In my many years as an educator, I’ve come to recognise that we have some really archaic practices that we need to throw away because they help no one; there are a lot of practices that really make people disengage, and this is especially true with regards to professional development (PD).

So, as a fellow educator and as a person who has spent a lot of time collaborating and working with various friends on a number of professional projects online, I’d like to offer you a suggestion: Stop making people do group work in an environment where they are not aware it will happen.

Now, I’m not talking about separating people into forums of smaller groups to discuss issues and structures and actually create a smaller conversation that is, honestly, much more inviting and engaging. I am talking about forcing people to collaborate on a genuine project that, overwhelmingly, will mean nothing to us other than “Wow, this was a waste of my time. Glad I got that piece of paper to show I’ve put in some PD hours, even if it was worthless.”

When I sign up for an online PD, I’m expecting that it will cater to my needs as an individual taking a distance course; I won’t get matched up with people who aren’t even in my time zone, and I won’t be forced to rely on other people who have other life commitments (which, by the way, we can’t get rid of because it could be things like work or family or previous commitments that we made thinking we’d be studying for your PD a few hours a week) in order to complete the tasks. I’m free to complete the requirements within the deadlines while still at my leisure.

I don’t expect to have to, on short-notice, figure out how to do a full-fledged project with three other people scattered across the globe; I don’t expect to have to try to figure out how I’m supposed to quickly communicate with people on a collaborative research project outside of the PD forums (because sometimes PD is on really inconvenient platforms that literally have no group functionalities). I don’t expect to be made partially responsible for the work of others and whether or not they are capable of completing the assignment, something that can be hindered by a range of different issues other than our actual lives (lack of computer skills, disrupted internet, glitches in the online service).

The only thing I feel about these “group projects” is frustration and negativity. You’ve thrown us together without any advanced notice (not even in the first week so we could get ourselves organised, which you shouldn’t do as a teacher). Many of you fail entirely to consider time zones, regardless of where you exist. How do you expect people to feel less annoyed about doing this work when you’ve stuck them in a group without consideration for ability to communicate on short-notice, which is a key element of working collaboratively?

As someone living in Europe, it doesn’t make sense for me to work with someone in the US on such a minor project. Schools have started back up and people sleep. For hours of my day, I’m at work doing my job as a teacher; I come home, and I try my best to get through my online PD, to continue planning for my classes, to spend time with my partner, to take a break from work and relax (as I should be able to). When I go to sleep, they’re working. Our schedules, especially during the school year, are not compatible in the slightest; they are even less compatible when you don’t forewarn us about what we’re to do.

When I undertake collaboration with any of my friends, generally to work with them as a researcher and occasional script writer/editor for their podcasts or video essays, I make sure we have a planned schedule. We start looking at our lives weeks before we agree to do it; we make sure we know how busy we’ll be, how much time we can devote to the project, what issues might arise, and so on. We don’t just up and decide to do it without a plan and creating contingency plans for moments where something comes up. We figure out a deadline that, if we must, can move and what we can do if we don’t make it. There’s a reason for this.

It makes us miserable if we don’t. It frustrates us. It makes working together infuriating and impossible, even if we can work together under other circumstances. We start to feel like whoever is involved is unreliable, and we start viewing things negatively. We’re soured from that experience, and we start seeing things as useless, worthless, pointless. We see all the missed opportunities for growth and learning, even if that isn’t the immediate goal; we see how horrible the project that we create is, and we might decide to never show it (continuing that feeling of something being worthless).

So unless you want to plan these out in advance and communicate them to the participants, stop. You’re making it worse. It’s a box to tick and nothing more; people are doing something because they have to and getting nothing out of it.

And maybe that’s what the company wants, whatever. That’s capitalism for you. But maybe, just maybe, help make these box-ticking exercises more bearable for the people who are required to do them just to keep their jobs if you run them. Plan something earlier, let people know that a group project is part of the course, give people information and guidance.

Maybe pay a little attention to your environment. And adapt for it. Because if you’re an educator who can’t (or refuses to) adapt to the environment? And you’re teaching or mentoring other educators? You’re doing everyone a disservice.

Especially the students, even indirectly.

So stop burning us out and start planning better. Everyone’ll be happier, you’ll get your better reviews, and people will feel more knowledgeable on that aspect they spent time learning.

Signed,

An Incredibly Exhausted Educator

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.

Sometimes I wish that people were better at taking or giving criticism or recognising suggestions rather than associating them with insults and automatically taking a defensive position. It creates a hostile work environment that decreases motivation, especially when you’re constantly given the same handful of responses: Having it thrown back in your face and placing the blame back on you, as if you’re the problem. Being told to be patient and wait because it’ll get better after ‘new blood’ is injected into the environment… eight months later.

Perhaps it’s the culture many of us have grown up in, where it’s difficult to receive genuine criticism on your policies and actions without a so-called feminist icon being misogynist and saying you need to get rid of your ill-fitting jackets and that you have a ‘big arse‘ (immediately after claiming you’re good at your job, somehow missing the fact that they just negated any compliment prior) and then defending why they said you have a fat arse instead of apologising for their comments. Add to it that women, people of colour, and many openly and out queer people are often the people who receive most unsolicited advice from people who haven’t quite listened to the problem or the actual concerns of the person, and the people who provide the advice act as if everything they’re saying is novel and has never been considered before.

Before I have to fend off the #NotAllSomething crowd, cisgendered men love giving unsolicited advice to everyone else. Straight people definitely enjoy telling queer people how to exist. White people, we love expressing how people of colour should do a thing (presumably to make us comfortable). Able-bodied people love telling physically disabled people how to do a thing, while people without mental illnesses or learning disabilities pretend they’re really good at knowing how people with mental illnesses or learning disabilities should function or conform. We all give unsolicited advice, but some people give it out a lot more without having the lived experience to even give solicited advice to people from specific demographics.

For example: I’m a cisgendered queer/bisexual woman who lives with ADHD and dyslexia; I’ve been diagnosed as having high anxiety (especially social anxiety) and depression. I’ve also been fat for most of my life. I do not need men to tell me what to do ‘as a woman’, and I do not need straight people to explain to me how to ‘express my queerness’. People without ADHD, dyslexia, anxiety, or depression do not need to tell me how to cope with these things (unless they are a trained profession with whom I’m working to address them, which makes it solicited advice). I do not need people to send me weight-loss regimens because if I want medical advice? I can go to a fucking doctor. As a cisgendered woman, I do not get to pester any trans women, trans men, non-binary, gender-fluid people with advice on how to exist.

Unfortunately, because so many of us deal with constant unsolicited advice because of having a perceived deficiency, sometimes it’s harder for us to actually recognise what we’re getting as a relevant suggestion (such as the ever-constant ‘how can we make the work place more inviting’) or useful criticism (including classics like ‘if you are going to make a big deal out of student privacy, it would also be nice if you practised privacy for your staff’). But we do need to figure out how to decipher the useful criticism and functional suggestions from the garbage we get elsewhere.

In a work environment, however, it is an absolutely vital skill to have. It is also easier to figure out what is actual criticism (‘she needs to focus more on building a cohesive staff because cliques are becoming an issue and having negative impacts’) and what is useless drivel that needs to go find a hole and bury itself (‘it would be nice if she would smile more’). As a person in a leadership role, if someone working for you lodges a complaint that they feel undervalued and neglected by the staff, it is worth considering why they feel that way and examining those reasons. Instead of immediately telling them to ‘be patient’ and ‘deal with it’, instead of explicitly stating that ‘new people will make things better next year’, instead of blaming them for ‘not involving themselves more’ or ‘not participating in events’, it is far better to figure out the exact problems. Many people love focusing on the symptoms instead the cause.

As a teacher in an IB school, it’s highly ironic that I even have to suggest people reflect on their actions to figure out why others feel the way they do. (Credit: IBO / PDF)

Did that particular person try to volunteer for events but get pushed out because a clique made it difficult to have an opinion? Or did they actively stay away from them? If so, why? Were they volunteered for something without consideration for their current workload rather than given an option to participate or asked politely? If you observe meeting structures, do you hear people complaining about the specific work they do in a snarky and attacking manner and frequently without including them? Do you, as a manager, take the word of someone else and place blame on the other without even hearing their side of things? You might get a larger picture if you take a few minutes to reflect on these things.

In a leadership position, if you are hearing talk about ‘cliques or groups causing problems’, it is in your best interests to address it sooner rather than later. For employees who are negatively impacted (overlooked, excluded, or demotivated), it is not enough to simply tell them to ‘be patient and wait for new people to join next year’ or that ‘the schedule next year will fix it’. While the problem may not have an immediate resolution, seeing that you’re doing something will make people more willing to trust that you are trying to find better options. Even if we have to be patient for those Better Options to work, we are more likely to believe in them and to trust your decisions.

Do not do nothing or appear to do nothing; show us that you’re working on finding solutions, even if it’ll take time for them to work. Do not tell your negatively impacted employees to ‘try harder to join in’, especially when you also claim that you ‘see how the cliques are affecting the work environment’. Do not let the clique continue as they are, as it hasn’t been working and is making people more uncomfortable; you will lose employees, and that is a waste both in terms of loss of talent and in having to both find and train someone to fit the role again (while also trying to help them fit in with or reluctantly tolerate the clique environment). Do somethingAsk negatively affected people for their opinions firstTalk to cliques and split them up when scheduling duties.

Also, be straight-forward with your own criticisms of staff behaviour. Perhaps it’s the fact I’ve chosen to spend my career as a teacher or maybe it’s the fact that I’m a person who requires others to be more blunt than usual, but it is beyond exhausting to have to decipher half-messages about things that are going badly or what people did wrong. I hate it, students hate it. Honestly, I think most people hate having to try to figure out what’s wrong or what the problem even is. If you can’t directly explain why something is an issue, being a manager probably isn’t for you.

Once upon a time, I had a school manager who liked to overstep boundaries and, whether she intended to or not, undermine the authority of teachers on her staff. When she heard that two of my students took my keys while I was dealing with student drop-off, locked a third student in the classroom, and then hid my keys in a disused locker, she decided that she wanted to come talk to my students about how it was irresponsible. Ignoring the fact that I already dealt with this problem, as it was a classroom/behaviour management issue, frustrated me; I told her that I’d already dealt with it and would contact her should it happen a second time, but she still wanted to come up and talk about it with my students. For me, this showed that she did not trust in my ability as a teacher. After voicing my frustration, I shrugged, said whatever, and she came to my lesson to discuss the problem.

Except she didn’t. She gave them some vague speech about how you should respect other people’s property and that teachers needed some feeling of safety to leave their things on their desks and not have students touch them. She was so vague that my one native-speaking English student didn’t understand her at all. He literally stopped her and said, “Excuse me, I have no clue what you’re talking about. What happened?”

Even the three boys involved had no clue she was talking about them until I asked her to stop and explained to them, asking questions: “Something happened this morning where two people took and hid my keys. Do you remember this event? Could you explain it to me?” At that moment, they realised what it was that she was talking about. At no point did she directly reference the event that happened, at no point did she explicitly state what was an inappropriate and irresponsible action. Had I not intervened — which, by the way, decreased her level of authority in the eyes of my students — they would not have understood what the problem was and why it was inappropriate behaviour.

When I hear this kind of discussion from managers with adult staff members, it infuriates me. If you have adults on your team who refuse to acknowledge their behaviour is hurting others, they are the people you need to focus on. You need to call them out for it, either directly and personally or by calling out the behaviour, because they need to recognise that the person in a leadership position sees how they’re acting and what it is doing to others. You can’t just say things like ‘I see how some groups are affecting staff morale’ or ‘some people have said I’m playing favourites with the duty rota’. Directly address the issues. And do it in a way that puts your staff down, saying ‘Person A can only do this because they can’t teach science’ or ‘Person B can only teach music’. It makes it sound like we have no other useful skills and are just being under-utilised because we’re useless (which isn’t true at all).

And by the way, don’t get defensive. Please.

Being a good manager is difficult, but it’s not difficult because the job is inately hard; it’s difficult because the skills required are not inate to many people, and they have to work hard to have them. This is particular to three skills, in my experience.

The first is developing genuine communication skills. The second is developing inclusive environments. The third is showing adequate appreciation for everyone‘s work, effort, and time. (And yes, the third could probably be included in genuine communication, but it’s a particularly specific issue that is often neglected.)

Note: As I am a teacher and am currently focused in secondary education, that’s the perspective I’m writing this from.

In the 15 years that I’ve been working various jobs in different industries, ranging from the Ponderosa Steakhouse that’s been closed in my hometown for years to two family-owned farming businesses (including one belonging to my grandparents) to teaching in a variety of schools internationally, I have yet to work for a single manager who either already had these skills or even bothered to work on having them. As a result, I constantly work with people who are miserable and unhappy. If they’re not that far gone, they are intensely frustrated with management while simultaneously loving their job (which, upon reflection, I think only applies to those in my current field — education).

The people who become managers (or are hired to be managers) often forget that, while they are responsible for making decisions and ‘being in charge’, the employees they manage are other humans. As a result of working with humans, these humans have needs and often engage in situations that may require mediation of some sort. Instead, some managers act as if they are working with robots who will just tolerate the decisions being made without complaint. Even if this isn’t the belief they openly hold or genuinely adhere to, they still often internalise the kind of management that has been failing everywhere else and making great managers so rare. And these people, whether they admit it or not, are a huge factor in employee engagement and retention.

Humans, for better or worse, often have issues with other humans. Part of a manager’s role is to help mitigate and mediate these, often working on ways to prevent it from happening in the first place. If any employees have made it known that they are feeling left out of decisions and excluded from projects by other staff, it is the manager’s responsibility to find out how to rectify this problem.

There are a number of questions to ask when doing this: When did it start? What allowed for these rifts and divisions to exist? Were there signs of this happening? If so, what were they? What steps can we take to fix this problem? How can we better encourage and teamwork among our staff and promote the inclusion of everyone? (This last point is particularly important for educational institutions, which often claim they want ‘collaborative teaching’ but rarely do much to enable it.)

Humans are not robots, and they often have other responsibilities beyond work. As much as I wish I were Data, the unfortunate fact is that being human means I have my limits.

Say there is a project in a school that is incredibly time-consuming and requires a lot of data input of 400 items, and one employee has volunteered to completely set it up and work on it in their free time (meaning non-teaching and non-planning hours). As the manager, you recognise that it is a large undertaking; however, you don’t know all the intricacies of the task, as you delegated it to this employee. You ask the employee to complete it within 20 hours spread over two weeks.

The employee, however, responds with concerns. First, their access to required resources is blocked by another employee. When they run out of materials, they have to then wait on someone else to grant them access to more. Sometimes this takes hours, other times it takes days. Second, they state that it is nearly impossible to do in that timeframe because they have to manually input all the data for each item; they tell you that the average time for one item is 15 minutes. If they have to manually input the data for all 400 items, that’s 100 hours, and that’s also assuming that they won’t have to restart computers and never take a break for anything at all. They request additional hours (paid overtime) or a decrease in other required functions; they also state that, for every time they are required to take additional hours (events, duties, or substitutions), they need to given additional time to complete the task.

As a manager, what do you do?

Do you argue with the employee and get defensive over the decision you made? Hopefully, not. If you do, you’re only going to make them distrust you. In all likelihood, they’re going to disengage with work and tell you “Yeah, sure” and do whatever work they feel like at that moment. The other alternative is that they try their best to meet the expectations and become over-stressed for fear they might lose their job. You might even get a combination of the two. Either way, they feel insulted, like you’re not listening to them, and that you don’t care.

This is, as a whole, a poor form of communication.

So do you stop to listen to the employee and recognise that they might have more expertise on the project than you do, as they are the one responsible for setting it up? I hope so. If you do this, you’re spending time asking questions and trying to better understand the project. You’re showing that you’re willing to understand why it’s taking so long, what work is involved, and why so much of it has to be done manually. If you do this, you’re far more likely to be open to discussion and compromising with this employee; you’re also able to properly express why it needs to be completed. As a result, the employee is going to feel like you care about them and are willing to be flexible enough to help them finish the task.

Managers actually have to set guidelines and communicate information effectively. Recently, I watched some teachers put together an absolutely fantastic event for school. They put a lot of work and time into putting it together, but they kept hitting obstacles and roadblocks from management regarding different elements. But why?

Because management did two things: One, they kept changing their mind on how to handle certain aspects of the event right up until the very last minute. Two, the teachers had provided a full range of ideas for what they wanted to do through meeting minutes, but management did not disseminate relevant informations (policies, laws, guidelines) and did not address what the teachers had already submitted. In short, management was so scarcely involved that when they finally did or said something, it frustrated the people who were putting in hours to make sure a school event went smoothly.

It’s obvious what should have been done here: Management should’ve been far more interested in what was happening, rather than waiting until that final second. They should have provided guidelines for activities the teachers wanted to do, rather than suddenly hit them with “We can’t do this because of reasons” a mere 24 hours before. If management had been more engaged in the planning process, the levels of frustration would’ve been so much lower.

Managers are responsible for hiring decisions, which also means that they’re responsible for appropriate training of employees. A lot of jobs hire people who aren’t perfectly qualified; that’s normal. For teachers, sometimes there are systems that they have to learn (curriculum, online gradebooks, school-wide classroom technology programs) as they work.

However, it is not the job of other employees to train their fellow employees on these systems. We do it both out of kindness and necessity, but it is not our job. Ensuring everyone is up-to-date on skills is the manager’s job, and it is also their job to ensure that training is available.

Now, if you delegate this training to an employee who is capable, you need to create a structure to do so. In a collaborative school environment, this could be having each teacher (or a pair of teachers) do a training day on an app or a specific teaching technique. You could also create mentorship programs within the school, pairing teachers who lack certain skills to those who have them. Some schools my friends work in have mentor programs where veteran teachers are paired with new teachers to help them get acquainted with the profession, the school, and classroom management; this is done on a rotational basis per year, so people don’t feel overburdened or used.

But you also need to acknowledge the time these employees give up to be trainers or mentors. You can do this by decreasing duties elsewhere (recess duties) or providing a ‘mentor bonus’. In applicable schools, my friends’ mentors would have received an additional bonus to their salary for doing this. However, because they were required to on a rotational basis, the salary was not the only reason they became mentors; it just ensured that they made time for it. (And mentees who felt their mentors were not engaging with them could talk to management about it.)

All of these scenarios involve one or more of the three skills that managers should have. There are so many ways to try to develop inclusive, communicative environments where people value the work of others. It shouldn’t be so hard to do this, but so many people focus on the so-called traditional management methods that they neglect to find that many of them don’t work and negatively impact everyone involved. And it seems that it’s largely due to the fact that our managers aren’t even trained to manage people, which is a whole other problem.