Q: I’m a second-year teacher, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around school politics. Several of my colleagues vie to be our principal’s favorite, even if that means tons of kissing up and self-promotion. These teachers are the quickest to volunteer for after-school clubs and take on team leader positions despite the fact that there’s no stipend. They actually compete for these unpaid jobs because they think they’ll look good. We all know they’re not doing it for the love of the work or the extra time with students.
But why? There’s no extra money, no bonus, no promotion, no prestige. Please tell me what I’m missing because I hate all of it. They create drama, and they’re basically competing over nothing, except maybe “chosen” status. The principal does recognize them at times for being “team players who put kids first,” but man, it’s a lot of work for a little praise. I’ve yet to see evidence that they get extra perks, such as better schedules, duties, supplies, or furniture. At least as far as I can tell.
Can you help me understand their behavior so I won’t spend so much time feeling irritated about it? My worst fear is that I’ll turn into one of them, taking on stuff I hate in the hopes someone will throw a compliment my way! How can I make sure I’m never that needy?
A: Every field has politics and people who vie for favored status, but the school setting may be especially rife for this type of behavior. In a typical district, teachers are paid according to their years of service and level of education. Compensation is preset and has no relation to talent or work ethic. Teachers don’t have many opportunities for promotion, particularly if they want to stay in the classroom. The job is growing more complicated, too, with heightened demands and fewer resources. Many teachers are spending their own money on supplies or taking on unpaid roles — such as team leader or middle school coach — that once came with stipends.
That’s the backdrop to your question. Certain factors can exacerbate the situation, such as disengaged principals or central offices that fail to involve teachers in decision making. Teachers who feel disempowered or don’t know where they stand are more likely to seek out external validation. These annoyingly self-promoting teachers are simply trying to get their needs met. Unfortunately, it’s a vicious cycle. If they take on unpaid (and unwanted) work in exchange for praise, they’re going to be even more resentful if their efforts go unacknowledged. And this kind of behavior can be a real morale-killer for everyone else.
Keep in mind, though, that you can’t be sure about anyone else’s motivation. Maybe these teachers genuinely enjoy these activities. You might feel better if you give them the benefit of the doubt and assume positive intent. Also, you might feel less irritated if you can muster some empathy for them. Perhaps they’re creating drama, bringing out the worst in each other and turning people off, but for what? They’re not getting much in return (though maybe they do get some perks, having to do with scheduling or office space, for example). They need healthier ways to get their needs met because attaining “chosen” status won’t cure their insecurity or lead to happiness. It’s a very unstable form of confidence.
Which brings me to you. You want to know how you can stay intrinsically motivated and tune out the politics. The short answer is to have your own, full life. Derive meaning from your work with students, but also from your relationships with friends, family and members of your community. Seek out opportunities to learn, expand your skill set and help others. If you focus on conquering new challenges and boosting others, you’ll feel good about yourself. And if you build your own confidence, you’ll be far less dependent on praise — or worried about what anyone else is doing.
So keep your head down. Get to school early and avoid staff lounge gossip. Set boundaries and avoid job creep. There’s nothing wrong with taking on extras, but choose the ones that speak to you. Last, I’d seek out a couple supportive coworkers and regularly exchange ideas. As a nearly new teacher, try to find coworkers you admire and can emulate. That’ll be far more productive than worrying about a few insecure, high-drama colleagues.
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