How to Deal With Difficult Teaching Colleagues (And How to Make Sure You Aren’t One of Them)

Messy Teacher Desk

While the majority of your fellow teachers are outstanding citizens, most schools contain a few reminders that carrying a “#1 Teacher!!!” mug doesn’t make it true. Here are descriptions of some of the difficult colleagues who might be roaming your hallway, advice on how to handle them, and a few tips to ensure that you aren’t the difficult one.

A Field Guide to the Difficult Colleagues who Might be Roaming Your School Hallway

Negative teachers

These can be struggling rookies who want to know they’re not alone or disillusioned veterans who think they’re letting you in on the real deal. Sometimes their complaints feel refreshingly honest. If you want to know your school’s dirty secrets, this may be your best source. At the same time, you may not want to know so much about your school’s dirty secrets. And excess time in the company of complainers can leave you feeling hopeless. It’s up to you to decide whether to stick around and listen or find an excuse to leave the room, but do think twice before jumping in with your own stories. You don’t want this person using them as examples when complaining to others.

One-uppers and self-promoters in the teaching workplace

These superstars have it all together and can’t wait to tell you about it. They’ve solved all the problems, so it goes without saying they have already thought of your best ideas. If you think a self-promoting colleague has some good ideas, go ahead and listen, but it’s usually best to avoid turning to self-promoting or one-upping teachers for advice. There’s a chance they may repeat your concerns to make themselves look better. There’s also a chance that the discussion could send you into a compare-and-despair tailspin. Instead, look for teachers who show evidence of quality teaching but are less vocal about how great they are. There is very little correlation between bragging and great teaching. In many cases, teachers who claim to have it all under control are secretly reassuring themselves.

Teaching colleagues who don’t do their jobs and make yours harder

Part of a teacher’s job is to set an example for students, so it’s frustrating when incompetent, lazy, or dishonest people infiltrate the school system. It can be tempting to tackle the case of an under-performing coworkers, but pick your battles carefully—especially if you don’t know the background. Your principal may already be trying to get rid of this person. Or, your principal may be related to this person. With that being said, always try to refuse if you are asked to cover for someone else’s irresponsibility in a way that weighs on your conscience or gets you in trouble.

When the school bully is a teacher. . .

In a few unfortunate cases, you may have colleagues who are rude, mean-spirited, nasty, horrendous people who don’t make the Earth a better place. I wish I could offer an answer that would work in every case. I don’t. But, as a starting point, consider your own personality and your relationship with the person in question. In some cases, standing up for yourself prevents people from bullying you in the future. Other times, it’s better to let an incident slide than to take on a new enemy. In either case, don’t let the actions of a few rude people keep you from getting to know your other colleagues. The more positive relationships you have, the less one person’s attitude will matter.

How to make sure you aren’t the difficult co-worker.

Even if your co-workers are (mostly) the problem, there are things you can do to help make things go more smoothly with your colleagues. Here are a few pieces of workplace etiquette that will be especially helpful for teachers.

Choose your confidantes carefully, and be especially careful whom you talk to after a bad day.

Try to build a group of teaching mentors who you trust to help you get better and feel better without repeating your concerns. This may sometimes mean finding a teacher who doesn’t work with you.

Learn how to take advice—even advice you didn’t ask for.

If another teacher offers you well-meaning advice, it’s sometimes okay to say “thank you,” even if you already knew it. There are two phrases I wish I had learned decades earlier in my life: “That’s an interesting idea!” and “I hear you!” This is advice I’m actually still working on getting better at in my own life. It’s easier said than done. But it sure is an interesting idea!

Strive to be a giver or “matcher,” depending on the situation—but never a taker.

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant has a wonderful book called Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. This concept often makes intuitive sense as soon as you hear it, but there’s more to it. Here’s a rundown of how Adam Grant’s concept of givers, takers, and matchers applies to the teaching workplace.

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