You’re at ease having open discussions with your principal, you’ve got parent conferences and phone calls down to a science, and you (usually!) know what to say to your students. But how do you handle a difficult conversation with one of your colleagues?
The prospect of hashing out differences with other teachers can be daunting. You want to voice your concerns, but you don’t want to risk ruining relationships with the team members whose support you appreciate and who help you do your job.
Instead of stewing (or steaming), try the following techniques to help you solve problems, resolve tensions, and maintain peace in the teachers’ lounge.
Providing Critical Feedback: You observe a fellow teacher’s lesson, and you don’t like what you see.
Solution: Ease In
Your colleague wants or needs feedback, but don’t launch into a laundry list of everything that’s going wrong—unless you want her to shut down. “It’s really important to find out what their struggles are and how they perceive the situation,” says Freeda Pirillis, a first-grade teacher in Chicago. “I feel like I have to validate their perspective first. Then I’ll talk about my own struggles and try to empathize as much as I can. From there, we work around solutions. It becomes a collaborative process.”
Constant Complaining: No job is perfect. But there’s no place for griping ad nauseam.
Solution: Focus on Fixes
When Negative Nancy brings up a problem, turn the conversation toward solutions. Or, says Amy Musone, a third-grade teacher in York, Pennsylvania, avoid questions about “how” things are going when it will only elicit a negative answer. Instead, ask what's going well today. “It’s less likely to take a negative turn,” she says. If you and the complainer are socializing, says Angela Watson, an instructional coach and educational consultant in Brooklyn, New York, start off with something light to cut off the complaining before it starts. Or bring out the baby or wedding pictures!
The Meeting Hijacker: You have a lot to cover, but someone keeps taking the team off topic.
Solution: Define Norms
It’s easier to call out a fellow teacher if it’s your job. Eboney McKinney, a fifth-grade math teacher in Sierra Vista, Arizona, says that defined norms and roles keep meetings running smoothly. “We have a team leader who is supposed to keep the meeting on track,” she says. “On a rare occasion, we’ve had to call out a team member and say, ‘You’re not following those norms.’ ”
Constant Requests: You’re getting “invitations” to help out left and right. You just can’t.
Solution: Help Another Way
If you can’t muster a firm “Sorry, but no,” see if you can postpone or help out in some smaller way. “I look for ways to say, ‘I can’t be there for that spring carnival, but I’ll bake cupcakes,’” says McKinney.
The Over-Sharer: Your colleague’s social-media posts are full of job-related dirty laundry.
Solution: Mention Consequences
Rather than saying you’re uncomfortable with status updates about unruly students and tweets about tyrannical administrators, remind fellow teachers that their social-media mistakes can follow them. “What you put in writing can haunt you,” says Christine Canning Wilson, author of Perfect Phrases for Classroom Teachers and an educational consultant. “And it can also be used against you in a court of law.”
The Touchy Topic: The conversation turns to race, religion, or socioeconomic class.
“Ask a lot of questions, and honor your peers’ reality,” says Tamara Russell, a first-grade teacher in Groveland, Florida. “If you have a large Muslim population, don’t assume you understand what it’s like to wear the hijab.” Russell takes her own advice. “I can tell you what it’s like to be a black, Hispanic female, but I can’t tell you what it’s like to be a woman from Africa.”
The Nastygram: You find a not-so-nice note from a colleague in your e-mail inbox.
Solution: Talk Face-to-Face
“Sometimes it’s better to spend 15 minutes hashing something out rather than spending hours composing a response,” says Watson, the Brooklyn instructional coach.
“If you respond out of anger, you will probably regret it,” she explains. “It’s better to go directly to the person and say, ‘I read your e-mail. Can we talk about that?’ They can hear your tone, see your facial expression, and see that you’re not attacking them and that you really want to clear it up.”
The Pedagogical Disagreement: You’re not sure a colleague’s suggestion will be good for students.
Solution: Ask to See the Research
Beth Maloney, a fifth-grade teacher in Surprise, Arizona, was stunned when a former colleague turned literacy coach suggested that kindergartners should cut down on playtime and ramp up textbook-based learning.
But instead of arguing, Maloney asked questions. “I said, ‘Where is the research that this is best for kids?’” she recalls. “Just asking an open-ended question started a really good conversation.”
The Shoot-Down: You have lots of great new ideas—but no one wants to hear them.
Solution: Show Evidence of Success
Back up everything you suggest with standards and success stories from your own class, offers Lindsey Petlak, a fourth-grade teacher and Scholastic Top Teaching blogger.
“Being able to back yourself up with student results and research usually leaves people without many objections.” she says. But make it clear you’re not forcing your ideas onto colleagues. “Say, ‘You’re welcome to try this, and I won’t be offended if you don’t, but this is something that is important for me to try in my classroom.’”
Illustrations: Andy Ward