School & District Management Commentary

Professional Jealousy in the Central Office

By Joseph Sanacore — September 18, 1996 9 min read

By definition, jealousy represents a variety of meanings. Some of them are provided in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, and they include “fearful or wary of being supplanted; apprehensive of loss of position or affection; resentful or bitter in rivalry; envious; possessively watchful; concerning or arising from feelings of envy, apprehension, or bitterness; intolerant of disloyalty or infidelity; autocratic.”

Dictionary definitions, of course, are isolated and can reflect meaning only when applied to a context. In the school environment, professional jealousy is difficult to observe and almost impossible to substantiate because its motives, causes, and effects are revealed in subtle ways. Common sense, however, indicates that such behavior is destructive to the human condition and to the school setting because it hurts individuals and lessens their productivity. These negative outcomes should encourage researchers to probe all aspects of professional jealousy so that individuals who possess much of this undesirable trait are identified and prevented from being placed in leadership positions that affect the total school system.

Allow me to show a few examples of how district-office administrators practice professional jealousy:

  • In one district, a department supervisor was an avid reader of professional literature and also wrote many articles for educational journals. Upon publication, he would often duplicate his articles and distribute them to teachers, administrators, and board of education members. He also attached to these articles a cover letter highlighting their main points and suggesting ways to implement them. One day, his superintendent suddenly sent a written directive to him indicating that he must not distribute such materials without prior approval. The directive further indicated that the superintendent was in the best position to determine if the articles should be released, condensed, or withheld. At a subsequent meeting, the superintendent told the supervisor that he was too intellectual for a practitioner’s role and that he probably should pursue a university position. Teachers and principals who worked directly with the supervisor, however, expressed a different point of view. They agreed emphatically that he was a “solid” practitioner who was caring, up to date, and highly competent.

  • In another district, a superintendent who had not earned a doctorate discovered that one of his assistant superintendents was pursuing a doctoral degree at Nova Southeastern University. Although Nova is an accredited school in Florida, it offers a nontraditional approach to earning doctorates in education. Under the pretense of being concerned about standards, the superintendent criticized his assistant superintendent at a school board meeting and recommended that he be placed on a yearly probation. The board accepted the superintendent’s recommendation.
  • In my third example, two assistant superintendents from the same school system had a falling out. At first, no one seemed to know the cause of the problem. As time passed, however, the problem intensified. In fact, one assistant superintendent spread innuendoes about the other and, with the support of the superintendent and several board members, was able to force the other individual to resign. Those close to the situation revealed that the assistant superintendent who spread innuendoes was envious of the other administrator’s ability to send her children to Ivy League universities.
  • In another system, a well-respected high school principal was considered to be aspiring to a central-office position. Since this individual possessed outstanding credentials, the central-office staff perceived her as a threat. Consequently, the superintendent and his assistant devised a number of strategies to lessen the principal’s credibility. They spread rumors about her during closed board sessions. They eliminated her assistant principal, thereby reducing a needed resource for maintaining organization and discipline in the building. They also took the credit when assessment results improved, and they criticized the principal when certain performance outcomes decreased. Over a period of time, this hard-working, competent principal showed signs of weakening, which the central-office staff overtly interpreted as burnout.
  • In my final and probably most petty example of professional jealousy, a superintendent was “uncomfortable” with his school stationery, which listed his name along with those of other administrators and supervisors. Since he did not have a doctorate, as did the majority of his colleagues, he decided to restructure the names appearing on new school writing materials. This change included separate stationery with his name only and additional stationery for the other educational leaders, most of whom had earned Ed.D.s and Ph.D.s.
  • These and other examples are difficult to verify, but one can make appropriate inferences about them by cross-referencing reliable sources and by having pertinent discussions with these sources. Not surprisingly, I have discovered in my work that many of the individuals who were victims of professional jealousy found themselves reacting adversely to the pressure; for example, they began to CYT (cover your tail) by documenting in writing almost everything they did. Unnecessary energy was therefore directed toward defensive efforts, rather than toward productive outcomes.

    At times, I am disappointed and embarrassed at being part of a profession that allows such behavior to prevail. Knowing that jealousy exists in all types and levels of employment and realizing that it is ingrained in the human condition do not lessen my abhorrence of its use in hurting people. Certainly, self-control is part of one’s unwritten job description and personality development. Yet, regrettably, I am aware of so much jealousy in the higher levels of the educational bureaucracy that I have become convinced that those who enjoy being clever in a political sense usually are lacking in substance. Put another way, people who use excessive time and energy being shrewd and devious seem to be unable (or unwilling) to critically analyze and competently implement important ideas.

    This separation of politics and substance suggests a potentially dangerous overgeneralization, but I sense it comes close to identifying those characteristics that distinguish the clever, insecure manipulator from the profound, thinking leader.

    Knowing these characteristics, in turn, gives us a means of doing something about the problem. Although we never will eliminate professional jealousy entirely in the educational bureaucracy, we can lessen its impact on the school setting. From experience, I have found that people who demonstrate real knowledge of their fields and who enjoy growing professionally with their colleagues are less likely to waste time in jealousy-inspired plotting. Hiring such knowledgeable leaders who will focus their energy on improving instructional programs is the key, then, to combatting professional jealousy. Here are suggestions for doing that at the district-office level:

    • Form a planning team consisting of a content-area supervisor, a building principal,a central-office administrator, a school board member, teachers, and parents. By including a variety of perspectives, you can lessen the incidence of nepotism while increasing the potential for substance.
  • Carefully review resumes and select only candidates who appear to have an exceptional background in graduate courses, curriculum development, program innovation, and problem-solving.
  • Interview these potentially outstanding candidates and ask them probing questions that relate to in-depth problem-solving. They should be able to demonstrate experience with developing short-term and long-term goals in such areas as establishing appropriate expectations, selecting instructional resources, organizing flexible intraclass grouping strategies, using classroom methodologies, and supporting authentic assessment techniques. They also should be capable of applying insights gained from journal articles and other professional readings.
  • Unfortunately, even people of substance can sometimes demonstrate jealousy. A candidate might emphasize his or her role in implementing innovations, for example, while never mentioning the support of others. This narrow perspective could not only imply insecurity--one aspect of jealousy--but also suggest inadequate approaches to sustaining innovations. New ideas have a better chance of lasting when a number of colleagues and community members work cooperatively to implement them. This cooperative approach supports the link between ownership and sustenance of innovations, and is a factor that should be sought during the interview process.

  • Visit the school systems in which candidates are currently employed and observe their accomplishments firsthand. If someone is serving as an administrator, the planning team might randomly select colleagues and students to ask about the administrator’s efforts in dealing with people, including any behavior suggesting professional jealously. The team also should explore the record of specific cooperative endeavors the candidate has been a part of, such as staff-development efforts and updated curriculum development. Check the agendas and summaries of meetings, as well as his or her evaluations of colleagues’ performance (with names obliterated to assure confidentiality). Visiting a candidate’s current place of employment is vital because what appears on a r‚sum‚ and during an interview may not match the actual accomplishments of the candidate.
  • each other’s perceptions of the candidates. Since professional jealousy is difficult to confirm, team members should compare their observations and notes. For example, during the school visits, did they hear consistently negative comments (revealing aspects of professional jealousy) directed toward any of the candidates? Did these same individuals also demonstrate few cooperative accomplishments? If so, the planning team would be wise to give these candidates a low rating.

  • After this thorough vetting, send only the best candidates to the board for final consideration. These recommendations could easily be criticized for reflecting simplistic solutions to a complex problem and for implying that only central-office administrators are jealousy-driven. All levels of education share the multidimensional human condition, with its changing motives and hidden agendas. But while not a panacea, this focus on sound personnel decisions is one aimed at increasing the chances of enriching school districts with positive leadership models who are well-accomplished, have high self-esteem, and are not concerned with the shallow matters that give rise to professional jealousy.
  • A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 1996 edition of Education Week as Professional Jealousy in the Central Office


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