The pressures, challenges, and confusion that surround the work of educators today make trying to do this work alone a daunting prospect. We need to build strong, supportive cultures and nurture positive morale. Above all, we need to support each other.
However, the pressures we feel and conflicts we face can also lead to behaviors that undermine the very circumstances we seek. We can forget how important it is to build and protect a strong, positive, supportive culture. We can find ourselves and our colleagues engaging in behaviors that work against the needs and goals we have. Here are seven behavior traps against which we need to guard.
- Talking negatively about colleagues with others. Regardless of whether the comments are made to parents, other colleagues, friends, or even students, this behavior undermines our professional and personal relationships and destroys trust. Not only does this behavior undermine the credibility of the person about whom the comments are made, it can cast a negative shadow on the reputation of the entire staff. When what we say undermines our colleagues, we also cast doubt on our own judgment. The saying that “if you cannot say something good, say nothing” is good advice in this circumstance.
- Making excuses when failing to follow through. This can take multiple forms. We may accuse others of misunderstanding our commitment. We may point to circumstances as getting in the way of our follow-through. We might even blame others to deflect our own responsibility. Regardless of why, when we do not follow through, we need to own up to our behavior, apologize, and do what we can to make it right.
- Making assumptions about the behavior and motivations of colleagues. Assigning a negative motivation to what someone said or did before we know the truth is a risky choice. We may think that past behavior, rumors, and hearsay are enough to support our conclusions, yet assuming negative intentions can lead us to accusations that are not justified and statements that later require apologies. As a consequence, trust and relationships suffer. When we don’t know, our best position is to assume the best, or at least remain neutral.
- Taking advantage of other’s vulnerability. People may come to us for advice, assistance, or support; or we may otherwise be privy to information about challenges our colleagues face or other unfavorable information. As colleagues, they need to be able to trust us to protect their privacy and confidence. Sharing details of the situation with others or using the circumstance to embarrass or exact a future favor is not only unprofessional, but it is also unethical. Trust is challenging to build. We need to be careful not to unthinkingly destroy it.
- Tolerating bullying and intimidation by colleagues. We work to prevent and deal with bullying among students, and we strive to create conditions where students do not engage in intimidating behavior towards each other. However, bullying also occurs among adults. Less experienced staff especially can be the target of intimidation. For example, they can face demands to provide unquestioning support for the ideas and preferences of more experienced staff members, some of whom may press colleagues of a time-determined “lower status” to accept difficult and unattractive supervision and instructional assignments. And new staff can be expected to accept traditions that favor longer-tenured staff. These and other similar behaviors often demean and embarrass, create divisions, undermine trust, and eventually destroy a healthy culture. Arguing that new staff members will have their turn once they spend adequate time in the school is not an acceptable excuse. We need to avoid any such behavior, and we must refuse to tolerate bullying and intimidation—and confront it when we see it.
- Declining to volunteer when our expertise and experience are needed. Obviously, there are times when we are willing to volunteer, but our circumstances make it impossible. However, we need to be careful not to take the position that because of our seniority or status, we do not need to serve on committees, assist with task forces, or join planning groups. Everyone benefits when considered thinking, careful reasoning, and good judgement are part of the decision-making process.
- Refusing to collaborate. We may believe that we work better on our own or that we don’t have the time to collaborate. Yet, the importance of collaboration goes beyond our immediate preferences and convenience. Collaboration is a way to share challenges, strategies, and crucial information that might assist learners. It can be a helpful way to diagnose curricular issues and develop new ideas and approaches. Collaboration also is a good way to mentor and support new staff who may still be learning the curriculum, perfecting their instruction, and exploring their professional role. While collaborating may seem time consuming at first, it can be a powerful tool for continuous improvement, mutual support, and complex problem solving. Collaboration also is a key component of a healthy and productive culture.
The work of educators is tough enough without our own negative behaviors toward each other creating additional burdens. We need to be quick to offer support and encouragement where it is needed, and we must be ready to confront harmful behaviors when we observe them. Our success and the success of our colleagues and school depend on it.