When Your Colleague is a Curmudgeon

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Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/kSDb2
Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/kSDb2

Most of my friends are educators: teachers, administrators, and service providers like me. I spend most week days facilitating professional learning throughout my region. Groups change, the work is complex and varied, and every day is much like a job interview.

Last week alone, I taught five different lessons in elementary and middle school classrooms while a small team of teachers, their building administrators, and two different superintendents observed me. No pressure there, right?

Still, I wouldn’t give this work up for the world. I spend every day learning about things that excite me. In twelve years, I’ve never been bored. I’ve rarely confronted unkind audiences either, and when I do, someone always steps forward to soften the experience for me. These peacekeepers may not agree with my perspective, but they can’t support their colleagues’ bad behavior either.

It saddens me when their willingness to show me a bit of compassion compromises their relationships with other staff members they care about. Sometimes, we love our colleagues but we hate their behavior. How do we handle this?

As a young and very new teacher, I was once teamed up with a colleague who was adored by administrators, parents, and kids alike but whose practices undermined agreements that our team reached through consensus. Those practices made this teacher increasingly popular. They also portrayed the rest of us in a less than ideal light. Many were angry, but I was the one who shot off my mouth. I was kind but clear: what this teacher did was disrespectful. It was dishonest. It was selfish. And I was incensed.

Needless to say, this teacher never trusted me again. More important, my honesty didn’t serve anyone well. This teacher’s practice never changed, and my team remained frustrated.

Last week, I read an article written by a mother whose apartment was destroyed when the elderly neighbor living below her fell asleep smoking a cigarette. Prior to this tragic event, the mother approached the neighbor countless times to let her know that her cigarette smoke was winding its way through the building air ducts and filling her son’s bedroom each evening. He had asthma. It wasn’t pretty.

When confronted, the neighbor tried to cooperate. She blocked the vents in her apartment. She began smoking in a different room. When these interventions proved worthless, tensions rose. Then, something unexpected happened: the smoke disappeared. Upon investigation, the mother learned that her elderly woman was moved to an assisted living facility. The rest of the building was unaware of when she left. They were also unaware of her return, as she made it without fanfare and without her cigarettes. The smoke was the only indication of her existence in that building. One evening, a relative dropped by to visit her, leaving a parting gift: a pack of cigarettes. The elderly woman lit up for the first time in many months and then promptly fell asleep. The building went up in smoke.

In the retelling, the mother who wrote the article shared a powerful reflection with her readers: if she had spent less energy battling the woman’s behavior and more energy establishing a friendship with her, she might have prevented disaster. She might have known that the elderly woman was released from assisted living and returned to her home. She would have been sensitive to the changes in her health and connected with those who were checking in on her. She might have taken time to check in on her herself. A bit of compassion and genuine concern for her neighbor may have prevented the fire.

I find myself thinking of this often this week, as I go to work each day with teams of teachers and administrators. I’m acquainted with few curmudgeons, but those that I know well are often surrounded by friends. And those friends often apologize for their behavior. They don’t apologize for the person, though. They often speak highly of their other qualities and reveal great gratitude for their friendship.

Sometimes, I long for a fantasy world where everyone is agreeable, invested, and eager to pursue the outcomes we’ve agreed upon together. There’s something to be said for a world where people put their relationships with one another ahead of their expectations, though. There’s something to be said for showing compassion to everyone we know, even when we disagree with them. Even when they stall our progress. Even if embarrasses us a bit. Even if he or she is a curmudgeon!

What do you think?

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.

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