Wednesday, August 05, 2009

What No One Will Tell You When You Come to Work at the DOE, Part 6: Collegial Relations

Hello again!

Playing nicely with others is part of any job, and teaching is certainly no exception. You may already have a sense of how to "get along" in a workplace, which will certainly be helpful, or you may not. But teaching, and particularly teaching in the DOE, does have its own vagaries and quirks of which you should be aware in this particular aspect of your job.
Here's the only problem: I'm not sure I'm actually qualified to give you advice on this. As I've confessed here before, I barely qualify as not-a-newbie myself. And I'm still trying to figure out how to not ruffle too many feathers at my place of employment because (in case, ha ha, you haven't figured it out already), I'm just a tiny bit opinionated. So the folks reading this who are much more veteran than myself must please feel free to chime in, correct me, etc. in the comments because you're probably better at this than me.
Okay. Getting along with your colleagues. It really is important. I think a lot of people say that they'd like to be left alone to do their jobs, but I think that what they mean is that they want their administrators to leave them alone, amirite? Most of your colleagues will likely be friendly, reasonable people who are happy to help the new kid on the block. Teaching does require a certain set of character traits that tends to draw in people who are outgoing, helpful, sociable, humorous, and, like myself, maaaaayyyyybe just a teeny tiny bit opinionated. The Myers-Briggs personality type ENFJ, if you are interested in such things, stands for Extroverted Intuitive Feeling Judge, and this type is called--you guessed it--The Teacher. I don't know if I'm embarrassed or pleased to admit that I'm an ENFJ myself. But that will give you a sense of what your colleagues will tend to be like.
The number one piece of advice I can confidently and comfortably give you about collegial relations is to not be afraid to ask for help. Most teachers love to be asked for help even by their colleagues. It's also a compliment to that colleague if you ask them for help--"Wow, I love that project your kids just completed. Can you show me how you implemented it in your classroom?" or "Your class behaves so nicely during assemblies. What can I do to get my kids to be so quiet?" The busiest teacher will want to slow down and help you, especially if you can phrase your request like that. Ask your colleagues for help before you go anywhere else, because they're teaching in the same building, at the same time, and are teaching or possibly have taught your same kids at the same time. This relationship makes it more likely that whatever they suggest for you will actually work.
I think I can also suggest with some confidence that you should participate in everything, at least for your first year while you get a sense of what "everything" consists of. Go to every happy hour, every baby shower, every staff gathering that it's even remotely possible for you to attend. I know it may be difficult for some people reading this, but the effort is well worth it, in my opinion. Join your school's social committee if your school has one--they usually collect dues in September to cover the costs of large parties and gifts for sick or bereaved colleagues. It's important to establish yourself as a person who cares about getting to know his or her colleagues and spending time with them outside of work. At my first school, I was very shy and also buried under a mountain of work, being a first-year teacher in the first year of my master's program, and I didn't "go out" much. I really think it hurt me in the long run. I know some of you are shaking your head at this piece of advice, but I'm sticking with it for a couple of reasons. I think it's good to try to make at least one or two real friends at work, for one thing, and you have to spend time with people away from work to develop real friendships. As well, if you never show up at stuff like this, people are likely to talk, particularly if they don't see a good reason (e.g. you have very young children at home or a second job or a very long commute) for you never showing up. Teachers are human and they do gossip. Some more than others.
Speaking of gossip, particularly as a young teacher, you MUST avoid the gossip mill. Here's one aspect of school social life you are much better off NOT being a part of. Don't invent or repeat gossip. If you are in the teachers' lounge and your colleagues are gossiping, try to change the subject. If you're unsuccessful and your colleagues are pressuring you for an opinion, say something harmless like, "Oh, I'm sorry to hear about such-and-such. That sounds like a tough situation for him/her," then take the opportunity to ask someone else a question that will steer the conversation in a different direction. If that still doesn't work, it's probably best to suddenly remember a parent you have to call or a book you have to pick up from the library and excuse yourself.
And speaking of the teachers' lounge: Some people will tell you to avoid it altogether, and some people will tell you to show your face there every day. I'm a believer in the middle way myself. Last year, I ate in the teachers' lounge once or twice a week, which was about right for me. Now there are some days when you will just want to hide in your classroom with your sandwich, the door locked and the lights off, and let me assure you this is perfectly normal and you should follow your instincts on it. I understand that in some of the high schools in particular, there is "nowhere to run," in which case I can only suggest lunching in your car if you have one or going off campus for lunch if possible. If you never, ever show your face in the teachers' lounge, people will likely wonder why, and if you're there all the time, it's easy to get swept up in the gossip mill and sometimes in negativity. I'm not insinuating that all teachers who go to the lounge every day are Debbie Downers with big mouths, but, you know, that does happen, and sometimes it's best to just avoid it.
Show appreciation for your colleagues, too, and not just by joining the Secret Santa in December. If a colleague helps you out, a nice card in his or her mailbox will truly make his or her day. Better yet, mention it to your administrator if it comes up--"Thank you for your kind words about my bulletin board, Mr. So-and-so really gave me some great ideas on putting it together" or "I'm so pleased you like this project. Mrs. So-and-so helped me plan it." Giving credit where credit is due is not just the right thing to do. Your administrator knows you to be a scrupulous and honest person, and your colleague might enjoy a compliment from an administrator for being a helpful and Yoda-like figure to the new kids.
Finally, be a good union member, and by "good" I mean "participatory." Go to chapter meetings, vote, ask about the benefits and services the union offers. Whatever your opinion on the UFT is, the only way it will move forward is if young teachers get and stay involved. I wouldn't advise anyone to stay away from union meetings entirely. Depending on what your chapter leader and your chapter in general is like, you may wish to alter your attendance and the opinions you offer in certain company, but keep an ear to the ground about it.
Teachers can be good friends and good helpers. Let your colleagues into your life. Your "teacher friends" will help you in ways that other friends can't.
Oh, and if you have any ideas as to what I should write about next, leave 'em in the comments. Administrative relations, perhaps? How to spend your generous windfall of $150? It's a tough question.
OH, and at my own blog, I'm doing a series (every Thursday for the foreseeable future) on teacher evaluation in the age of "merit pay" (har har har). Join the conversation!
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