Q: I’m a teacher in Colorado who volunteers extensively with an outside organization that helps at-risk kids. Through that experience, I’ve connected with my school district’s associate superintendent, “Gerry.” I never would have met him otherwise. I’m not even sure my principal, Joe, sees him much — Gerry is his boss’s boss’s boss. But he’s on the Board of Trustees of the nonprofit where I volunteer, and he’s familiar with me and my work. He often observes me interacting with kids and speaking to large groups of educators. I know he likes how I redesigned the program to better meet kids’ needs. I have his respect and, as a result, he trusts me with a lot of responsibilities. In the last month or so, he’s asked me to testify in front of a government subcommittee, to keynote a national fund-raising event, and to cowrite an article with him for a well-known education weekly.
When our article caught the public’s attention, Gerry and I were asked to be guests on a national talk show. That was a big, nerve-wracking surprise, but we had fun and were happy to call attention to a worthy cause. Many people in our community watched the show, and we got some lovely calls and notes. A bunch of the parents who wrote me also copied my principal. Joe then forwarded the emails to Candace, my immediate supervisor. I’m sure he did that to be nice, but she reacted strangely. She went on the attack, accusing me of being an attention whore. She suggested that I had fabricated the letters and insinuated that my (professional, platonic) relationship with Gerry was inappropriate. She told me that people were “wondering” about us. To say that I’m upset about her comments would be an understatement. I really love and need my teaching job, so I spoke to Gerry. I pleaded with him to keep me out of the public eye, and I told him I was done volunteering for a while. I know I sounded frustrated, and I could tell he was shocked and taken aback. I feel like there’s no winning here. What should I do now?
A: When I read your letter, I recalled the advice a mentor gave me a few years ago. He told me to pay attention to the people who give you opportunities because they’re the ones in your corner who respect you. On the flip side, be wary of people who hold you back, undermine your supporters, or begrudge you those opportunities. In other words, Candace is your problem, not Gerry.
You’re anxious about your job, so I understand why you want to keep Candace happy. But ask yourself a few questions. Did it feel satisfying to venture outside your comfort zone? Did you enjoy advocating publicly for a cause you champion? Would you resent giving up those types of accomplishments to maintain the peace? You clearly thrive on new challenges and find great meaning in your volunteer work. If you give that up, you could end up trading her unhappiness for your own.
Your best (but long-shot) hope is that Candace changes her attitude. Tell her calmly and directly that you expect her to be respectful. What you do in your personal time is your business. Explain that her accusations are baseless and offensive. In an ideal world, she’d stand down and stop speculating about you, your motives, your honesty, or your ability. Regardless of how she responds, protect yourself. Document the conversation and request a follow-up meeting with your principal. Let him know what’s happening and ask him whether you have his support. Would he go to bat for you if she continues to harass you? You’re going to need his help if you stay.
If Candace won’t back down and your principal is conflict-averse or noncommittal, reconsider how much you want this job. I know you think you need it, but you don’t. You’d find another one. You’re not only a capable teacher, you’ve got passion to spare. Your volunteer work has proven that you’re a creative go-getter with vision. You’ve earned many people’s admiration for your work with children, your public speaking, and your advocacy work. The problem isn’t that you’re stuck, it’s that you lack confidence, and I’m sure it doesn’t help that your supervisor has been assaulting your character.
I know you’ll land on your feet, but I don’t expect you to believe me, an advice columnist you’ve never met. So call individuals you trust who’ve witnessed your talents and seen you in action. People like Gerry. He’s the perfect person to bolster your courage. He has the emotional distance to see the situation clearly, but he’s close enough to remind you of your inherent worth. When people tear you down, one antidote is finding people who’ll build you back up.
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