Teacher feels threatened by colleague’s public recognition 

Q:  I’m a teacher in a district where the central office recognizes outstanding educators at the elementary, middle, and high school levels with an annual “best educator” award. There’s a big hoopla and ceremony involving the Board of Education and County Council members and even local businesses, and the chosen teachers get a stipend for continuing education. They even get a car! In other words, it’s a big deal. It’s never bothered me before that I haven’t been chosen, but this year the winner is one of my colleagues. I don’t like this person to begin with, and now I suddenly feel tremendously undervalued. I know this may sound crazy — technically, nothing at all has changed since before she got the award. I’m not liking my reaction at all. Since this is anonymous, I’ll admit I’ve been petty. I’ve gossiped about her with other colleagues who agree she’s an odd pick, and I’ve withheld some information that I know will create a headache for her — and may even lead to her getting chastised by our principal. Please don’t tell me that awards don’t matter — that won’t help me. This one clearly matters to me. I’d like some help coming to terms with her recognition and managing the situation better. Thanks. 

A:  You’re describing jealousy, which is a human — if socially unacceptable — emotion. The definition of jealousy is feeling resentment toward a person who is experiencing success or an advantage. It stems from insecurity or fear that their gain disadvantages you. Ironically, your negative emotions toward your colleague pose a far bigger threat to your career than her recognition.  

Why? For starters, you’re expending energy on gossiping, plotting, and stewing instead of performing (and enjoying) your job. Whenever you disparage your colleague, your friends will likely suspect it’s because you feel threatened. Jealousy tends to be transparent. Even if your peers feel similarly, they’re filing away troublesome information about you. They’re learning you can’t be trusted, and also that you’ll begrudge them their successes. Is that how you want to be perceived?   

You mention that you’re undermining and sabotaging this teacher, too. While that might make you feel better temporarily, it’s going to backfire. You work in a school, where staff members share a common goal. You’re all there to educate students. When you behave this way, you alter your own work climate. It’s contagious behavior, so before long, everyone will be watching their back instead of collaborating. Do you want to work in a toxic environment?  

These are rhetorical questions. I know you don’t — that’s why you’re writing. You want to overcome these feelings and find a way forward. I could share plenty of quotes — a rising tide raises all ships; blowing out someone else’s candle won’t make yours shine brighter; resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. But these are all clichés for a reason. You’re only hurting yourself. So how can you reframe this in a way that helps you? 

Start by asking yourself why you feel this way. Do you think you’re more deserving? Are you feeling stale or bored? Are you mad at yourself for turning down opportunities? Do you feel invisible? Or perhaps annoyed with yourself for squandering potential? Maybe you’re irritated that someone you dislike is getting attention (and a car). Or your life is out of whack and you need to restore equilibrium.  

Once you’ve identified the root source of your jealousy, brainstorm next steps. Do you need to take more risks? Have better follow-through? Ask for more feedback? You may conclude you need to spend more time on non-work pursuits, such as running a 5K, taking a yoga class, volunteering for a nonprofit or spending time with your family. Conversely, the jealousy may be a clue that you’re more ambitious than you thought. In that case, you may want to take on a new project or think about ways to approach teaching more creatively. Is there a skill you’d like to learn? You also might benefit from mentoring a less experienced teacher. That could build your self-worth, which may be lagging. 

Ultimately, there are both selfish and unselfish reasons to let go of your jealousy. You’ll preserve your reputation, stop ruminating, focus on your own goals, protect the school climate, and foster stronger alliances with colleagues. This teacher’s success may have fueled your ambition and competitiveness — which is fine — but keep any action steps solely about you. By undercutting your colleague, you’ll do nothing to further your goals. Besides, everyone has their own battles. Yes, she won this award, but you have no idea what else is going on in her life. Focus more on gratitude than on comparisons. 

As you’re sorting out the root causes of your jealousy, act “as if.” Cheer everyone on. Choose kindness, even when it feels like the riskier choice. Pass along compliments. Set people up for success. Consider logging these acts of kindness in a journal, along with how they make you feel. You may be surprised to find out how rewarding it is to elevate someone else. On a practical level, others are likely to do the same for you. Generosity leads to reciprocity. On an emotional level, it’s a better way to live. The happiest, most successful people I know never pass up an opportunity to give a helping hand or celebrate someone else’s achievement. They don’t feel diminished by others’ success. You’ll get there, too, if you’re vigilant and check yourself. It’s worth the effort. Otherwise, your colleagues will feel justified in treating you the same way. 

For more Career Confidential: http://bit.ly/2C1WQmw

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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