When not in their classrooms, where do ESL teachers go? Often it’s the staff room, that place with the refrigerator, microwave, copy machine, and—oh, yes, other ESL teachers!
Usually, that is an advantage—the coming together of colleagues. You can discuss your classes and teaching methodology, trade stories of textbooks and materials, and discuss shared preferences in vacations and free time activities. What could possibly be the problem? Well, not all colleagues are necessarily people you want to share much time with! In fact, there may be the few that you may want to limit time with or will need to really work to get along with when you do encounter them. There are 5 distinct types of ESL colleagues who often require effort in relating to. Who are they?
5 Types of Problem ESL Colleagues
These types cross genders and culture and therefore have a kind of universality. The use of “Mr.” and “Miss,” for example, does not imply any permanent applicability of the type to a specific gender.
Mr. Talkative wants to do just that—talk. It doesn’t seem to matter that his audience is or what that audience is doing—eating lunch, grading papers—anyone who enters the staff room or his periphery is fair game for one of his monologues, often on his personal life, like what he did that weekend, and at length.
Ms. Complainer has a lot in common with Mr. Talkative; however, while Mr. Talkative’s lengthy verbiage is focused simply on personal issues, most of them inconsequential, Ms. Complainer’s excessive discussion is focused on the negative, complaining, and usually about the school: the students, the administration, other teachers, electronic equipment and facilities, etc. Individuals who have been teaching a long time may fall into this pattern, perhaps after a number of negative experiences in the profession.
Mr. Work Ethic-Challenged
Mr. Work Ethic-Challenged never seems to be in a hurry. He always looks well-rested. His briefcase usually looks disconcertingly light and empty (always a telling sign). He is out the door with the bell, rarely comes to meetings, and never contributes to any of the work of running the department, like participating in grading sessions or serving on committees. This type is rare in a profession that generally requires hard work and in which workaholics thrive, but they can be found.
You can tell Miss Still-a-Student by her bike, book bag, long hair, and jeans. In other words, she looks like a student, and may in fact still be a graduate student or was one recently. She also perhaps identifies with other students, seeing herself as one, and invites her students over to her home and socializes and spends time with them over her colleagues.
This is a mercifully rare type in a profession where people are committed to helping each other, but again she can be found. Mrs. Saboteur may, for example, deliberately set out to undermine a colleague with negative comments to students and staff. The behavior probably arises out of insecure feelings and a need to make others look bad in order to feel or look better herself.
Ways to Deal with Troublesome Colleagues
Identify the Behavior
The first part of dealing with any problem is identifying it as a problem. “Oh, I get it. Jonathan keeps saying negative things about me to students because he’s a Mr. Saboteur. It isn’t me.” There is something liberating in this—recognizing the set of troubling behaviors has something to do with the problem colleague—it is his or her “thing” that he or she does with everyone or nearly everyone, in all probability, and is not an overreaction on your part.
A direct approach is usually best when dealing with problem colleagues. Someone who talks nonstop when you come into the staff room isn’t going to get your subtle hints like deep sighs—or even putting on headphones or leaving the room! She might just follow you out and continue the routine.
A direct approach works best: “I’m sorry; I’m correcting papers now and can’t talk now.” And then take out your papers and begin grading.
Related to taking a direct approach is setting boundaries: in establishing boundaries you are directly stating what behaviors you will tolerate in relation to yourself and others. For example, to the colleague who keeps popping in and out of your class when it’s in session (it’s surprising how many instructors do this even with classrooms that are otherwise free for hours at a time), you might say, “I’m sorry; we’re in class until 11 am. After that, the classroom is yours as you need it.” She probably suddenly won’t need it at 11, but this sends a powerful message on protecting your and your students’ instructional space.
Be a Role Model
Ultimately, a good teacher is a good role model to her students and her colleagues. This is especially important for colleagues like Mr. Work-Ethic Challenged. If he sees his peers staying after class, correcting papers, and heading up committees, he will begin to get a message about the culture of the school and of the profession. Miss Still-a-Student, also, in seeing her colleagues spending their lunches lesson planning and sharing ideas will get the idea that she is now one of these professionals and should join them—at least occasionally—instead of hanging out with her students in the union.
It takes all kinds to make up a teaching staff, as in any profession.
Most of the types you will meet as a teacher are positive role models—hard workers who communicate well and are good with people. There are a few more problematic types, however. But with communicating directly, setting boundaries, and being a role model, you will find you don’t need to hide out in your office and can confidently return to the staff room!