Q: Two years ago, I decided to leave the middle school where I taught English. I was happy there but a little stale, and I wanted a better commute. I also thought I might prefer teaching high school. After a year working in a high school closer to home, I knew I wanted to go back to a middle school. Still, I gave it one more year. When I looked for a job, there was an opening at my old middle school, and my former principal said he’d be thrilled to have me back. All good, right? Not totally. One of my close friends — someone I trust — warned me that a former colleague has been openly gleeful about my departure. She talked a big game with me, telling me how much she was going to miss me, but behind my back she complained that I talked too much and was conceited, and she also called me an annoying, boring teacher! Not very nice. Even after I left, my friend said she found ways to give me little jabs. She’s not in my department, but we’re a pretty small school. I’m going to feel really uncomfortable around her, and I’m already a little self-conscious about coming back, even though it was entirely my choice. I have no idea why she has such strong feelings about me — we were collegial at work, but it’s not like we spent much time together. She doesn’t even know yet that I’m returning. Should I confront her? Should I talk to my principal about this in advance?
A: Welcome back to middle school! The longer I work in schools, the more I subscribe to the “don’t let it fester” school of thought. I know of one school that even has a policy: If you have a gripe with someone — and there’s no power imbalance — then you have three days to talk to them directly. Otherwise, you have to let it go. Staff are explicitly told not to involve the administrator unless they’re unable to resolve the issue on their own.
In other words, I wouldn’t contact your principal to say, essentially, “Someone is hurting my feelings.” If she were your supervisor and there was a pattern of degrading behavior, then OK, sure, seek out his help. In this case, however, someone at your level thinks you’re annoying, boring, and conceited. She’s out of line and not very nice, but you can handle this on your own.
You have two choices. You can discuss this with her or leave it alone. You can’t legislate someone else’s thoughts and feelings, but you can try to set expectations around their behavior. If you want to confront her, you could say, “Hey, I heard you have an issue with my tendency to talk too much, but it’s hard to address complaints I hear secondhand, so next time please talk to me directly.”
Or you can decide that it’s not worth it and take a “wait and see” attitude. Either way, you have to accept that this woman doesn’t like you. That’s life. No one likes or is liked by everyone, but you still need to be professionals and act “as if.” You not only work together, you’re modeling behavior for your middle school students.
I suspect her comments are messing with you, in part, because you’re feeling anxious about the transition. I’d focus on the people you like and your principal’s enthusiasm about your return. Try to channel your fear into excitement. If you’re in need of a confidence boost, take on projects early that you know you do well. Or bring novel, exciting ideas from your high school experience.
If her comments touched a nerve, be a little introspective. Mull over her gripes and decide whether any are legitimate. If none rings true, then they may just reflect her own issues. Try not to get bogged down by one person’s negativity. I’d also have a conversation with your trusted friend. Does she really need to tell you every time someone insults you? She’s just spreading the meanness. And as I tell my students, it’s none of your business what other people think about you.
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