Nurture Relationships to Deal With “Difficult” Personalities

Keep teachers informed and involved—even if you have a few squeaky wheels.

Being the middlemen (and women) between building leadership and the teaching staff, APs can influence a school’s workplace culture, says “The Role of Assistant Principals: Evidence and Insights for Advancing School Leadership,” a 2021 research review commissioned by The Wallace Foundation. And a school’s culture has a significant impact on its improvement initiatives, teacher recruitment and retention, and student success.

APs must continually nurture relationships and foster collaboration with and among staff while advancing broad school goals. The objective is to build a positive, one-for-all/all-for-one culture that helps staff thrive and optimizes student learning. But how can APs do that while dealing with dissatisfaction or coping with “difficult” personalities?

“Creating a collaborative team spirit is essential for the school to be effective in reaching students and attaining goals,” says Mary Kate Diltz, assistant principal of Madison Avenue Upper Elementary in Madison, Mississippi. “As the AP, it’s my responsibility to be a jack of all trades and wear many hats, with a positive attitude to help build team spirit.”

Find the source of dissatisfaction. Teaching isn’t easy. Now more than ever, teachers tend to be overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. Job satisfaction has fallen 15 percent since 2009, according to a MetLife survey conducted in March, from 59 percent to 44 percent of teachers responding they are “very satisfied” with their jobs. And APs are often in the best position to figure out what the issues are, how severe they are, and how to address them.

Common sources of teacher dissatisfaction include:

  • Increased class sizes and workloads.
  • Decreased autonomy and decision-​making.
  • Time constraints and scheduling.
  • Changes in policies and procedures.

Explain the change. Any substantive change in a school can garner pushback. But generally speaking, the more informed and involved the staff is, the more willing they will be to help install and support a new practice, procedure, or curriculum.

When COVID-19 suddenly forced teachers at Carolyn Lewis Elementary in Conway, Arkansas, to teach virtually in spring 2020, for example, “that was a change teachers didn’t like,” principal Carise Echols says. She conducts global SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) assessments with staff to examine school priorities openly and honestly.

To get teachers on board:

  • Communicate consistently and honestly.
  • Involve teachers in discussion and decision-making when appropriate.
  • Respect their time and input.

“Administrators make decisions based on what’s best for everyone,” Diltz says. “This requires a 10,000-foot view. Taking the time to explain why changes were made and the areas of concern that were addressed help the teachers see things from our perspective.”

Build the team spirit. You can’t put the “we” in “team” without getting to know one another. To build relationships among the staff, Carolyn Lewis Elementary launched a Staff Fun Committee to plan outings teachers could enjoy together. (Bowling ensued.) The school also celebrates teachers by giving social media shoutouts such as naming a Teacher of the Month.

Madison Avenue Upper Elementary has a culture committee to facilitate out-of-school get-togethers where teachers spend time with each other, “laughing and learning.” And Tia Jones, assistant principal at Catawba Trail Elementary School in Elgin, South Carolina, built a half-day into the master schedule every nine weeks to provide teachers with time for collaboration and conversation.

Here are some ideas to get everyone to interact:

  • Use informal personality tests to help others learn more about each other.
  • Serve up food and fellowship (staff celebrations, potlucks, outings, etc.).
  • Conduct team-building activities as part of professional development.
  • Encourage camaraderie through play (challenges, games, activities).

Show an interest and lend a hand. Knowing staffers on a personal level opens the door to a constructive relationship. Try to find out what their family life is like, what some of their hobbies might be, their favorite kind of candy, where they go on vacation, and other information. Taking an interest in a person is a surefire way to get them to help you help each other.

“Being present, positive, and purposeful allows me to engage my staff to meet their needs in an environment that’s safe and productive,” Jones says. “Once you have a pulse on all stakeholders, you are better able to listen to their needs and identify the strengths of the faculty and staff.”

A few ways APs can support the team every day:

  • Offer to help, whether that means watching a class or making copies.
  • Celebrate teachers and acknowledge the great work they are doing in classrooms.
  • Support teachers in difficult situations, such as talking to an angry parent.

Keep conversations constructive. Relationships might be ready-made when an AP comes up from the teaching staff. But the AP needs to be careful how they approach their former fellow teachers, because those colleagues might be quick to bend their ears. Regardless of the longevity or nature of the relationship, the AP needs to be a strong listener but should “shut things down” when criticism goes too far to be constructive, Echols says.

APs will deal with “characteristically” difficult people in schools, said Stephanie Johnson and Diane Watkins in “Help! I Didn’t Pick These People!” a session presented at NAESP’s Pre-K–8 Principals Conference in June. They advise having a clear strategy to deal with them that involves planned, courageous conversations.

One good way to handle difficult personalities is to make difficult conversations private and privileged. You can go to your principal to strategize if necessary, but “talking out of school” while in school will only undermine efforts to build staff trust, Jones says.

A few ways to frame conversations with difficult people:

  • Choose a nonemotional response to interactions that are primed for conflict.
  • Do not engage in debates or he-said/she-said; agree
    to disagree.
  • Remind teachers of the importance of student safety
    and learning.

And five don’ts to observe:

Don’t “stir the pot.”

  1. Don’t take sides.
  2. Don’t avoid a situation.
  3. Don’t avoid discussions.
  4. Don’t argue.

Follow these tips, and you can build a familial yet accountable culture of collaboration that might help your school reach the ultimate goal: collective efficacy. Jones sums it up with a quote from teacher advocate Robert John Meehan, which is equally valid when APs are included in the mix: “The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration, our growth is limited to our own perspectives.”

Ian P. Murphy is senior editor of Principal magazine.