Special Report
School & District Management

How Principals Can Banish Toxic Adult Behavior

By Corey Mitchell — October 16, 2018 7 min read
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Complainers. Freeloaders. Procrastinators. Backstabbers. Know-it-alls. Bullies.

Former principals Stephanie D.B. Johnson and Diane Watkins have seen them all in schools—and not just roaming the halls or slouching in the back of class.

Like any workplace, schools can be plagued by adult slackers or agitators who, whether intentionally or not, can sabotage morale and campus culture.

And principals, especially those new to the job, often need help dealing with those adults hiding in plain sight, working against principals’ proposals and best-laid plans, the veteran educators say.

“On the surface, perhaps some of these troublemakers don’t seem like the most horrible things in the world,” said Watkins, director of assessment and accountability for the Chesapeake, Va., public schools. “But because they slowly erode the morale of your building, they can be.”

Takeaways for Principals

Here are some methods principals can utilize to foster a positive school culture:

  • Build rapport with all staff in your building, including those have a negative influence
  • Don’t ignore the troubling behavior in hopes it, or the problem employee, will go away
  • Directly address the behaviors with the employee by clearly stating the problem and listening closely

What happens in the teachers’ lounge, during staff meetings, and even during group projects can filter down to classrooms, disrupting a schoolwide focus on teaching and learning, Johnson said.

“These people are pulling your time away,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to dig in and find out exactly what it is that’s going on, what’s causing your team not to gel like they should.”

Watkins, along with Johnson, a retired Chesapeake schools principal and an adjunct professor at Hampton University, have hosted seminars on how to manage difficult staff, working with the National Association for Elementary School Principals, National Blue Ribbon Schools program, and others.

Building Relationships

Education Week talked with Johnson, Watkins, and three other ex-principals about how to banish toxic behavior and clean up the culture in schools.

The former school leaders agree the primary goal is to get the difficult staff members on board with their plans, not just boot them out of the school.

That process begins the day a principal takes the job and it requires them to embrace three R’s: relationships, respect, and the realization that you won’t always see eye-to-eye with your staff.

“Every teacher wants to be successful,” said Jayne Ellspermann, the 2015 National Association of Secondary School Principals’ principal of the year.

“How they define success may differ from your definition,” Ellspermann said. “If we focus on students being successful and that teacher’s role in making sure that occurs, you can find a common thread there.”

Building rapport with staff is key, because the first conversation with a teacher, or any other school employee, should not be focused on “trying to correct something they’ve done wrong,” Watkins said.

“As busy as a principal is, you cannot neglect ... getting to know people,” Watkins said.

“You establish that relationship on the front end so that you have a springboard for having conversations, whether they’re good conversations or constructive [criticism].”

Those connections, especially with teachers, aren’t established when principals spend days holed up in their offices, said Todd Whitaker, an adjunct professor of leadership at the University of Missouri College of Education.

“I’m in classes on a daily basis,” Whitaker said. “And guess what I’m doing. I’m complimenting people all the time.”

Since leaving the principal’s office herself, Johnson, the former coordinator of educational leadership at Hampton’s School of Education and Human Development, trained dozens of incoming and aspiring leaders, schooling them on how to nurture morale.

“We talk about creating that sense of family with the whole school,” Johnson said.

Sometimes families disagree.

“I usually pull those people in really close because I do want to help them understand how they are impacting others,” Ellspermann said.

“If you understand what might be causing their resistance, then you’re better able to fill that void between your vision for the school and the direction they’re currently headed.”

Don’t Ignore Problems

The biggest mistake a principal can make when dealing with problem employees?

Trying to ignore the troubling behavior in hopes that it, or the perpetrator, will just go away.

Tactics Toxic Teachers May Use

Stall

They’ve outlasted previous principals who tried to institute change or deal with their performance issues—and they may try to wait you out too.

Solution: Let employees know you are interested in working with them in the long run for the good of the school. Follow-up frequently to ensure you are working toward your common goals.

Make Excuses

Puts more energy into justifying and rationalizing their unproductive behavior than it would take to change the habits.

Solution: Acknowledge the situation without causing the employee to double down on their thinking or assume you agree with them. Discuss how their short-term approach may not fit with your long-term goals.

Recruit

Encourages other teachers, staff members, and in some cases, community members and parents, to ignore or rally against plans.

Solution: Work with the staff members involved to help them understand what you want to change. While emphasizing that community input is valued, remind your staff that non-employees will not direct day-to-day school operations.

Undermine

Tries to derail new initiatives by not completing assignments or giving their best effort.

Solution: Ensure employees assigned to a task have appropriate training and a clear understanding of your goals. If necessary, have one-on-one meetings to clear the air with people actively working against the effort.

Avoidance can foster an environment where toxic conduct thrives and spreads. But ducking difficult conversations is often the default move, Whitaker said.

“Dealing with negative people is never easy. It’s never fun,” Whitaker said. “But if you don’t do it, nothing about your job is fun.”

Instead of looking the other way or addressing the entire staff, principals should go directly to the employee or employees and address the issue early, and, if need be, often.

“If there’s a situation and you’ve noticed it once and then you are able to bring it to that person’s attention lightly, sometimes they’ll go ahead and make the change,” said John Eller, a professor of educational leadership and administration at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.

“If you wait and let the problem fester, it becomes a really major kind of conversation. The problem with that is sometimes people will say to you, ‘Well, if this was a problem, how come you didn’t alert me sooner?’ ”

During those sessions, school leaders should clearly state the problem, and focus on behavior instead of making the conversation solely about the employee and their shortcomings, the former principals said.

But school leaders may also need to do more listening than talking during the sit-down.

“Take the opportunity to listen to their perspective. Somewhere in there, there’s a grain of truth that needs to be heard,” Ellspermann said.

“When I can recognize and reinforce that, then sometimes I can get them to see another perspective.”

And when principals invite criticism or staff input, they must be ready to listen, and not dig their heels in, Eller said.

“It takes a lot of skill on the part of the principal, because when somebody comes to you and says, ‘I don’t agree with where we’re going,’ it’s easy to take it personal,” Eller said.

“But if you take that as a helpful comment, then it doesn’t become a big issue, it becomes information.”

Problem Principals?

As principals investigate the source of tension in their schools, it makes sense to conduct a self-assessment.

Sometimes that examination leads to the discovery that they are part of the problem, Watkins said.

“Unfortunately, sometimes the most difficult person in the building is the principal,” she said. “When you walk into a school, and you hear people say to the office staff, ‘Is today a good day to talk to him? Do I need to take his temperature before I come in?’ ”

School leaders must be aware not only of their staff’s shortcomings, but also their own, because the stakes are so high in education: underperforming teachers affect classrooms; poor principals corrupt entire schools, Whitaker said.

“If you’re not effective, you don’t even know the difference between the effective people and the ineffective people because everybody’s questioning you,” he said.

Eller, a former Iowa principal of the year who has taught prospective principals for more than 20 years, encourages school leaders to determine their frame of reference.

“We’ve had situations where there was a problem, but it was because a principal had a negative interaction with a person and they’ve never gotten over it,” Eller said. “Or maybe they have a predisposition against a certain type of teacher, but they haven’t been able to see it.”

“When we work with principals, we really try to help them see, ‘What is it that you bring to the table that could also have some impact?’ It takes two to fight, so in some cases the leadership has also contributed to the issue.”

Four Characteristics of Difficult Employees

John Eller, chairman of the Educational Leadership and Higher Education Department at St. Cloud State University and author of “Working With and Evaluating Difficult School Employees,” outlined some common behaviors of such employees in an interview with Education Week.

Justifies Behavior Based on What Used to Be

“The last principal didn’t have a problem with …"

Possible Remedy: Reaffirm that you are a different principal with different expectations.

Blames Others

In an attempt to mask their behavior, shifts the blame for problems to other employees.

Possible Remedy: Steer conversations toward problem-solving rather than finger-pointing.

Lacks Awareness

Unwilling or unable to see how their behavior affects others.

Possible Remedy: Provide clear feedback to help the employee understand the problem.

Denies

Refuses to acknowledge the problem, even when confronted.

Possible Remedy: Address the problematic behavior directly, leaving little room for misinterpretation.

A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2018 edition of Education Week as How Principals Can Banish Toxic Adult Behavior From Their Schools

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