It has recently come to my attention – by which I mean, has annoyingly re-entered my consciousness for the umpteenth time and reminded me how absurd everything is – that our workplaces are not nearly as accepting of people who have personalities that are seen as “less appealing.” And ridiculously, this happens way too much in my field of work: education.

At first glance, it might seem that I mean we should be defending people who have a “difference of opinion” when it comes to talking about people of different races, cultures, religions, genders, etc., but I’m not. Those people are typically the bigots who, honestly, either need to learn that you cannot have opinions on whether or not someone is human or go away or be fired.

What I’m talking about is the continued hyper-focus on characteristics that are particular to extroversion, the lack of consideration for individuals with social anxieties and any range of mental illnesses, the lack of inclusion of people who have hidden disabilities and learning disorders, and the perpetual myth that we are inherently responsible for “feeling excluded” because we “haven’t tried hard enough.”

In a conversation with another colleague, I was made aware that my exclusion from the team was the result of things that were largely my fault and that “people who do not know me should not be expected to include me.”

In this discussion, she stated that I:

  • did not actively make attempts to engage groups of people;

  • did not appear noticeably interested or engaged with conversations or things that people would talk about;

  • did not take the initiative to attend after-hours get-togethers that were planned by other teachers and posted in a group on WhatsApp;

  • did not actively seek out a particular teacher who may have been helpful for a particular situation.

For the record, all of this was said to me by a teacher. I find that disheartening, especially since we’re supposed to be in the profession of teaching our students inclusion, but our own staff can’t even do it on a superficial level.

Anyway, all of these are things that I can see, from another perspective or entirely in a vacuum, as being true to an extent. They are also things that have correlating responses that were never considered at any point in our time working together. Here are responses that I had in general terms:

  • Did that group of people ever think to actively engage the individual people who felt excluded in any way? If not, why?

  • Did they consider that someone could be uncomfortable with spontaneously approaching a group of people? If not, why?

  • Were they aware of how social anxiety can negatively impact the way a person thinks or perceives group dynamics? If not, why?

  • Did their body language show that they were willing to include someone? Or did it show that they were happier building walls and discouraging others from engaging with them?

  • Were they aware that language learners needed context and that conducting conversations entirely in a language other than the common language of the workplace would require more work, such as providing context (which promotes learning of the other language)? If not, why? [Example: In an international school where the common language is English but the local language is Italian, not all teachers will be immediately fluent in the local language and will require context clues to be included.]

  • If groups on WhatsApp were created to plan after-hours get-togethers, did you ensure that all teachers were included within a reasonable time (days, not months)? If not, why?

  • Were the get-togethers diverse in interest? Or were they all the same activities, meaning that people who don’t feel comfortable in those environments for any reason are still excluded? [Example: If you constantly are planning things for bars where drinking is happening, you’re going to alienate non-drinkers, anyone who is uncomfortable with drinking, or recovering addicts.]

  • Did they ever make attempts to check-in on people at any point throughout the year? If not, why?

  • When asked for assistance by the ‘excluded individuals’ (who were simultaneously told to ‘seek out relevant people’ and made attempts to do so), did they actively make attempts to help them in any way at all? If not, why?

Now, in a work environment, I do not consider it the responsibility of the staff to take charge of building the community. I do consider it their responsibility to ensure that they are supporting and perpetuating systems that actively encourage inclusion, but it is by no means their responsibility to ensure that ‘team-building’ happens.

I consider that to be the responsibility of management. That isn’t to say that management needs to monitor and develop my friendships with my colleagues, but they need to provide numerous opportunities to ensure that every member on the staff feels at least somewhat comfortable with the others. This could be through optional weekend excursions to somewhere relevant (and, as a teacher, almost everywhere is relevant to my job); it could be through having two or three teachers with particular skills work together on developing a workshop for the others, showcasing another way of doing something. They could also ensure that the programs we develop for our performance days are more diverse and showcase multiple talents instead of opting toward the same few skills: children who are singing and dancing while a teacher hosts; this would get a range of volunteers for different activities instead of the same two or three people.

There are so many ways to foster a community that initially start entirely with management modelling them and also providing the funding to do them. As teachers in my high-priced tuition school, we develop residential trips so that the students create connections with each other. Why don’t we do that together? Why aren’t we modelling what we claim to (and in the case of some, actually do) teach our students? If you’re creating an environment that involves showing how to act instead of telling how to act, our issues decrease significant (both in terms of staff interactions and student behaviour).

Instead, my current management opted for this so-called ‘natural team-building’, which really was the development of friendship groups that turned into cliques. I do not consider having friends at work to be detrimental; in fact, having friends at work is frequently shown as being helpful (as long as they don’t stress us out). The problem with this form of ‘natural team-building’ is that, while some people were able to gravitate toward others who they were more likely to feel comfortable with, it left a few people in a position where they were seeking out others for survival; they were seeking out spaces that would allow them to work together and feel even a modicum of comfort. In short, ‘natural team-building’ in an artificially created environment doesn’t exist at all. It’s a cop-out for doing nothing, for being lazy, for not managing anything.

That isn’t to say that those friendships that were forged starting in survival rather than choice are bad; those friendships can be equally as strong (and maybe stronger, due to shared frustrations). Maybe these people actually end up with others who they’d have originally gravitated toward in the first place, or they learn to like and stick up for each other.

However, the entire structure only highlighted the lack of cohesion and the extreme division between the groups. Who can they trust? Probably those in their immediate circle. Can they trust the people who they perceive as excluding them? Maybe, but they’re not sure so they feel really insecure in their position and with their colleagues. How do they figure out who can be trusted? Perhaps they choose not to trust anyone and keep to themselves, or they go full-on and try to trust people in the other groups (getting mixed results), or they play games and feed information to one person to see where it ends up.

None of these are healthy for a workplace, especially if that workplace is a school. And they’re all so easy to deal with.

But only if you have the structures in place to do so.

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