I recently moved and started teaching in a new school district. I am an experienced special education teacher and I love what I do. I left behind a great classroom with the most amazing colleagues and, although I knew I probably wouldn't find such a great setting right away, I'm now in a pretty awful situation. My students are great but I'm having a hard time with one of my colleagues. To make things worse, she seems to be the unofficial leader of our special education group. I'm a team player and have never had issues before but this lady is just awful. She is extremely negative, she refuses to share resources, and goes out of her way to leave me out of the team.
I’m the kind of teacher who loves to collaborate but I’m now left to work by myself. On top of this, the school's administration does not seem to particularly value our program and we have to make due with very little. I originally took this position because I liked the district and the short commute. But I was approached by many other schools and had multiple job offers. I’ve come to realize that my skills and experience are in high demand and that I could have been more selective in the position I chose.
I see many open positions within the district. Some might be a better fit for me. How unprofessional would it be to look for another teaching position at this time? On one hand, I feel responsible for my students and I don't want to let them down. I also don't want to earn a bad reputation within this district, as I am brand new. On the other hand, I’m miserable and even if I stuck with it for just one year, I don't know if there will be as many open positions for next year. Finally, if I do end up applying for other positions, how can I do so tactfully?
Teacher in Need
Dear Teacher in Need,
My take is pretty straightforward: You’re not going to be an effective teacher if you’re miserable and feel undermined in the workplace. But more importantly, you’re not going to be a happy person. I applaud your sense of duty to your students. But you also have a duty to yourself.
So give yourself permission to look for another job. In particular, because it’s pretty apparent that you undersold your value in taking this job. The work you do is sacred and the emotional resources required to do that work derive, in large part, from your own sense of well-being. So if you need to justify your desire to look for a new position in this way, do so. But my point is that you shouldn’t have to.
Obviously, you should be discreet about your job search. But let’s be real here: teachers are generally underpaid and under-supported. It’s understood that highly skilled teachers will seek out the best opportunity. You shouldn’t feel guilty for that. You should feel thankful.
I think you’ll find that looking for another job — and thus realizing that you have other options — will allow you to step away from some of the drama that comes along with this job, and in particular your disruptive colleague. She’ll become a temporary inconvenience rather than an implacable nemesis.
At the same time, looking for other positions may allow you a few months to see whether you can find a path to a happier version of your present workplace. Perhaps you can work with, or around, this woman. Perhaps you can compel the administration to show more support for the program. I’m not suggesting that you should have to do either of these things. But pursuing other options may allow you to be a better advocate for yourself, and for your students.
In the grand scheme of things, you’re fortunate to have realized early on that this job isn’t making you happy. You’ve clearly worked hard to develop skills and experience in a tough field. You know how a harmonious workplace is supposed to operate, and to feel. You deserve that. So do your students.
Author's note: I teach, so I feel some basic qualification for answering this question. But I don’t teach special ed, so it may be that this is a more complicated question. Any teachers out there who want to weigh in, you know the drill: Post your feedback, and/or counsel, in the comments section below. And if you haven’t, send along a letter to Heavy Meddle. — S.A.
Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.