Supporting or pushing?

Q: I’ve been a high school math department chair for three years. Erin has been one of our math teachers for 14 years. She’s excellent, but we’ve clashed from the start. When I bring up new ideas, she’s always the first to question me. She was passed over for my job, and I think it’s personal. She told me recently that she wants to apply to other schools. She didn’t give a reason, but I was relieved because it’s been so tense. She asked me whether I’d give her a good reference, and I assured her that I would. I meant it. We’ve had our issues, but I respect her work. To her credit, she’s done a lot over the years, but I think she needs a new challenge. As a leader, it’s my responsibility to encourage her to “go to grow.” I often hear about teacher openings at other schools before they’re posted, so I let Erin know about a few of them. Well, that backfired in a big way. She told the principal that I was pushing her out. I feel like I can’t win. Was I wrong to send her the listings? 

A: There’s wrong, and there’s tactless. Under the right circumstances, sending the listings might have been a nice gesture. But Erin isn’t dumb, and she probably knows you want her to leave. She never asked for help beyond the recommendation, so you’ve overstepped your bounds and offended her.

Consider her perspective. On your end, you believe (or have convinced yourself) that Erin needs a new challenge. But is it possible that she simply wants a new boss? If that’s the case, she’s in a lose-lose situation. She either stays and lives with the building tension, or she abandons a job she’s excelled at, enjoyed, and held for years. If that’s how she feels, your extra help is salt in the wound.

It’s unclear to me whether Erin is undercutting you because she’s bored, skeptical about your ideas, or just resentful that you’re the decision maker. I also don’t know whether you feel threatened by her or genuinely believe she wants or needs to leave to grow. But that’s the point. Neither of you knows what the other one is thinking. Instead of communicating, you’ve been mindreading and making assumptions. Over time, the trust has eroded. No one is getting the benefit of the doubt.

Given the power imbalance, confiding in you might have felt risky. If you had kick-started an honest, respectful and solution-oriented dialogue, Erin may not have gone to the principal. I don’t know how he reacted, but I’m guessing from your irritation that he’s hoping you work it out. Consider that Erin has a long tenure and a great teaching record. It may not reflect well on either one of you if she leaves. Plus, at this point you don’t know whether she’ll end up staying or going. She may not get a job.

So I urge you to work on the relationship. Try not to be defensive, and start being direct. Tell her the principal told you about her concerns. Validate her feelings. Ask her thoughts about how she believes you could move forward, and offer your own ideas.

Expressly state that your priority is to support her, that you respect her work, and that you’re not pushing her out. You can’t go wrong by being kind. Either she stays and it’s less tense, or she departs feeling like it was on her own terms. The world is round, and even if she leaves, you’ll likely cross paths again. There’s no reason to make this ugly.

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.

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