Dear R&R: Help With a Toxic School Employee

Dear Rick & Rebecca: I am knee-deep in drama and I believe it is because of one toxic school employee named Leslie, our literacy coach. Jane, a second grade teacher, carries out her running records and guided reading groups exactly the way that she is supposed to and is making meaningful instruction from her informal assessments of the children. However, Patti, the other second grade teacher, doesn’t use the running record coding correctly and doesn’t seem to gather much information because of her lack of precision. Her teaching seems a bit out of context, as well, and there is little to no follow up with the children. Sometimes, she just skips guided reading, altogether, for a few weeks.

Leslie, allegedly, talks trash about Patti in the faculty room and during bus duty. Patti heard about this but thinks Jane started the bashing. The other day, something triggered Patti’s fuse and she actually yelled at Jane right in front of the kids during a hallway transition:  “I don’t care when we give the kids recess,” she said. “You decide because you are always right anyway.” Jane was clueless and hurt, having had no idea from where this anger was stemming.

Both teachers are upset. Since I don’t have any real proof about Leslie starting trouble between Jane and Patti, what are your thoughts about how I might handle this situation? –The “Drama Conquistador” Principal

Dear “Drama Conquistador” Principal:

It sounds like you have a pretty crafty instigator on your hands. It also sounds like you believe that Leslie has not only overstepped the bounds of her position, but that she also has a limited understanding of the value of professionalism, confidentiality, and trust. And you already know that it is unavoidable that you must face this head on.

Your initial reaction is to blame Leslie. But you said, yourself, that you don’t have much proof. Talking with each person privately may be the best approach in this situation.

Here are a few simple steps to support you and other administrators when conflicts arise and you have limited or possibly inaccurate information.

Serious young Asian woman talks about her problems in group therapy or support group. She has a concerned expression on her face as the talks to the group. A diverse group of patients listen to her talk. She is wearing a blue plaid shirt.

Step 1: Assume positive intent. You may be biased by previous behaviors and interactions, but without any accurate facts, you must assume positive intent. Check your biases at the door and be an open and effective listener.

Step 2: Maintain a growth mindset. As information unfolds, embrace the opportunity to grow each person. Meet them where they are at emotionally. Coaching conversations will lead to growth. It also gives you the chance to remind everyone that your job is to evaluate staff members.

Step 3: Plan quality questions. As you discover what role each person played in the drama, ask questions to frame their thinking in such a way that it creates meaningful reflection.

Step 4: Gather the facts, not the emotions. Very similarly to scripting a teacher, write down the facts and information they share as they share them. Try to depersonalize while collecting information. Track conversation, order of events and outcomes. Eller & Eller (2013) certainly support this idea for moving out of a toxic environment.

Step 5: Acknowledge emotions as a human response. Recognizing emotions that come in to play honors human feelings without approving of the behaviors that may inappropriately transpire. It is okay to have emotional feelings and to allow them to have the feelings. But what you do with those feelings and how you act upon them can become inappropriate actions.

Step 6: Bring everyone together when the time is right for transparency. Be forthright in your intent and process for problem solving through adversity. Convey that you spoke with each person individually and heard each stakeholder’s point of view and state of mind. Call the elephant out in the room and share the intent of resolution and unity. Provide expectations on how to handle a similar situation in the future for quicker resolution. Let them all know that you knew—not by confrontation, but by smiling and simply reminding them that you are a team—for the students’ sake. Teachers actually want “straight talk” and patience as some of the 7 Top Things Teachers Want from their Principal.  That’s the power of non-violent communication (that we talk about in our book).

Step 7: Follow up individually and monitor. After calling the elephant out in the room, the situation may naturally deescalate. Hopefully it will transpire into growth, nurturing, and togetherness. Following up informally will provide you the diagnostic data to know if things are getting better. If the problem has not gone away, it may require a more direct approach in conversation and redefining roles and expectations (or even informal or formal reprimands) while monitoring the guided reading program, as well. The Wallace Foundation Research Report cites managing people and monitoring the school staff and programs as being a crucial leadership element that will ensure that you do not settle for low expectations.

Sometimes it is easier to ignore the problem or make light of it. Naming the problem, facing the problem, and setting high expectations for behavior and displaying problem-solving skills all demonstrate leadership presence. You got this one.

Thanks for writing!

Rick & Rebecca

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If you would like to share a challenge–or an additional good solution–send an e-mail to drjetter1@gmail.com.  Each week, Rick and Rebecca will choose their favorite question or nugget of advice for possible inclusion in a future column. That school leader will receive a coupon for a FREE book (up to $25), courtesy of Advanced Educational Products (AEP), a national supplier of books for K-12 schools and libraries.

Rick Jetter (@RickJetter; www.rickjetter.com) and Rebecca Coda (@RebeccaCoda; www.digitalnativenetwork.net) offer weekly advice on navigating the waters of school leadership. With more than 34 years of combined teaching and school leadership experience, Rick & Rebecca’s new book, Escaping the School Leader’s Dunk Tank, will be released by Dave Burgess Consulting Inc. in December.