One person on a team of six can’t control the whole team when the other five are in agreement that they would like to have more voice. The five of you need to band together and say, “Okay, what are we going to do next time we have a meeting? How are we going to speak up here?” You can work together to change that dynamic. Speak up for one another. Speak up for yourself.
* Say, “I feel like I don’t have a say in how we plan our lessons because I’m afraid of upsetting you. I’d like to have more input here. Can I please share how I’m doing my lessons, and can we work on some more compromises this week?” This will be uncomfortable. You can’t avoid that. But you are a degreed professional who was hired to do a very important job. You have important insights to share. Even if you’re new and this person has been teaching for a long time, your opinions and your preferences are still important. You still deserve to be heard and you should be able to speak up. So when you see inappropriately domineering behavior, correct it together and don’t be afraid to speak up.
* With gossipy, negative, or complaining coworkers, try just honestly expressing what you notice and feel. “It just doesn’t feel great to me to have this conversation. I feel a little weird about this right now. I want to change the subject.” That might be enough for the other person to get it without feeling like you’re judging them. You’re focusing on how the conversation makes you feel and being honest about wanting to take things in a different direction.
* Plato’s ancient advice to, “Be kind to everyone you meet, knowing that they’re fighting a hard battle,” is still relevant today. Some of your most difficult coworkers might be having a most difficult life, right? They might be stuck in a really unhappy marriage, have just had a miscarriage, have a teenager who’s using drugs … who knows? People go through all kinds of stuff that we don’t know about. There’s always so much more to how people act than what we can see. And there are always reasons for things behind the scenes. So while it’s not easy to respond to other people through a lens of empathy, it can really be helpful to let go of the judgment and labels and to really try to understand.
* The opposite of judgment to me is curiosity. So instead of looking at the situation and saying, “Oh, this person is impossible,” let’s get curious about it. What’s going on? Why is this person acting like that? What’s going on in this person’s life that is making them feel this way or say those things or behave in those ways? What unmet need is present?
* The more that we can respond to people with a spirit of curiosity rather than a spirit of judgment, the easier it is to be kind to them. And remember, they ARE fighting a hard battle. And that’s the secret to being able to act rather than react. They’re not able to just bait you into these debates or arguments. Their emotions can be way up, but you can stay level and calm because you’re viewing them through this lens of empathy and curiosity rather than judgment. You are acting from this place within yourself instead of reacting to whatever they do.
* Remind yourself that everyone is doing the best that they know how to do. They’re doing the best that they’re capable of in this moment. And that includes YOU. Show yourself grace as you practice responding to these frustrating situations in ways that will create less stress.