Teaching With A Challenging Colleague
by Joey Feith
It was my official first day as a teacher.
My old middle school had hired me to teach physical education. I would be working with kids from my hometown and have a positive impact on my community. Needless to say, I was fired up!
I walked into the P.E. office excited to meet my new colleagues and start planning all of the good we would bring to the school. Looking back, I realize now that I went into that situation with about 9000% too much enthusiasm.
We got into some banter and talked sports for a bit. I was eager to get to work, so I asked where they kept the provincial outcomes document so that I could get cracking on some planning.
“It’s by the door,” was their reply.
The book was literally wedged underneath the door to hold it open. Aside from the wear and tear one might expect from years of being a door-stopper, I could tell that the book had never been opened before.
This was going to be a long year.
Teaching with colleagues who do not share your energy, enthusiasm, or passion for teaching is a reality many teachers know too well. Negative interactions with peers are one of the top stressors amongst educators. Many teachers who find themselves paired up with a challenging colleague hope that they will be able to “ride out the storm” until one of them changes schools.
If you are in this situation, know that it is not hopeless.
Despite the challenging road ahead, there are actions that you can implement to develop trust, build influence, and turn a difficult situation around without having to sacrifice your standards and values.
Here are some tips I have for navigating complicated work relationships with challenging colleagues.
Know your boundaries.
Relationships require compromise. To achieve the outcomes that you’ve set in your sights, you’re going to need to approach situations with a “win-win” mentality.
However, losing yourself in that process will rob you of the joy that comes with a big win. If reaching your goals means acting outside of your values, then you may have to revisit those goals.
To avoid the risk of regretful action, take time to reflect on what is most important to you and set hard, non-negotiable boundaries to protect those things you value. Again, you can’t have it all: compromises will need to be made. That being said, going into a situation with a clear idea of where you are willing to compromise will allow you to do so without sacrificing your values (and well-being) in the process.
Understand how connections are built.
Brené Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued.” Those three needs are the foundation of human connection.
As you work with your challenging colleague, keep those needs in mind. Ask yourself:
- “What is being said that I’m not hearing?”
- “What is being presented that I’m not seeing?”
- “What is being done that I’m not valuing?”
Despite their approaches being wildly different than ones you would use, try to look past what is plain to see and practice your perspective-taking skills. By doing so, you’ll be able to see through the fog of your assumptions, see your colleague for the person they are, and be in a better position to build a meaningful connection.
Seek to understand.
Every behaviour serves a purpose. Whether to attract or avoid, attack or protect, behaviours stem from physical or emotional needs grounded in self-preservation.
As frustrating as your colleague’s behaviour may be at times, do everything within your power to approach that behaviour with curiosity rather than anger.
When you get curious about behaviours, you can start to see the goals that drive them. Understanding those goals can put you in a better position to be supportive, gain trust, and – over time – build influence in your relationships with challenging colleagues.
In their book “Working with Difficult & Resistant Staff,” authors John F. Eller & Sheila A. Eller outline eight types of difficult staff members, provide insights into the behaviours of each type, and share strategies for overcoming the challenges that they present.
The eight types of difficult staff members include:
- The Underminers
- The Contrarians
- The Recruiters
- The Challenged
- The On-the-Job Retirees
- The Resident Experts
- The Unelected Representatives
- The Whiners and Complainers
If any of those titles speak to you, you can find an extensive summary of the book here.
Use nonviolent communication.
Language is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal. However, it also has the potential to seriously hinder progress when it comes to building relationships, resolving conflicts, and achieving outcomes.
Using language ineffectively can put all parties on the defensive, which does not lead to progress. Being accusatory is a surefire way to bring things to a screeching halt.
To avoid those types of situations, consider using nonviolent communication (NVC).
NVC is an approach to communication developed by clinical psychologist Marshall Rosenberg in the ’60s & ’70s. It focuses on making sure that everyone’s fundamental needs are met during conversations.
The approach focuses on three aspects of communication:
- Self-Empathy: being aware of your own experiences and feelings.
- Empathy: the understanding and desire to support other’s emotions.
- Honest Self-Expression: an expression that inspires compassion in others.
There are four components of nonviolent communication:
- Observation: sharing the facts (i.e. what can be seen, heard, or touched) without any form of judgement attached.
- Feelings: sharing your emotions, free of thought or story.
- Needs: sharing what you desire without coming up with a strategy to achieve it.
- Request: sharing the specific action you would like to ask for without demanding it.
Think of NVC as a template that brings those four components together in open, honest, and vulnerable conversation.
For example, let’s say your colleague consistently fails to put away equipment at the end of their lessons. Their failure to do so means that you often need to take time out of your schedule or lessons to clean up after them.
Rather than confronting them with accusations that will only widen the gap in your relationship, use the following NVC template:
“When you do (Observation), I feel (Feelings). Because I want (Needs), I would appreciate (Request)“
Going back to our example, this nonviolent communication template could sound like this:
“When you leave equipment out (observation), I feel frustrated (feeling). Because I want to get the most out of my lessons (needs), I would appreciate it if you dedicate some time with your students to clean up at the end of your lessons (request).”
Remember that this is a template and not a magic formula: NVC doesn’t guarantee automatic success. However, if you do receive a “no” to your request, don’t give up! Instead, do your best to empathize with what prevents your colleague from saying “yes” to your request. Modelling this empathy can influence your colleague’s behaviour and help them reciprocate.
Understand how trust is built.
Healthy relationships are built on trust. Trust has been defined as “a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behaviour of another.”
Brené Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, or emotional exposure. Therefore, when a colleague chooses to trust you, they are taking a leap of faith.
To honour this act of courage, focus on building trust with your colleagues by taking intentional action in four key areas: benevolence, integrity, competence, and predictability.
Benevolence refers to caring about and acting in the interest of others. Ask yourself in what ways are you looking out for your colleague’s best interests? Do you even know what those are? Do your best to show a genuine interest in wanting to support your colleague as they work towards goals that are meaningful to them.
Integrity means being honest, truthful, and keeping your promises. Speaking your truth is an act of courage and can be intimidating. However, by being upfront with your colleague and resisting your urge to talk poorly about them to others, you will help build trust in your relationship by showing that you are a person of integrity.
Competence means that you have the ability to perform your role effectively. The best form of persuasion is success. Stay focused on doing good work, doing it well, and doing it for the right reasons. Doing so without being boastful about it can help colleagues come to value your competence without feeling threatened by it.
Finally, predictability refers to being consistent in your actions. Make it easy for your colleagues to know what to expect from you so that they feel comfortable approaching you for help/support/collaboration when the time is right.
Working closely with a colleague who does not share your values, work ethic, or pedagogical practices can be highly taxing from a mental, emotional, and professional standpoint. By seeking to understand them, applying what we know about connections and trust, and using strategies such as nonviolent communication, you can make headway in your professional relationship and be in a better position to influence their actions over time.
Of course, there are always extreme situations where other parties (e.g. administration) may need to get involved. However, even in those situations, the ideas shared in this post can help you turn a challenging relationship into a productive one.
September 7, 2021