Q: I’m part of a special education department at a large high school. I’ve been in the same position for 15 years. Even after all this time, I love what I do and want to remain in my position. At the same time, I’d like to take on new challenges. I feel like I’m stuck in a rut when it comes to personal growth. The other special educators in my department don’t really care what I do as long as it doesn’t create work for them. I don’t think they share my restlessness. My department chair is a different story. We’ve worked together forever, and I don’t think she likes this new, more energized me. She resents my efforts to mix things up. I just want to help kids in novel ways and stay engaged. Whenever I try new approaches, she makes snide comments about how I’m needy and looking for attention. She puts a negative spin on everything, especially when my ideas are welcomed by administration and parents. It feels like she’s always undermining me and I’m constantly bumping into brick walls. When a parent recently wrote a nice note to the principal about me, she accused me of putting the person up to it. She’ll tell me that others are critical of my projects, but when I inquire, it quickly becomes clear she’s making stuff up. I’m not looking to get on her bad side, but I don’t understand why she cares so much about what I do. I just want to keep it fresh for myself. Any thoughts on how I can do that under these circumstances?
A: Your need for extra challenge is an issue, but I don’t think it’s the primary problem. I’ll offer suggestions to help increase your job satisfaction, but first let’s address the situation with your department chair. I suspect that the more you change the way you operate, the more she’ll dig in her heels. Perhaps you’re hitting a nerve. Is she unhappy? Threatened by you? I’m concerned about her comments. It’s not simply that they’re mean. Telling someone they’re taking on new projects because they want attention is a pretty extreme form of social manipulation. It sounds like she’s hoping she can shame you into backing down. Since that tactic isn’t working, brace yourself for an increasingly toxic dynamic.
You can’t change other people, but you can change your reactions to them. You can ignore her comments and hope she doesn’t penalize you with a negative review or more hostility. You can choose to take on challenges that don’t require her involvement. You can ask for forgiveness, not permission. Keep in mind, however, that she’ll probably continue to create roadblocks. It may be easier to take on projects beyond her reach. For example, you could take courses or pursue another degree. I know a special education teacher who got a counseling degree because she felt it would be useful in her work with families. As a bonus, the extra credits increased her salary and the school system covered her tuition. I’ve seen different iterations of this approach. Another colleague got certified to teach health after years of teaching math. She now teaches both subjects and enjoys the change of pace.
Take time to think about the skills you’re looking to utilize or develop. Do you want to obtain leadership skills? Advise a club or coach a team? Create special programming? Tutor students? Learn how to collect and use data? Present at professional conferences? Write for a publication or get involved with an organization such as Understood.org? Join an education association? Speak to parent groups? After more than 15 years of experience, perhaps you’d even enjoy chairing a department at another school.
There are so many ways to be a lifelong learner. You could collaborate with teachers at other schools and collect information on their approaches. You could identify individuals you’d like to emulate, and then interview them for ideas or even shadow them for a day or two. You also could tell your principal or staff development specialist you hope to expand your skillset and ask for their thoughts.
If your department chair continues to make derogatory comments and get in your way, consider asking for support. If your supervisor is close to your principal, you may need to go higher up the food chain for help. Keep in mind that it may not be worth it. It might even make things worse. If your supervisor isn’t going anywhere, you may decide that the simplest approach is to plant yourself somewhere you can grow. I understand why you want to stay put, but your current situation sounds exhausting. And the more energy you expend trying to stay out of one person’s way, the less you’ll have to invest in your students and yourself.
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