Sometimes the atmosphere is darkened within an organization with what I will refer to as “politics,” the jockeying for position that goes on anywhere there is a hierarchy.
It may be as simple as a new department chair or school principal coming on board. One person can in fact impact the entire climate of a school. Or it may be that two or more people who got along before are now feuding. The climate of a school or department can turn tense and hostile, disintegrating into pettiness, complaint sessions, and personal attacks.
Although the situation may seem hopeless, there is actually a series of strategies that can be used to address school atmosphere gone rancid.
10 Commandments of School Politics
Stay out of It
The first most obvious course of action is simply to stay out of the politics and jockeying for position. If the principal and the department chair are feuding, for example, simply refuse to get involved, take sides, or even comment, if you can avoid it. You are not under any obligation to get involved, and there usually is little reward for doing so.
Focus on Your Work and Projects
Stay focused on your job rather than the politics—creating curriculum, delivering instruction, assessing student work, meeting with and advising students, and so forth. This will send two messages, that you are serious about you work and that political maneuvering doesn’t interest or affect you.
Avoid Personal Attacks. Don’t Allow Them, Either
If you are pulled into a conflict—someone approaches you directly, for example, wanting an opinion or support, or you are working on a project or committee with two people or groups who are fighting, don’t attack people personally. One of the features of a dysfunctional work environment is the reluctance of dealing with people directly and instead going behind their back to complain. Stay neutral, focusing on students and the work and immediate tasks rather than on personalities when they come up. If someone is saying negative things about you, it’s best to address that person directly and privately, asking that the behavior stop. Often people who say negative things behind people’s back are “muted” when someone addressing them directly.
One notable feature of dysfunctional workplace environment is its focus on the negative in the environment and the people within it. Look for ways to build the school and community rather than tearing others down. Focus on the positive and finding solutions to problems rather than complaining, such as considering ways to purchase new computers and copy machines rather than fighting over these resources.
A huge time and energy drain is obsessing over minute details and issues that simply do not matter in the larger picture. Often it is these petty issues that negative and controlling personalities tend to focus on. Avoid getting drawn into a complaint session on how clean the break room table is kept, for example, and discuss possible solutions—if the break room table is even really an issue—or politely excuse yourself from the conversation.
Focus on Larger Issues
One way to avoid petty infighting is by going in the opposing direction and spending time on larger issues. If you have no interest in whose parking space is whose, for example, change the subject with the concern of the parking lot comes up and discuss instead getting more student textbooks or computer programs.
Rather than complaining constantly about the parking lot, or the ancient copy machine, the dirty classroom floors, or any of the myriad “issues” than can come up, focus on proposing solutions that may affect positive change to these concerns. Perhaps suggest a brainstorming session to come up with solutions; if the complaining party refuses to participate, it’s likely that the individual values complaining more than fixing the problem.
Because negative people tend to congregate with other negative people and affect school atmosphere, it is necessary to build a support network of likeminded people to safeguard against this. Seek out the company of colleagues who also seem focused on doing their jobs and keeping the atmosphere positive. Consider having lunch together once a week or a month during which time ways to improve the school atmosphere can be discussed. Also consider enlarging the group of people by one or two—if enough people are actively working to keep a negative political at bay, then it probably will stay at bay.
It’s not unreasonable or paranoid to expect retaliation from parties who would like to draw you into a battle of wills when you simply will not get involved. When confronted about your lack of interest or loyalty, empathize, reassure the confrontational party of your commitment to the school, but remain firm that your commitment is just that—to the school and the students, not to your peers, however much you might like them.
Look for an Exit as Necessary
If the school atmosphere has disintegrated to the point where it becomes difficult to focus or work, it may be time to move on. Channel your energy into brushing up your resume and teacher’s portfolio or building a professional website. Approach trusted colleagues and supervisors for references. Scout the internet for both onsite and online opportunities—increasingly there are online opportunities for instructors. If you have accrued personal leave days in your contract, this may be a time to use them to job hunt and go on interviews. Try to stay professional and avoid retaliation through quitting without notice, for example, in order to retain good will and professional connections.
Without a doubt, a negative atmosphere affects everyone in it. A negative atmosphere can also be so difficult to address that sometimes leaving is really the only feasible way. However, other strategies involving avoiding personal attacks and focusing on the positive should help in moving the school back into a more functional situation.