Teacher resents that principal texts requests over the summer

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Q: I’m a teacher, and over the summer my school’s new principal would send me texts periodically. He was working and getting paid for his time, but I was not. The texts weren’t inappropriate in content or tone. He was fielding questions about my content area from parents and hoped I’d weigh in. That part was fine. But the texts still felt intrusive. I recognize that in the summer, there’s perhaps no difference between Monday and Saturday, but it’s jarring to get a text from your boss while out to dinner with your partner on a weekend evening. It conveyed this sense of immediacy when there was no need for immediacy. It felt intrusive to my partner, too. He would exasperatedly say, “Why is this man asking you questions on a Saturday night that he could ask you in three weeks?” He wasn’t wrong. But he’s the principal and has authority over me, so I’d respond. I think he’d get my reply and be like, “Great, green light,” because then he’d send a couple more follow-up questions. I felt I had to respond to those, too, because he knew I had my phone on me. After all, I had responded to the first one. I want to set some boundaries, but I also want to know what I can reasonably expect those boundaries to look like, and how I can avoid alienating him. I’m going to assume this will be my “new normal” if I do nothing. If I’m being honest, I don’t ever want him sending texts to my personal phone. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. How would you handle this scenario? 

A: If you want to set boundaries, you’re going to have to voice your opinion, but I recognize that there’s a power differential and you need to tread carefully. I’d start by loosening your thinking and giving him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he’s used to interacting with teachers who don’t mind texting, which is a more casual style of interaction. Perhaps he’s not aware that his authority puts subordinates in an awkward position. While he should have more sensitivity, he may not realize you feel compelled to answer immediately. He may not even realize you’re not on an 11 or 12-month contract.  

The good news is that you don’t need to tell him he’s being inappropriate or intrusive, and you don’t have to speak in absolutes. While it might feel uncomfortable or disrespectful to say something like, “Please don’t text me. I’m not working now,” you could soften the message. Try, “I’m more responsive to email and worry that texts will fall through the cracks. If I don’t respond to a text, please follow up with an email.” The idea is to convey that email is your preferred form of communication, not to hammer home the inappropriateness of his behavior. Make it clear that you understand there will be times when texts are necessary, such as during an emergency. You’re also a salaried employee and don’t clock in or out, so let him know that this isn’t about fielding the occasional after-hours request.  

If he persists in texting, remember that you can delay your response. If he texts you at 9 p.m. Sunday, you can respond on Monday at 8 a.m. More administrators are using programs that allow them to schedule when an email gets delivered. That allows them to draft notes at their convenience but avoid hassling staff at inappropriate times. This might be something someone in your organization could suggest. And keep in mind that you can “retrain” your principal by consistently replying to his texts with emails. Just make sure you respond within 24 hours or less. He likely won’t care how you communicate with him as long as he gets the information he needs. 

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Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email contactphyllisfagell@gmail.comAll 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. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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