Avoiding eye contact when walking by one another in the empty hallways. Blood boiling beneath the surface when you hear their name. That feeling of dread in your stomach (that you hope doesn’t show on your face) when you’re teamed up together. No, I’m not talking about drama between students; I’m referring to the challenge of conflict with school colleagues.
Teaching is stressful. With high stakes, low resources, and so many personalities under one roof, conflict inevitably arises. And when it does, it causes tension, increases stress, and decreases productivity. As much as we try to hide it, our students sense it, too. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve had conflict with school colleagues over the years, and although it’s not conducive to a happy environment, it has certainly taught me valuable lessons about handling conflict. Here are several common school colleague conflicts and how you might handle them.
1. Conflict: You’re the newbie and written off as inexperienced.
Resolution: Let your work speak for itself.
Don’t we all come out of college with our proverbial guns blazing?! I know I did! And the veteran teachers in my building were none too thrilled with what they referred to as “all the extra work I was creating with my bright ideas.” I found that letting my actions speak louder than my words was the way to success. Forging sincere bonds with students, establishing a good rapport with colleagues, and having open lines of communication with administration is the best way to start donning the cloak of competency.
2. Conflict: There is inconsistency amongst teachers.
Resolution: Involve someone unbiased.
One other teacher and I were both teaching sophomore English, aka The Year of the Research Paper. Though the student expectations were clear on paper, namely on the rubric we had created together, I later learned that the other teacher was only requiring two pages, when we originally agreed on three- to five-page papers. She had changed other requirements, too, like the amount of in-class time she was allowing her students to work. It was difficult to field student and parent questions like, “Why are we doing so much more?!” without throwing my colleague under the bus. Finally, I deferred to our department chair for help. With a mediator, we came to a resolution and moved on. (And followed the rubric, thank you very much.)
3. Conflict: You get along with your principal, but they treat others poorly.
Resolution: Use humor and speak up.
I had a fantastic relationship with our building principal; he was supportive and lavished my work with compliments. But he never hid his disdain for others, and it made me uncomfortable to be the recipient of his professionalism and kindness while he kept it from some of my colleagues. I used humor to break the ice and eventually told my principal something like, “You know, I think so-and-so is going to go home and cry after what you said to her today.” That opened up an honest dialogue about how he was treating some of our teachers. I don’t know if he ever realized just how harsh he sounded, so I’m glad I spoke up.
4. Conflict: Team teaching is a train wreck.
Resolution: Try a new approach.
Team teaching can be an amazing experience for both educators and students. However, it must be done correctly to be effective. For instance, team teaching is not one teacher teaching and the other “tutoring.” This happened to a friend of mine, and fortunately, the solution was very simple: After learning her team teacher wasn’t very confident in preparing certain lessons, my friend started making her to-do lists. Her colleague found them helpful, not obnoxious, and so began their successful professional relationship!
5. Conflict: Blatant nepotism rears its ugly head.
Resolution: Decide when it’s worth the fight and when it’s not.
I once had a colleague show up to school intoxicated. This would be grounds for immediate termination for anyone else, but my colleague’s father just happened to be the mayor of our small town—providing her limitless impunity and a convenient excuse to tell the students, “Miss X had a bad reaction to prescription medication.” I was annoyed—okay, infuriated—by my district’s glaring admission that one teacher was immune to consequence. But at the end of the day, I had a job I loved. I had to prioritize the positives in order to deal with the negatives.
Conflict with school colleagues is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to fester. It’s important to address issues head on and constructively. Your working relationship—and your school—will be better for it.