As a former university professor who taught pre-service teachers I enjoy hearing from former students who have entered the ranks of education and have found their place working among supportive colleagues. Occasionally, though, I hear from a novice who has been demoralized by a toxic teacher, who bullies, demeans, or otherwise puts down not only students but also the other adults at school. A friend of mine calls such individuals “talking snakes.” I think that’s an apt description and use it to refer to those atypical individuals, who when left unchecked, can rob a school community of its sense of camaraderie and optimism.
My advice to novice and experienced teachers alike is to try to resolve professional and personal differences in a respectful, appropriate manner. Sometimes adversaries can learn to “agree to disagree” on certain matters while still maintaining a civil relationship. It could be that the pessimistic colleague is just going through a difficult period and needs extra understanding and patience. And there is always the chance that certain words or acts were misconstrued and could be viewed in a different light that is not quite so menacing.
Just as we do with our students I think that when possible teachers should give colleagues the benefit of the doubt. Minor disagreements and misunderstandings are normal in any workplace.
In our book, Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education, Jack Berckemeyer, Judith Baenen, and I discuss aspects that need to be considered such as dissimilarities in learning styles, introversion vs. extroversion, and even generational differences before dismissing someone as a toxic person who just needs to be avoided.
However, in those cases where it is impossible to win over negative colleagues or to reach some sort of détente, teachers need to find a way to minimize the distraction these talking snakes often present. Here are some recommendations for minimizing the effect of a mean-spirited pessimist:
Avoiding Talking Snakes
- Be polite, but share minimal information about yourself, your class, or your achievements. Your success threatens them and your failures delight them. Keep your conversations with them light and business oriented.
- In social situations do not willing join a group they are already in or they frequently attend. If the negative person is “holding court” in the teachers’ lounge find somewhere else you need to be. Without drawing attention to what you are doing always try to manipulate your way out of places where the talking snake is present.
- If the negative person tries to bait you into an argument, take the high ground and use the Stephen Covey line, “I guess we will just have to agree to disagree on that point.” Walk away.
- Do NOT gossip. If you have a trusted friend, you can share your feelings about Mr. or Ms. Negative, but other than that stay as neutral as you can whenever that person’s name is mentioned. Never let students, parents, or casual acquaintances initiate defaming conversations or repeat derogatory information about the talking snakes. Such indulgences are not helpful and will only further drain your positivity.
- Realize that everyone may not see the person the way you do. Don’t force colleagues to take sides. Politely decline with a reasonable excuse any invitations that include the negative person and leave it at that. Let others make their own decisions about dealing with snakes.
- There will be times when you cannot avoid the person (s/he may be on your team or teach next door to you). Figure out what you can control and do it. With a polite smile on your face you can repeat this mantra in your mind, “I may be forced to work with you, but I am not required to like you. I will work with you for the benefit of our students, but you are getting none of the personal real estate I have in my head. I’ve got more positive things to think about.”
- We recommend that you try to diminish as much as possible the time you give yourself to think about the snakes in your life. In desperate situations you might consider asking to be transferred to another grade group, wing, or even a different school. You can try to negotiate a different lunchtime and planning period from them. You can park your vehicle in a spot far removed from where the offending party parks and plan your arrival and departure times different from hers/his.
- Focus on your students, your team, and your personal goals. Don’t waste energy worrying about what the snakes are doing. (Unless you believe they are harming kids or bullying weaker teachers – then you have a moral obligation to speak up.) Time and energy focused on people who do not want to change is wasted. Try to remain attentive to the people who value and appreciate you.
Silver, Berckemeyer, & Baenen (2014), p. 55-56.
Teaching is a demanding job on many levels. In order to stay positive in this challenging profession, it is imperative that we as educators surround ourselves with others who believe we can make a difference and that what we do matters. We can’t always choose the people with whom we work, but we can learn to identify the talking snakes and “cut them a wide path.”