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Welcome to The Educator’s Room advice column for teachers! Today we’re helping a teacher who’s less than excited about teaching a former student. We’re also helping a teacher who is trying to support trans and gender non-conforming students at her Christian school. See what our writers have to say, then share your own advice in the comments! You can read a couple of our previous editions of Ask The Educator’s Room here and here.
Dear The Educator’s Room,
I’m working with a support staff who sometimes disrupts the class and doesn’t seem to respect me. What do I do?
Talk it out! Don’t let the feelings of disrespect build toward resentment because, eventually, that tension will find its way to the surface. I went through this same scenario a few years ago. In telling myself to grin and bear it, I accidentally “snapped,” hurt some feelings, and made the situation much worse.
I’d start the conversation assuming positive intent. Presumably, you both want what’s best for kids, and sharing the classroom space can be challenging, even in the best of circumstances.
Make sure to focus on how you’re feeling, not what she is doing. I don’t think this is your intention, but I am feeling a little frustrated by how class has been going lately, and I’m wondering if we can talk through what I might be able to do differently.
If you don’t feel comfortable focusing on yourself (that kind of vulnerability can take a certain level of trust that it doesn’t sound like you have), try the kid angle. Johnny really just struggles to re-engage when we stop and start the lesson, so I’m trying to find ways to help him. What do you think?
Either way, have the conversation. Trust me, stewing, however warranted, won’t help.
– Emma-Kate Schaake
I love education, but one of the unavoidable truths of working in a field like education is that we have to work with so many different personalities. From our students and their parents to our colleagues and administrators, there will inevitably be people with whom we clash, no matter how personable we see ourselves.
The first question you have to ask yourself is: “What kind of impact is this person having on my ability to teach the rest of my class?” While your relationship with the child this individual serves also matters, your responsibility is to all your students. If the answer to that question is “not much,” then the situation calls for a conversation with the support staff and possibly that individual’s supervisor depending on how that conversation goes. If the answer is yes, then it is worth a conversation that works its way up the ranks of supervision until a resolution can be found.
Conflicts of respect can come from many places: which person has worked in the school longer, differences in ages, and differences in degrees and responsibilities. Sometimes in new situations, I have felt a lack of respect for my skills and expertise, but in reality, we probably just needed time to get to know each other and build trust. All of these should be considerations as you try to figure out how to work with your support staff. Hopefully, they also believe that their primary goal is to serve the students, and they will find a way to work with you instead of against you. Good luck!
– Sarah Styf
“It’s hard to slow the high school gossip train once it starts to roll, but you do have influence in your own classroom.” Ask The Educator’s Room: A Not-so-supportive Support Staff & A Teacher With a Mugshot Click To Tweet
Dear The Educator’s Room,
One of my colleagues got a DUI over fall break, and somehow the kids (we teach high school) have found out. He’s out on “leave” while it’s investigated, but now the kids have started to print his mug shot, and parents have started a campaign to get him fired. My issue is that we don’t know the details, and I’m afraid that before the investigation is over, public opinion will have him fired.
Worried for My Colleague
Wow, what a chance for a teachable moment. It’s hard to slow the high school gossip train once it starts to roll, but you do have influence in your own classroom.
For example, as an ELA teacher, I might use our bell ringer as a chance to start a conversation about empathy and judgment. Without letting them know why I’d give some prompts like “Write about a time you made a mistake. How did you learn and grow?” or “What is something people sometimes think about you that isn’t true? How does that affect you?” I bet you’d get some really honest thinking that might help them connect the dots.
Or, more simply, when the situation comes up, shut it down and remind them of our shared humanity. Toss the headshots and tell them, “We all make mistakes and we shouldn’t have to be defined by them. That’s honestly pretty cruel, and I know you are capable of so much better.”
Whenever I say something like that, it feels like a mic drop, and students are forced to think and are often inspired to live up to my expectations of them.
As for the parent campaign– that’s above your pay grade, and I hope something is being done about that at the admin level. But, in the meantime, a quick text to your colleague extending kindness can go a long way. Ridicule from teenagers and their parents, on top of some legal trouble, can’t feel great.
This is complicated for a lot of reasons, especially when an authority figure appears to have broken the law and they work with teenagers. It is a situation that requires a delicate balance of two opposing ideas: transparency and confidentiality.
First, work with your colleagues to ensure that you answer students and parents honestly when they ask questions. That does not mean fully disclosing everything you know (and chances are very few people in the building will know most of the details), but it does mean not downplaying the facts or misrepresenting them. While it is best to say nothing (high schools are notorious rumor mills, and it is best not to feed the machine), you can correct misconceptions with simple, factual statements that do not breach your colleague’s confidentiality.
Second, in an age of social media, there is little to nothing that you can do to prevent students and parents from discussing the issue outside of your classroom or the school. However, you can have an impact on how the issue is discussed in the school building. You can also stop parent conversations when you hear them, or they try to talk to you for information. A united front matters, and working with your colleagues to stop the further spread of misinformation in your classroom matters for your students, the school, and your colleague who has to deal with the consequences of a DUI.
Finally, no matter the final outcome, you can still be a supportive colleague and friend. Avoid spreading your own rumors or throwing your own accusations at anyone connected to the event. There are good reasons why this could be a career-ending mistake, but as educators, we also believe in restoring penitent humans despite their decisions. Your colleague may need friends more than co-workers right now.
Emma-Kate Schaake is a National Board Certified English teacher in Washington state. She’s passionate about her teacher leadership role at the building and district levels, creating professional development on equity, school culture, and social justice. She writes about her ongoing journey to unlearn myopic history, act as an advocate for her students, and think critically about her role as an educator. Follow her on Instagram @msschaake
Sarah Styf is a 19-year high school English teacher. She lives in the Indianapolis area with her husband and two children. She is passionate about education reform and civic engagement. She can be found on Instagram @sarah.styf and Twitter @sarahstyf
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