Q: I’m a middle school teacher, and I don’t fit the mold at my school. It’s a pretty straight-and-narrow place. People talk about their kids, their new countertops, or the weather. I’m not following a traditional life path. I’m not interested in any of those topics. I often wish I could whip out my phone and tune out. Occasionally, young, outside-the-box teachers like me will show up, but they always end up leaving within two years. It’s just too hard to try to be something they’re not. No one is mean, but everyone kind of dresses the same and follows the same script and approaches their jobs and lives the same way. I don’t want to generalize too much, but I definitely feel very different. So here’s my question: How can I either engage colleagues who are nothing like me, or change my mind-set such that I don’t need that close connection?
A: I love that you’re a middle school teacher, because middle schoolers often feel the exact same way. I’m thrilled for your quirky, outside-the-box students because I’m sure they benefit from having a relatable role model like you.
Generally speaking, I don’t think anyone should feel pressure to conform. I don’t want you to try to be something you’re not. Nevertheless, whether you’re a student or a teacher, you need a couple solid peer connections. Let’s say one of your students came to you with this dilemma. Much as you have to go to work, they have to go to school. They may as well make the best of the situation. What would you tell them? That same advice would apply to you. Sometimes, our best insights come when we step back and create some distance from the problem.
Here’s what I would suggest. Think quality over quantity. Is there anyone in the building whose company you enjoy? Can you spend more time with them and less time with the colleagues who bore you or make you feel uncomfortable?
Have you made an effort to suspend judgment and meet these coworkers where they are? You can try this in small doses. They’re not bad people. Their lives are just different. As a result, they have different priorities and interests. Be polite and ask questions, just as you’d like them to do for you. But then be authentic about your own life. To the extent you’re comfortable, tell your colleagues what matters to you. Disclose some personal information. They may need an opening, especially if you’re private. They might surprise you and rise to the occasion. If nothing else, you’ll feel like you’re being true to yourself. Faking it all the time sounds exhausting.
I always tell kids that it’s protective to have friends who don’t go to their school. Everyone needs a break from people once in a while. They can hang out with buddies they make at Girl Scouts, church or a club activity. You can take the same approach. Develop an outside social network. You’ll let down your guard if you find like-minded people, you won’t feel as isolated, and you’ll be less dependent on work connections. It also may ease the pressure you feel to fix this problem quickly.
That said, I’m not sure any of this will be enough. It sounds like working and socializing are entwined for you. You may be someone who needs to bond with colleagues in order to find work meaningful. You’re not a robot and that’s OK. In that case, you may want to consider working at a different school. Much like businesses, schools have different cultures. There’s a lid for every pot, and it doesn’t hurt to look around. Work is only one part of your life, but it takes up a big chunk of your time. Ideally, you’ll eventually find an environment where you feel a sense of belonging.
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