Chapter 20 – Colleagues

As soon as my first ever staff meeting ended, three older women invited me to ride with them to the district picnic. It sounded great to me. As a spatially hopeless person, I was going to get lost trying to find the place on my own. It turned out that they wanted to have a private chat with me. “Be sure,” they said, “To come to us if you have any trouble at all.” I had no idea what they were talking about, but being trapped in the back seat, acquiesced.

I still have no idea what they were talking about. They may have been referring to union issues. Or maybe there was some schism between faculty members that I was never savvy enough to detect. I’m just glad that I never had any trouble.

Figuring out how to work with colleagues can be difficult. Some you can take at face value. Others require a deeper reading. You will make humiliating mistakes with a few, either by overstepping or under-delivering. Practice your apologies now; they are unavoidable, but do get easier with practice. Practice saying thank you as well. Your coworkers will be your lifeline. At the risk of insulting the great teachers I have worked with, here are some colleagues to look for.

Truly Great Teachers

The good news is that they are everywhere. None of them will ever admit it because they only see their shortcomings and the students they weren’t able to save, but if you want to know which teachers to observe or get advice from, ask around your building, “Of all of the teachers in this building, who do you want to be when you grow up?” Okay, that last bit is a little sassy, but you get the idea. One or two names will surface over and over again. These are the teachers to watch in meetings and consult with when you need serious help. And because they are truly great teachers, they will help even if they just met you.


Colleagues Who Want to Help

I stop by and check on the newest teachers in the building. I know they are overwhelmed, I can’t help that, but I want to make sure they feel supported. I always ask what questions they have, what they are worried about, what they are still trying to find in the building, anything I can do to help. Most of them say they’re fine, a few write down my phone number, the rarest few talk to me. It’s okay. If getting out of the way is what I need to do, then I will get out of the way.

Occasionally, I will hear something in their plans that could be done more easily or see something room that could be set up better. I have taught four grades in my current school and we have several agreements about how our classrooms will be arranged. If I see it, I will mention it and offer to help change it. I get one of two responses. Experienced teachers will thank me and quickly fix it. New teachers will argue with me and tell me why it’s fine. Okay, then. I tried. I usually check again in a few weeks later either in the classroom or the hallway. If something comes up, I’ll try a single, careful suggestion. Experienced teachers say thank you, they might try it. New teachers will argue with me and tell me why what they’re doing is fine. Okay, then. I give up.

My suggestions are not manna from heaven; they’re just ideas. But uniformly, they get the same response from new teachers. Their words are different, but their tone says, “I am fine. This is not a problem. I am in control. I do not need help. I feel threatened. Shut it down.” So I give up and sincerely hope that new teacher is getting all the support she needs from a grade-level partner.

Once upon a time, when I was white water rafting, we successfully navigated a class 5 rapid, more of a waterfall, really. Knowing not every raft was going to make it, the riverside rocks at the end of the run were covered with teams with rescue ropes ready. Sure enough, the next crew went swimming. The first team threw a long rope in the water, but the crew missed it and floated past.  Then next team threw a rope, and a few swimmers grabbed it but couldn’t hold on. It took a third and fourth rope to save all of them. A rope can look like a snake in a churning river and can be tough to hang on to. When you are drowning, it’s tough to recognize a lifeline. When you are overwhelmed, it’s tough to hear a genuine offer of help, but they are there. Listen for them.


Colleagues with Great Ideas

One thing that surprised me about teaching was how astonishingly creative you get to be. You have wide latitude in designing your physical space, your day, and your lessons. When you first face all of those choices, it’s a bit overwhelming, but when you open yourself up to the possibility, it’s heady stuff. I confess to being quite jealous of teachers whose rooms look designed. There is a color scheme, a point of view, a repeating theme, and I want to move in. In my room, it’s a major achievement if the bulletin boards complement each other, and the bookshelves aren’t obviously scrounged from five different sources. My repeating theme is plastic tub.

Since I’m never going to win Design Star, I content myself with creating meaningful, relevant work. Every now and then, I do manage to do something really special with my students, and cherish those lessons, saving them for next year. I have worked with colleagues, however, who are intensely creative or are constantly browsing the web for new and wonderful ideas. Talking with them is like talking to fireworks. Bright ideas are shooting off everywhere.

While these teachers can be amazingly inspirational, they can be a trial to partner with. You go to them to lock down what we are teaching this week, and you get a one-hour treatise on what we might teach this month – this cool thing and that cool thing, and oh, you just have to see this. To get what you need, you have to be assertive. Ask again for what you need. Exactly what are we teaching tomorrow and the next day and the next. Write it down where you both can see so gaps are obvious to both of you. Don’t leave until you are comfortable that you have what you need to teach from that plan. Keep at this until it becomes a rhythm for the two of you. It’s great to have starry eyes, but someone has to keep their feet planted firmly in the ground.


Colleagues with Free Advice

A lawyer friend of mine once said, “My advice is worth what you pay for it.” That’s about what all of that free advice I didn’t ask for in the faculty room was worth. I became particularly attuned to the word “just.” As soon as that word appeared in a sentence, I knew I was in for hours of work.  It usually appeared in sentences like, “Just run your sound system through your overhead projector, and everything should sync up fine,” or “Just have your students use the same logins that they used for the reading program. There shouldn’t be any problem.” Inevitably, it would take hours to get the sound system hooked up, and the old student logins were locked out.

As soon as someone says, “Just print to the library,” I cringe. It may sound simple, but I am in for an average of three trips between buildings to see if my job came out, to see why it didn’t come out, to clear the queue, and finally to get a smeared-up printout because someone forgot to mention that the printer has been spewing toner. If you don’t believe me, listen for yourself. “Just” is a cursed word.

When you get free advice, nod, consider it then file it in the appropriate place. Most people who give free advice don’t follow it themselves.


Colleagues Who Don’t Work Any Too Hard

Eventually, when you can see around the vast pile of papers on your desk, you will notice that some of your colleagues aren’t at school after the dismissal bell rings. Ever. They don’t coach, they have no clubs, they don’t serve on any committees, they are simply gone.

Before you judge too harshly in your exhausted state, ask around. Many teachers have second jobs. It’s sad that we have to work two jobs to make ends meet, but bills need paying. One of the best school secretaries I have ever worked with had four jobs at one point. I also remember a letter to the editor of my local paper suggesting that the teachers take a pay cut to balance the district budget. I did the math. Based on that cut salary, my kids would have qualified for reduced price school lunch. And I have a masters degree.

Having said all that, like any other workplace and for whatever reason, there will be a few colleagues who don’t work any too hard. And like any other workplace, you’ll find them incredibly frustrating. You, who are completely dedicated to your students and your craft, have to watch a colleague do the bare minimum. Sometimes it is a character flaw. They can’t give of themselves to anyone. Sometimes it is learned behavior. They have spent their lives doing as little as possible and this job is one more stop on the lazy train. Sometimes, they think you make them look bad and actively sabotage you.

I hate that I have to write this because the vast majority of adults in education are there for all the right reasons. They care passionately about children and want to change the world. Now and then, however, you will encounter someone who just wanted a job. You won’t notice at first because they have learned to say the right things, but look for these clues: 1) they have changed school several times 2) they are the child of a prominent educator, 3) they mention questionable behavior like having affairs or blacking out from drinking, 4) they are late for meetings or miss them entirely, and 5) their students always seem to be at recess. If you have to work closely with this person, look out. If she feels threatened by your commitment or success, she will attempt to take you down. She will gossip about you, make up lies, and complain to your principal, in short whatever it takes to protect her paycheck. Your best defense is documentation, which is a hassle, but vital. Keep all emails. Note missed meetings. Keep meeting notes. Years ago, as a manager in industry, I learned that the one who has the documentation wins. Be that person.

Occasionally, low-performing teachers will even try to co-opt you by pointing out how small your salary is or how poorly the administration treats you. What? Are they going to refuse to do their job well until they get paid properly? Or appreciated? Like that’s going to happen. Pity them, but do not inhale their smoke. No one ever achieved greatness by complaining.


Not all gossip is bad. You need to know the school’s history, its place in the community, and any sensitive spots to stay clear of. You need information to do your job, and asking how best to approach someone you don’t know is an entirely appropriate question. Asking for the family history of one of your students can also make you a more sympathetic and caring teacher. Asking a coworker if she’s heard how the librarian’s mother is or whether the secretary’s dog is okay means that you care.

We do get into gray areas when we are tired and need to vent. We get frustrated and say things we probably wouldn’t say to a person’s face. Wouldn’t it be better if Mrs. Rice walked her students down the hall instead of letting them fly unrestricted? Has Mr. Brace ever considered standing up and walking around for yard duty so he can see for himself the students who are sneaking behind the gym? Could Mrs. Bardette even once let her kids out of school on time so she could get a handle on her bus line? Does Ms. Emery ever stay for even one minute after the bell?  Does Mrs. Cooper grade any of her papers or does she give everyone A’s as a matter of policy? We should not say these things, but it has been a long day, and we are not saints.

The real problem with gossip is when it is sustained and pointed, when you meet regularly and dish, often discussing the same people. This can do some real damage. I could not figure out why one administrator spent a year questioning my teaching practices. I recently found out that she had regular sessions with a former teaching partner. I used to work with one staff member who seemed to collect people at lunch. She planted herself and waved in everyone who walked by. Several people gave her the latest news not realizing that she was collecting it and sharing it back out with others. She even hid around corners to catch conversations. It caused some serious grief with parents whose children she discussed. Even worse, one of my colleagues continues to face prejudice years after this woman spread gossip about her.

You already know this, but stay away. Gossip has some sort of sweet, sticky scent that entices, but the poison at the center of the candy is destructive. Word will get out among your colleagues who have integrity and they will keep you at arm’s length for something close to forever.


Outspoken Colleagues

I admit it. This is me. As a young woman I was shy, but no one believes that now. I am at a point in my career and life where I am intolerant of anything that gets in the way of any child’s learning, so intolerant that I speak up at faculty meetings more than I should and express my frustration with more clarity than people are comfortable with. I am supportive and sympathetic with parents, but I also challenge them to do better for their children. I have been known to go “Mama Bear” when my daughter’s school finds her 504 plan inconvenient. Last summer, after giving some crystal clear advice to a thirty-year-old about making some decisions to move on with her life, her partner said to me, “I like you, but you scare me.”

From my point of view, I am too old, have too much life experience, and have too little time left to be messing around. I can spend hours enthusiastically teaching and re-teaching the structure of a sentence to 3rd graders, or discussing ways to handle the outbursts of an emotionally reactive student with other teachers, but I begrudge mightily the time I spend giving useless assessments and writing meaningless reports. I hate wasting learning time. I hate wasting thinking time.

Feel free to come talk to me and my outspoken compadres. Remember to take what we say with a grain of salt. We could well be right, but it may not be a truth that you are in a position to act on or even repeat, especially as an untenured teacher. For whatever reason, we are willing to take risks that you may not even know exist. In other words, feel free to listen to us, consider what we have to say, but don’t emulate us yet. Not until you are tenured, feel you can afford to lose, or don’t care if you lose, your job.

Colleagues Whose Stuff You Took

Not my fault. I should wear a sign that says, “Not my fault.” Twice in my career, a principal has given me something that was precious to a colleague. Both were completely without my knowledge. Once it was a class that a coworker loved to teach. Once it was a classroom that forced a coworker into a space the size of a large closet.

It wasn’t my fault, I didn’t even know it was going to happen, but that didn’t matter. Both coworkers were gentlemanly about it, but both were understandably upset, and it was safer to get grumpy with me than with the boss. I was in for some retribution and knew it. I withstood the open complaints in the faculty room about how I wasn’t going to teach that class as well as he did. In a sense, he was right. I don’t know if I taught it as well as he did, but I certainly taught it differently. Now that it was my class, I got to use my ideas. I didn’t tell him. It would have broken his curmudgeon’s heart.

I also get into trouble, not my fault, when parents ask that their children be assigned to my room. When my mom taught, schools kept waiting lists for each teacher. The length of the list became a point of pride. Nowadays, districts usually have policies stating that parents may not request teachers, but in the real world, that’s not how it works. A few savvy parents will call the school and state a preference, and who wants to argue with a parent? From where I sit, I’d rather know what a parent wants. It’s a heck of a lot clearer and less embarrassing than having a parent move a student out of my room. And it causes less stress on my relationships with coworkers when my colleague fights for a student then sees her put on my class list two days later. My colleague can’t take angry feelings out on the parent so guess who’s in for a little hazing?

Another way to take stuff is to use someone else’s ideas. Always ask. Always show your appreciation. If someone compliments you on your amazing lesson, always give credit. You might feel insecure and want to steal some of the glow for yourself, but adults will figure out that you did a lot of the work anyway and that it was pretty smart of you to find that great lesson. As a parent, I would far rather you borrow an amazing lesson than author boring ones all by yourself.

Borrowing is about so much more than things. We all know to return things. But if you take something precious, even if it is not your fault, be prepared to be a target for a little while. Teachers are not vicious, and you will live. Remember to be appreciative of anything you take, even if you didn’t mean to, and treat everyone, even curmudgeons, with deep respect.


Colleagues Who Want You to Be Them

Middle school teachers commonly take over classes from other teachers and face this conundrum. Do I teach this class the way I think it should be taught or do I follow in my predecessor’s footsteps? The answer is somewhere in the middle. You try to stay true to yourself, but don’t have the time to make up new lessons every day so those existing lessons are handy.

Every once in a while, you meet a teacher who feels that she has “solved” the class. And if you would only teach it like her, you would be fine. She will hand you all of the materials you need, which is a real gift, but she will expect you to use them exactly like she does, sometimes even on her schedule. When she checks in with you to see how it is going, she will be unhappy to hear that your class is behind or did something different, no matter how genius it was.

A more difficult problem is the teacher who says, “Here are all of the materials. Teach the class how you think it should be taught,” but doesn’t really mean it. What she really wants you to do is guess how she would teach it and do it her way. I taught a class for a department head like this once, and it made both of us crazy. I was a poor guesser, plus there were some new ideas I wanted to try. She would observe my classroom and leave quite unhappy. An even more difficult problem is the colleague who expects you to teach like him, but you feel he is doing something wrong. He may take shortcuts you don’t feel are appropriate like using reading time to recopy research papers, or correcting mistakes as he retypes students’ papers for them.

Working with these colleagues is difficult because you are doomed to disappoint them. Unless you are willing to suppress everything about yourself and follow their scripts, you will struggle to impress them. And if you have to guess what they want, your road is even steeper.

Having said all of that, I did work with a young woman who succeeded at working with that department head for several years. When I asked her how she did it, she smiled and said, “Because I have to.” She was always positive, enthusiastic, and smiling. She didn’t let the situation get her down. She chose instead to learn everything she could from that teacher, and when she wanted to make a change, she found research to support it, brought it to a meeting, presented it with fervor, and said, “I am determined to make this work. Watch my classroom and see!”


Colleagues Who Berate You

This doesn’t happen often, but once it does, it ruins your day, week, month, even your year. For a friend of mine, it ruined her job. It’s wrong for any teacher, no matter how senior, to verbally assault another teacher, no matter how junior. That said, it still happens.

On rare occasions, we get really, seriously, unbelievably frustrated with each other. Usually it is because we have a deep underlying disagreement about what is good for the students. There is nothing wrong, or even surprising, about this. New theories about education are being advanced every year; those of us on the front lines will react to their consequences the most strongly. However when one teacher knows she is right, the other refuses to give in, and someone has forgotten to be civil, it can get ugly. Really, the best choice at that point is to leave the room until everyone calms down. If you are the victim and can’t escape, let the tempest blow over you as best you can. Other teachers will probably check in on you to make sure you are okay and to take the sting out of what just happened. Still, it won’t be easy to forget and may never be cleared up with an apology. Keep working as best you can and keep clear of that person for a good long time. If you can’t avoid, bring a friend for backup. If it is persistent and continuous, you have the right to report it to your principal, human resources, union, and if appropriate, the school police.

Queen Bees

Queen bees are extremely rare, you might meet only one or two in your life, but they can be toxic if you make a mistake with them. Queen bees are phenomenally competent teachers or administrators. When you see one at work, you are in awe of her astonishing skills. She has a deft touch and draws the absolute best out of everyone. You stand straighter when you’re around her.

The subtle downside is that everyone must tacitly acknowledge her supremacy. She dominates conversations, and she controls the emotional tone of a room. If anyone takes the direction of her conversation off track, she appears irritated. She often sets up her life so that she can help lots of younger people, and she gets enormous satisfaction, as well as compliments, from doing so. You may not have to feed into that stream of compliment pollen, but don’t ever disrupt it.

Never, ever argue with a queen bee, even if you are right. Don’t ever presume that your relationship with her allows you to criticize her. She will cut you off, cut you down, and end your career. You will end up on your figurative knees apologizing profusely, looking for another job, or waiting years for her anger to wear off. Don’t risk it.

Special Education

Some of my best, and worst, relationships have been with special education teachers. Part of my problem stems from the process of qualifying a child for special education services. The specific rules appear to be ever changing, but the themes are the same. I go through hell and high water with a child in my class, try everything I can imagine, research, or discover, finally break down and take all of my documentation to a study team, answer endless questions, and get referred back to my class with six more weeks of individual work that I must personally do with that child during time that I don’t have. I have to document that work in writing and return back to the team to find out if they will screen the child. They may or may not screen the child, but even if they do, it’s a miracle if the child qualifies for services. It’s worse in small, rural districts where teachers are flat out told not to refer any child for Special Education services. The identified children that have transferred in from other districts already require more than the district can afford.

I have words for this process, but they are not printable. It is obviously designed to keep the special education department from being overwhelmed. And it works. I only make it through these hurdles for two children a year, at most. The problem is that it destroys children.

In 6th grade, a rangy, shaggy boy named Mark entered my gifted class. He didn’t speak a lot or act up much, but he sure cracked up at everyone else’s antics. He was verbally expressive, read above grade level, and didn’t spell particularly well, but writing was his Achilles’ heel. Nothing made it onto his paper. At one point, I sat across his desk and asked what was in his head. He said, “Nothing.” I believed him. We had been through pre-writing just fine, but when he had to string words onto paper, I swear I could see a wall behind his eyes. It happened exactly the same way every time we had a writing assignment. I sometimes wrote a few sentences for him as if he were a 1st grader. Essay tests were a nightmare. I told him to take as much extra time as he needed, and a one hour test turned into four. I timed it. The literature circle homework assignments were another test of character. His parents said he spent hours on them and only got half done. After trying everything I could think of to help him write, I took all of his information to Student Study Team.

After describing all of my accommodations, after expressing how writing put this child into physical pain, after pointing out how gifted he was in other areas, the district’s special education coordinator said, “Your accommodations are working. Keep doing them.” What? I pointed out that a four-hour test is not reasonable. But she felt it was and refused to see him. My department head tried to save me and predicted that if we didn’t help this boy, he would soon turn to drugs to self-medicate his brain. The coordinator stood her ground. No testing.

As it happened, my department head had this child in 7th grade and took his case back to the study team. The coordinator still refused to test. By the end of the year, he was cutting school. His parents started driving their car to the teacher’s gate and watching him walk inside to make sure he at least started his day in the right place. By 8th grade, he was self-medicating. His 8th grade language arts teacher took his case back to study team. The coordinator finally relented and agreed to screen him, then test him. He did indeed have a learning disability. They immediately put him into special education language arts classes. But by now he was already cutting school and using drugs. I could have screamed. It still makes me angry.

I also get angry about the children whose IQ’s are 1 point too high to qualify for services. I have had three of them in my classes over the years. Doomed to years of struggle in school without any services beyond what a teacher can scrounge up, what hope do they have? I have helped get two of the three up to grade level before they left my class, largely because I had them for two years, but the intensity with which they have to work is exhausting, and wasn’t maintained after they left my room. They have since lost most of their gains. But what I really want to know is this. Has no one ever heard of the standard error of measurement? We are cutting students off from much needed help based on what could well be variability in how the test is administered. Yet this is standard practice.

Having ranted enough, I have to say that some of my favorite colleagues have been special education teachers. There is something about being able to cope with any child, from any background, with any problem, while simultaneously teaching multiple grade levels and completing literally mountains of paperwork that makes some teachers shine. Their sense of humor gets a lot of practice because their students never let them take themselves too seriously, and their deft communication skills are honed from hours of explaining difficult issues to parents. They are a gift to any school they work in.

In fact, I learned one of my clearest, and perhaps bluntest, parent communication techniques from a middle school special education teacher. I sat with her in a meeting one day, and after the parents went around and around about why work wasn’t getting done, she cut through all of the blame and simply said, “Well, Peter isn’t succeeding. We have to change that.” It immediately moved us from the past to the future, implied that everyone on the same side, and refocused the meeting. I heard her use it several times, and it always cut through the fog and moved toward solutions. I use it exactly the same way now.

I don’t know which kind of SpEd teacher will be at your school. Try tentatively asking for advice. If you hear great ideas, you have the wonderful kind. If not, and you have to continue pushing for what a child in your class needs, be prepared to be gossiped about or publicly burned in e-mail someday. It will be the price of being a great teacher. Does it matter? A child needs you.


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