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April 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 7

Working with Difficult Staff

What can you do when teachers undermine your leadership efforts and threaten your school's reform efforts?

Ricardo, a high school principal, sensed that a certain teacher was spreading a negative view of an initiative he was promoting, while withholding comment or even expressing support to his face. When Ricardo found evidence—overhearing Gloria complain about the initiative and make untrue statements to a group in the hallway—he knew he had a serious problem. An underminer was at work.
School leaders face many challenges in implementing change. Chief among these challenges is preserving a positive climate when one or several teachers are resistant or difficult. For a school to move forward, the leader must attend to day-to-day school climate and school culture. A teacher who resists change—sometimes covertly—or who is just plain hard to work with can inject negativity into that culture. A few such teachers can derail change.
In schools we've led and in our work supporting principals, we've identified strategies anyone can use to deal with difficult and resistant staff members while maintaining a healthy school climate. We have seen eight major types of difficult staff members in action. Each type presents its own threat to school climate and culture. Leaders need to swiftly identify any teachers they work with who fit one of these patterns and deal with accompanying negative behaviors. Here we focus on two types: underminers and on-the-job retirees.

The Underminer: Toxic to Climate and Reform

An underminer works behind the scenes to weaken your leadership by fabricating or exaggerating negative aspects about you or the change you are implementing. Other teachers, especially those lacking a clear understanding of the issue or the strength to resist, may be easily convinced to join the negative conversation. A group of covert resisters may develop. The situation can quickly get out of control. Whether other teachers alert you or you notice signs that a staff member is an underminer, act quickly to minimize the damage. Covert agitating can poison school climate and make reform impossible.
Like Gloria, an underminer may agree with you in person but work to derail your goals in private. When you confront a covert complainer, he or she will often deny any negative feelings or actions. But if the underminer senses a critical mass of support, he or she may be very open about opposing you.
Underminers may actively work to slow or stop a change or intervention, such as by complaining to school board members, recruiting others to resist or complain, or half-heartedly implementing the change and then saying "I told you this wouldn't work." This kind of difficult teacher can obviously lessen others' commitment to your change initiatives—or to you. An underminer can equally damage school climate and culture by
  • Encouraging staff members to form factions based on their support—or lack of support—for your leadership.
  • Turning cognitive conflict (productive debates related to substance) into affective conflict (negative debates related to personalities). Affective conflict is destructive to a sound school culture.
  • Confronting others, putting them on the defensive, and turning the workplace into a hostile environment.

Confront, Listen, and Create a Plan

When you realize a teacher is undermining you, meet privately with the underminer to openly discuss this behavior and find out what the teacher's issues are. We recommend developing a script for what you will say in the meeting; a script will keep you on track and better able to deal with the emotions that may come up. If a group has coalesced, you'll need to decide whether to meet with just the "leader" or with all the underminers. If the group seems to gain power in numbers, divide and conquer. On the other hand, if you think the first one you talk with will warn (and possibly energize) the others, meet with all the grumblers at once.
Ricardo, for example, asked to meet with Gloria to discuss what he'd learned.
R<EMPH TYPE="5">icardo: Thank you for meeting with me today, Gloria. I want to use this time to talk through an issue that's come to my attention. Several staff members have told me that you're upset about the PLC meetings we are holding. If you have concerns, I want you to share them with me rather than others.
G<EMPH TYPE="5">loria: I haven't been talking behind your back. If I had concerns, I'd share them with you.
R<EMPH TYPE="5">icardo: Please level with me, Gloria. I've heard this from several other staff members. You mean to tell me these people made this up? If you've been expressing frustration with the process, just let me know so we can address it and move on.
G<EMPH TYPE="5">loria: OK, I guess I did tell a few people I was frustrated with the PLC structure. I didn't want to tell you directly because I thought you might get mad at me.
R<EMPH TYPE="5">icardo: I need to know your concerns so I can do something about it. If you don't tell me, how can I do anything? What are your concerns?
G<EMPH TYPE="5">loria: Well, I don't think the PLC project is going well. Nobody seems to know what to do or why we're meeting.
R<EMPH TYPE="5">icardo: So you don't think the other staff members are well informed?
G<EMPH TYPE="5">loria: It doesn't seem like it from my perspective.
R<EMPH TYPE="5">icardo: OK. What other concerns do you have?
G<EMPH TYPE="5">loria: Some PLC groups aren't working as hard as others. Some groups are wasting their time and talking about other topics. I think you should be doing something about this.
R<EMPH TYPE="5">icardo: Thank you for sharing this with me. So you think I should be catching these unproductive PLC teams in the act?
G<EMPH TYPE="5">loria: Yes. I think it would be good if you followed up on this.
R<EMPH TYPE="5">icardo: Thank you for telling me. I can check into the situation.
As Gloria told Ricardo how she felt, he listened. He didn't try to justify or defend his ideas or actions but used reflective listening to ensure that he understood her perspective. Then he suggested they together come up with a plan for how Gloria would speak directly with Ricardo in the future if she had concerns with him or his ideas. Ricardo committed to periodically checking in with Gloria to assess how things were going—first weekly, and eventually monthly.

Additional Strategies

Not all underminers can be disarmed by respectful confrontation. The following actions may also help principals deal with teachers like Gloria:
  • Assess your leadership style to make sure you are providing positive, proactive ways for teachers to share concerns. Underminers may develop as a result of unnecessarily controlling, autocratic leadership, which gives few opportunities to positively resolve issues. Even if your style is more open, if you're new, teachers may go underground with their negativity because their past leader was autocratic.
  • Develop an open communication channel to ensure that any potential underminer informs you—rather than others—about his or her concerns, no matter how unpleasant or trivial.
  • Be open and receptive when faculty members share concerns with you. If you let people know you're really interested in listening to their complaints or worries and using their perspective to guide change, they'll be more willing to share with you. Use open-ended or probing questions to gain more details. Use reflecting skills to better understand the teacher's perspective.
  • Put in place positive processes to hear and evaluate your faculty's concerns as you implement any change or initiative. For example, you might regularly conduct a pro-con conversation among teachers, guiding them to identify the specifics of any new strategy you're considering, including what the school might need to do to overcome challenges the strategy will present. Put a "Concerns-Based Suggestion Box" in the teacher work room, or periodically meet with staff members individually to explore their ideas and concerns.
  • Set productive ground rules for staff behavior, such as allowing one party to complete his or her side of the story before you rebut; being ready to talk about both the positives and the challenges associated with new ideas; and keeping the discussion focused on the topic, not the person.

The On-the-Job Retiree

The on-the-job retiree is a true challenge. Because he or she is retiring at the end of the year, the on-the-job-retiree reasons, it's acceptable to coast for the remainder of the time. Such an attitude isn't restricted to senior staff members. We have worked with people in early- or mid-career stages who exhibit characteristics of on-the-job retirees. Behavior, rather than age, is the hallmark of these resisters. Look for the following characteristics:
  • The teacher openly states that he or she is leaving at the end of the year and has decided to "coast out" this time. The teacher may brag about the fact that nobody can make him or her do anything. You may notice that he or she is doing the bare minimum in daily work.
  • The educator shows a diminished level of motivation and work ethic. You may notice that you begin to feel negative or even slightly depressed as you interact with this teacher. People who have shut down can project negativity.
  • The teacher seeks the support and empathy of coworkers, as he or she tries to slack off, possibly striving to make others feel sorry for him or her.
On-the-job retirees have a negative effect on the day-to-day climate of a school and eventually will weaken its culture. Part of this damage can come from the model they provide for less experienced colleagues by setting the tone that it's OK for anyone to shut down in relation to their commitments at the school. This tone can be contagious.
A charismatic coaster can become a "cult figure" or gain prestige because he or she openly defies the organization. Some teachers may look up to the person and even reinforce these negative behaviors. Cliques may form around those who admire the premature retiree and those who don't. People may feel forced to take sides in relation to their actions and behaviors.

Appeal to Their "Legacy"

When you hear an employee has declared him- or herself "retired" before the end of the year, you'll need to respond quickly to this posture—and a frank conversation is often the first thing to try. For instance, Julie, an elementary principal at a school we'll call Barton Elementary, heard from key staff members that a teacher named Stan was planning to retire at the end of the year. Stan had also announced he wouldn't participate in the professional learning community (PLC) to which he'd been assigned. Julie considered the PLCs to be an important part of supporting Barton Elementary's teachers as they learned to implement student assessments. If Stan were allowed to opt out of these activities, it would send a message to others that the learning communities' work was not important.
Julie knew she had to address the situation quickly. She scheduled a meeting with Stan and took the bull by the horns:
J<EMPH TYPE="5">ulie: Stan, I've heard you're planning to retire at the end of this year. We'll miss you if that's the case. I've heard some talk that you're saying you plan to coast out the remainder of your time with us, and you're not even going to participate with your grade-level PLC. Is this true?
S<EMPH TYPE="5">tan: Yes. I've worked hard around here for years and I deserve a break.
J<EMPH TYPE="5">ulie: I agree—you have worked hard; you've contributed a lot to Barton and to our students. You've been a good leader. So why do you feel you don't want to contribute all you can in the year before you retire?
S<EMPH TYPE="5">tan: Well, I've seen plenty of other teachers here ease off on their responsibilities during their last year.
J<EMPH TYPE="5">ulie: What was your impression of people who did that?
S<EMPH TYPE="5">tan (thinking): I guess I had a lower opinion of them because they shut down at the end of their careers.
J<EMPH TYPE="5">ulie: When a teacher leaves a school, that educator leaves a legacy behind. That legacy includes things like a reputation, what others think of you, what others remember after you're gone. Stan, I'd like you to think about the legacy you want to leave here after your retirement. And I'd like us to meet and talk about this again next week.
When Julie and Stan met again, Stan reported that he wanted to leave a positive legacy at Barton Elementary. Julie was ready to build on this answer. She said she was happy he'd reached this conclusion, and she pledged to keep him engaged in meaningful projects at Barton, including working with new staff and leading his learning community.
Julie knew Stan was a likeable, persuasive person who appreciated getting attention from leading others. She tailored his role with these traits in mind. Throughout the rest of the year, she met regularly with Stan to stay updated on his progress. As a result, Julie kept this teacher productive and engaged until he left.

Other Approaches

Not every teacher can be motivated by an appeal to his or her best self or future legacy. Here are other ways to deal with on-the-job retirees:
  • Give the employee an important task or job that uses his or her particular skills or passions. Or give the teacher a choice between several tasks.
  • Use peer pressure to engage the employee. Develop team projects that need everyone's effort or attend meetings of the professional learning community this educator belongs to and ask questions designed to get him or her involved.
  • Offer a trade-off; get the employee to agree to continue to engage with efforts toward reform in exchange for a reduction of some other responsibility that it may be fine to take a break from (such as bus duty). Add a responsibility that requires a similar time commitment but would interest the teacher more.
  • Develop a growth plan. Because the on-the-job retiree may feel that you, as a supervisor, cannot do anything to apply consequences, move cautiously as you develop this growth plan. Keep it focused on building up the positive aspects of the employee rather than making it a punitive, experience.
  • Pair the on-the-job retiree with a younger teacher, sharing with each what you want them to gain from the relationship. For example, tell a younger teacher that you want him to gain from the content knowledge of the more senior teacher, and tell the older teacher you want him to gain new presentation ideas from the younger one. Think through how to present the arrangement so no party feels negative about it.
  • Work with the employee to develop a private succession plan. If you help the on-the-job retiree feel like a valued leader whom you and the school will miss, you'll motivate the potential coaster to want to pass the torch.
Be careful to communicate that you care while helping the teacher stay responsible. Never say that you want the resister to resign (although deep down you might like this to happen). Making people feel pushed out sets the stage for an age-related discrimination lawsuit. Show that you want to help someone like Stan stay productive. Focus on supporting the teacher as long as she or he meets reasonable expectations.
Working with difficult and resistant staff members is unavoidable if you want to make long-lasting school changes. In the end, the labor it takes to successfully deal with resisters will pay off—in accomplishing your goals and attaining a positive working culture.
End Notes

1 We consider school climate to be the day-to-day working atmosphere in a school; school culture is the permanent structures, beliefs, and practices that anchor that school.

2 The eight types of problematic teacher we discuss in our recent book Working with Difficult and Resistant Staff (Solution Tree, 2011) are underminers, on-the-job retirees, contrarians, challenged, resident experts, unelected representatives, recruiters, and whiners and complainers.

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