When the reading specialist is a mean gossip

Q: I’m an elementary school teacher, and I often rely on our reading specialist to come into the classroom to observe students. Last year, we hired a new one, Lara. Lara is competent, but she’s toxic. She’s unusually close with the principal, and she often reports information to him after visiting teachers’ classrooms. She tells him who the “bad” teachers are, and whether we play favorites with kids, or ever raise our voices, or assign too many worksheets. I think the principal knows that Lara’s a gossip, and he may even take her observations with a grain of salt, but he likes getting the scoop. None of us trust her. She never seems to share when we are doing an awesome job. We don’t want her in our classrooms, but we do need her expertise. How would you handle this situation?

A: First things first. Do you know for certain that Lara is gossiping after visiting teachers’ classrooms? Did the principal share this information? If not, it’s suspect until proven otherwise. But for the purposes of this question, let’s assume that it’s true.

The good news is that there’s power in numbers. Lara’s behavior is negatively affecting every teacher in the building, and possibly depriving students of needed services. The principal may enjoy the stories, but I suspect he’d rather stay in the dark than aggravate the majority of his staff.

Lara may have a fondness for drama, a desire to impress or connect with her boss, or insecurity about her own skills. It’s hard to know what drives her, but it doesn’t matter. She has established herself as untrustworthy, so go straight to the principal and urge him to shut it down. You may choose to do it individually or as a group, but I would encourage as many teachers as possible to weigh in on the matter.

Don’t make it personal. Tell the principal it’s about productivity and morale. There has affected students. Explain that Lara is negatively affecting an entire culture. This can be particularly true in smaller elementary schools. Teachers can’t do their best work if they are worrying that one of their own coworkers is looking to “get” them. Even small acts of sabotage can lead to major staff attrition. Ideally, the principal will recognize his own role in the problem and alter how he interacts with her. If he hadn’t been receptive in the first place, she wouldn’t have had anyone to gossip with.

I recently asked a principal in Ohio how he handles toxic employees like Lara, and he said he gives immediate, direct feedback and a chance to fix the antisocial behavior. He said he has learned the hard way that these types of issues don’t resolve on their own. If she doesn’t change, he said his next step would be to “vote her off the island.” He would explain that she not only burned bridges with her colleagues, she lost his trust too. At that point, he would urge her to transfer to another school.

I don’t know how your principal will respond, but I do know he won’t do anything if no one tells him there’s a problem. While you’re waiting for him to act, confront Lara directly if she tries to gossip with you. Make it less satisfying for her by keeping the conversation positive. If she says that someone always leaves work early, respond with “I’m glad; she usually works too hard.” Change the subject even if she dangles juicy gossip. Don’t encourage her by taking the bait. Hopefully, your principal will follow this same advice.

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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