Q: We bring in outside speakers to train teachers during specially designated “training meetings,” but it’s often disastrous. I’m sure I’m not the only teacher who is horribly embarrassed. Some poor but knowledgeable soul will show up to teach us about whatever — giving critical feedback, helping kids in crisis, exercising our duty to report abuse or neglect, or something else of import. A small handful of us clamored for this type of professional development, and our principal finally gave us the green light to organize a speaker series. Let me tell you, it’s work — unpaid, unglamorous, unappreciated grunt work. Either we have to ask for funding from our Parent Foundation (which typically allocates funding for student scholarships, replacement instruments, and the like) or we have to beg experts in the greater community to donate their time. We often can pull off the latter, which is both good and bad. On one hand, “Yay, free speaker,” but on the other hand, it’s worse when our colleagues treat volunteers with blatant disrespect. Teachers either spend the whole time on their phones or literally walk out in the middle of the speaker’s presentation. Their behavior has no relationship to the quality of the speaker’s remarks. Needless to say, no one ever thanks any of us for organizing the series either, and my principal seldom comes to any meetings that he hasn’t organized personally. When he does, it’s typically just to make a brief appearance. He’s very hands-off.
Recently, we realized that our staff badly needs training on writing unbiased reports — something I’ve read about and researched extensively. After discussion, the speaker series committee decided that I should be the one to present to our staff. That way, at least we wouldn’t subject an outsider to abuse. I did a ton of work on the topic and prepared myself for my coworkers’ negative reaction, but even so, I wasn’t prepared for how horrible I would feel during and after my talk. Teachers asked me if they had to stay before I’d uttered a word, then sighed loudly when I said I hoped they’d stay. A few interrupted me in the middle to ask me if I really knew what I was talking about. And just as they’d done with the outsiders, they either ignored me in favor of their phone, talked to one another or left the room entirely. My good friends and fellow speaker committee members sat up front attentively and did their best to make the whole thing less unpleasant for me, but I’m still so upset. How could I have handled the rudeness and attacks and walking out while I was up there? And do you have any words of wisdom for me going forward?
A: First, I’m sorry. That sounds dreadful. I’m sure it feels worse knowing you set yourself up for disappointment and humiliation. You had great intentions, but you were doomed from the start. Which leads to my first question: Where exactly is your principal? He needs to set the tone for these meetings — to say, essentially, “OK, everyone. Close your computers and put away your phones. Sally did a tremendous amount of work on a topic that’s very important to the work we’re all doing here, so I need you to give her your full attention for the next 45 minutes. She’ll leave 15 minutes at the end for questions.” He then needs to stay in the room and listen attentively to signal that he thinks what you’re doing matters. In the absence of support from leadership, your colleagues acted like squirrelly students who had just discovered a substitute in their last period class. Not a good setup for success.
I suppose you could have begun your talk by stating that you’d be presenting a roundup of the research, not expressing your personal opinion. That might have discouraged a few coworkers from questioning your authority. It’s hard to attack someone for their lack of expertise if they’re not claiming to be an expert. You could have reminded everyone that you were volunteering your time, but I doubt many would have cared. After all, they knew the outside experts were volunteers, too. You also could have stopped your presentation entirely when you noticed widespread inattention or hordes of people getting up to leave, or you could have said you’d take a five-minute break, then resume your presentation for anyone who actually wanted to be there. But then you’d need to prepare yourself emotionally to face a near-empty room, and I can’t imagine that would have felt much better.
All of which brings me back to your leadership and the overall school culture. It’s problematic that your colleagues are rude to outside speakers, but downright shocking that they’re so disrespectful to their own colleague. Additionally, this type of behavior tends to be systemic. If you felt this uncomfortable presenting to your fellow teachers, imagine how the students in your school feel taking intellectual risks in the classroom. I recommend you talk to your principal and request that he spend significant time observing the interpersonal dynamics at these meetings and set some norms around acceptable behavior. Hopefully, he’ll be appalled by the current state of affairs, too. Once he’s established overall expectations, he can either call people out in real time when they’re rude or circle back with them afterward. In the meantime, you may lack the authority to hold people accountable, but you certainly can stop volunteering your time.
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