Ten ways to survive, when your teaching team fails to work cooperatively

When a teaching team fails to work cooperatively, how do you survive the school year?

Teaching, as with any workplace, is filled with highs and lows, big personalities and uncooperative people that you must deal with on a daily basis. The following stories come from chats I've had with my fellow teaching friends. I felt this issue was rarely discussed among teachers and needed to be said.

When your team rocks!
When you work in a powerful team of teachers that are not only cooperative but are as excited about teaching as you are it can be an uplifting experience. Good teaching teams support and encourage each other. They share ideas openly and debrief, pick apart and dissect what worked and what didn't. It can be the most exciting time you can have as a teacher and one where you feel like you are growing and learning more than ever.

When your year level team sucks.
Have you been in a year level that is full of jaded teachers? Not only are they unwilling to share their ideas but they are reluctant to consider new ideas. In this team, new ideas are to be avoided at all costs. Information is not shared and fellow year level teachers rarely know what is going on - these golden nuggets of information are closely guarded by the Year Level Head who is often nowhere to be found. Everybody moans and hates their job. Everybody hates parents and the kids are frequently called 'dumb'. Moderation rarely happens and when it does you find out everybody approached the assessment differently and none of you have marked the same way. This is a poor functioning team but what can you do? Often you're not in a position to complain to the Principal and it is more than likely they already know what is going on (they see more than you realise). Does this scenario sound familiar?

What can YOU do?
Firstly, there is very little you can do within your team to change the dynamics. Sometimes it helps to find a co-worker you can share ideas with but sometimes the team environment is so toxic this only makes things worse. So you bunker down, close the door and stop trying to get involved. Regardless of how this impacts on your growth as a teacher, the main concern is how do you protect your mental health until your work situation changes?

Whilst pinning the other day (see my boards here), I stumbled upon this pin and as I read it I realised it could be used as a step by step guide to how to survive a toxic teaching environment. Let's take a look...


1. Don't give advice unless asked. This is brilliant advice but one I totally suck at so I'm still learning. I often fall into the trap of nodding and agreeing with a moaning co-worker then jumping in to give advice. Advice is seldom often asked for and when offered can appear preachy. Wait for your co-worker to ask for advice and then tell them you'll think it over and get back to them. This will stop your discussion appearing bitchy or gossipy in, what is already, a toxic work environment. 

2. Leave the room if you can't be quiet. Yep another one I'm really no good at but I'm learning to hold my tongue. When you come from a teaching team that is open to discussion and airing problems it can be confronting to move to a team where opinions are judged with high suspicion. One of my closest teaching pals is an expert at holding her tongue and I am trying to be more like her.

3. Focus on yourself and what you should be doing, not what they are doing wrong. They didn't teach the curriculum as agreed - let it go. They did a different assessment than the one discussed - let it go. Remember, you're in a toxic work environment and self-preservation is paramount. Concentrate on what you do and do it well. Leave karma (or admin) to catch up with lazy teachers. Which falls nicely to number four...

4. Let them experience their own choices. Chances are admin are fully aware of the lazy teacher, the poor Year Level Head or the bad group dynamics at your school. Principals see and hear everything, even if they don't tell you. Eventually admin will gather enough dirt on these teachers and either split the group by moving teachers to new year levels (or new schools!). Chances are you might move to a more productive team and get your teaching mojo on again. 

5. Stop focusing on their behaviour. When a team member appears reluctant to new ideas, won't share ideas or refuses to work as part of a team, remember the behaviour is often a consequence of other issues. Perhaps they used to share their work all the time before a fellow teacher took credit for their work? Perhaps they are having a terrible time at home and are feeling too low to be cooperative at work? Whatever their reasoning for their behaviour, recognise that there are factors beyond your control at play in their behaviour and don't take it personally. They probably have never seen a good teaching team in action before.

6. Remove the kids before it becomes unsafe. Okay this one didn't, at first, feel like it applied to team teaching but then I realised the way poor team teaching impacts on the students. Students, like all children caught between quarreling parents, see and hear EVERYTHING. They see the look you give another teacher (you know that eye-roll of 'they're at it again'). They hear the tone in your voice when you say "oh okay, nobody told me that was happening today!". It all impacts on their self-esteem like the child of a divorcing couple (Am I worthwhile?) and it all goes home to their parents (You'll never guess what teacher X said about teacher Y!). Whatever discussions develop, keep the students at the forefront of your mind and keep the fallout to a minimum for those in your class.

7. Don't nag them about their responsibilities. This one falls under the 'let it go' criteria again. They haven't run the assessment the same way - yep just let it go. See point 3, 4 and 5 above.

8. Only help when asked. Even in the bad team environment, where I keep my door closed to prevent the bad juju vibes entering my classroom, I will invariably hear a knock on the door at some point. Teachers, when desperate, will seek help and just use it as a chance to demonstrate to your fellow team member, the benefits of cooperative team teaching.

9. Compliment what they ARE doing well. This can feel like Mission Impossible but when the difficult team member actually does something well, don't hesitate to compliment them. They will be shocked at first, then suspicious (what is she really doing?) but they might, just might, repeat that good work again. You use positive reinforcement with your students, so why not try it on your teaching team? It might not improve their behaviour but it may just help you see some good in their work rather than just focusing on the bad.

10. Let yourself off the hook, it's not your problem! I really love this last one. At the end of the day, their behaviour, their teaching, their students are their problem. You can't control everything but you can control how you react to it so take a deep breath - gather your fabulous lesson plans and say "not my circus, not my monkeys" and focus on your own students.

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  1. Thank you for your insightful post and for the tips that I will reflect on :)

  2. Resignates a lot. If your not a teacher tou dont understand or get it. Thanks, following

  3. Super needed to read this one. I'm walking into a minefield. Thanks for the advice!