Most schools have a staff member or two (no more, we hope) who stand out for their negative attitudes. Allowed to fester, that attitude could infect other members of the team and eventually an entire school community. Included: Members of our Principal Files team share how they deal with staff members who spread negativity.
A positive school culture starts at the top -- with the principal. But even the most upbeat principal knows that pockets of negativity can surface and spread, sometimes slowly and quietly and other times like wildfire. That's why wise principals always keep their radar tuned, watching for signs of discontent.
"There is little room for negative attitudes in a school environment," says LaKeldra Pride, principal of Green Hill Elementary School in Sardis, Mississippi.
"I always tell our staff that our school is our second home," said Pride. "If I enter a person's home and feel unwelcome, I might not return. And our school is no different.
If a staff member greets parents with a negative attitude, those parents will feel uncomfortable visiting the school, and students learning will suffer as a result," she said.
"I believe that students and staff members are what they see, be that positive or negative," added Pride. "Staff members' attitudes can make or break or a school."
When problems arise with a staff member, Pride monitors the situation to determine if there is an external factor that might be causing him or her to act in a negative manner.
"Basically, I wait for a short time to see if the negativity just goes away," said Pride. "If it does not go away, I call the staff member in for a conference. While I begin that conference on a positive note, I get right down to the issue -- explaining how his or her negativity is affecting others, and coming up with a plan to put a stop to it.
I realize that not everyone is born with a bubbly, pleasant personality," added Pride, "but as a principal I simply can't tolerate continuous negative attitudes. If those attitudes are allowed to fester, they will eat away at our environment."
Principal Lee Yeager believes in confronting negative behavior in a straightforward manner, too.
"I don't do this in an antagonistic fashion," said Yeager, principal of S&S Middle School in Sadler, Texas. "I just sit down with the person and point out that they don't seem happy with what they are doing. I ask them if their negative feelings are related to the campus. Oftentimes it is something personal over which I have no influence."
Yeager has also found that some people are not even aware of their negativity, so talking about it and making them aware is important.
When Gina Bettelyoun hears about a teacher who is getting negative and sharing his/her attitude with others, she initiates a conversation with that person.
"I make time to talk to them about their issues and how I can help them," said Bettelyoun, principal at Crazy Horse School in Wanblee, South Dakota.
"Almost always, that helps put a stop to the negative attitude," she added.
"I always try to remind our staff that we are here for the students and that we have chosen our profession," she added.
If that doesn't work, Bettelyoun has suspended a teacher for 5 days. "While I am sure the teacher still felt negative feelings," she said, "at least the rest of the staff didn't have to suffer being in his or her company."
If Kim Cavanagh runs into a staff member who is giving off negative vibes, she meets with that person and listens.
"Sometimes they have information that needs to be heard," said Cavanaugh, who is principal of Mentone (California) Elementary School. "It is also important that I tell them that if they have a concern they should come to me rather than spread negativity. I am always willing to work together [to solve a problem]."
If the person is so negative that it is impacting students, Cavanaugh will let the person know that, too.
"In our profession we have to be very aware of the impact we have on our students," said Cavanaugh.
If a teacher's negativity is affecting students, Cavanaugh might share a favorite quote from Dr. Haim Ginott that could put the staff member's negativity in perspective:
"I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. My personal approach creates the climate. My daily mood makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized."
If things have really fallen apart, Cavanaugh might share with an individual or the entire staff the FISH! video or book. If you share this video, the positive staff members will have great comments, and it can make a difference.
When a complaint about a staff member's negativity surfaces at Oakleaf K-8 School in Middleburg, Florida, Principal Larry Davis gets with the teacher sooner rather than later. "I want to hear his or her version of the situation," Davis told Education World. "I also ask the person to put their response in writing."
After discussing the issue, Davis reminds the staff member of the need to maintain a positive attitude in all situations.
From time to time, principals come up against a rock: a negative person who just won't budge and who is a true thorn in everyone's side.
Principal Sheila Chavez [shared anonymously, not her real name] told Education World that she is hoping against hope that the state will offer a pension incentive this year so that the rock on her staff will retire.
"Unfortunately," Chavez told Education World, "this teacher is one who occupies my thinking when I am working on issues to present to staff, soliciting input, and other interactive tasks.
I am not sure why I allow myself to do that, because the rest of our teachers are incredibly caring, talented, and dynamic. They jump on board in a heartbeat for the good of achievement, students, and the future.
Countless management tools and books tell us these rocks should be ignored. We should work with those who care, who are committed, and not let the people who will never change occupy a second of our time. Yet I do.
So the task for me is to work at the ignoring and move on to work at keeping the amazing teachers I have the privilege of observing every day at the center of my thoughts."
Sam Cumming [not his real name] also spoke anonymously with Education World. When he first arrived at Bergen Elementary, he had no idea how toxic an environment he was inheriting.
"I experienced some unprofessional and mean-spirited behavior from teachers," Cumming told Education World. "Some of the behavior was directed at each other and some at me as the principal, the authority figure. I would learn much later on that this type of behavior had been the norm in the school years before I arrived."
Cumming thought about transferring to another school because there was little hope that things would change Then everything changed the day his supervisor unexpectedly moved out of state to take another position. Cumming's new boss was keenly aware of the situation and was committed to helping him turn around the culture of the school.
"She visited the school often, and believed in me from the start. She backed and supported me. She refused to deal with anonymous complaints, and she didn't keep secrets. It made all the difference. She strongly believed in and practiced solving problems at the lowest level."
Fortunately, Cumming had been a successful school leader prior to taking on the assignment at Bergen. So the possibility that things might change gave him a glimpse of hope, and that was all he needed.
"I never lost faith in myself or my abilities, and I have an extremely supportive spouse and family. They shared in all the victories along the way."
The succeeding years have been dramatically better.
"I've learned many lessons along this hard road," Cumming added. "The toolbox of strategies I used was seemingly ineffective in correcting the sick culture I inherited. Sometimes there seems to be no remedy to a situation, and then the unexpected happens. Through a collaborative effort with my new boss a transformation occurred, and it has been astounding. It's been great for kids and the staff alike."
Since living through the difficult situation he described, Cumming added that he now feels compelled to ask all candidates for openings in his school one very important question:
How do you respond to people who bring others down or who breed negativity?
"Each candidate's response weighs heavily in my hiring decision," he added.
Frank Hagen has more than 35 years experience as an educator, most recently as principal (retired) of Saint Michael's (Maryland) Middle/High School.
"I have been very fortunate to encounter only a small handful of negative teachers," Hagen told Education World. "While they might have the potential to influence a staff, I have found it best to accept the fact that they are who they are and may not be willing to change.
As long as the negative person did no harm to students or the positive essence of the school culture, then they had my permission to be a very small, drifting cloud on an otherwise sunny day. I deliberately chose not to make them a martyr simply because they had a propensity to see the glass as mostly empty.
Typically, those negative people were quick to blame others and everything else for their malcontent, and that was readily visible to the staff, students, and parents. As a result, they had little to no power to influence the teachers, students, parents, or community stakeholders with their complaining or nitpicking."
In that rare instance when Hagen had to work with a teacher who was a negative influence, he did so in a professional and friendly manner. He listened intently to what they had to say and responded with positive suggestions on how they might do things differently.
"Sometimes I suggested they take a few minutes to visit a peer's classroom," said Hagen. "I found that to be a very effective method of showing them how things could be different -- and better. While that was not 100 percent effective, the teacher often attempted to make changes."
And sometimes Hagen used storytelling based on his experience. He would share examples of people both he and the staff member knew -- stories of times in the past when another person accepted change and made the most of it to the benefit of students, the school culture, and the teacher's reputation in the community.
"I never really understood the dynamics of that method when I stumbled upon it in a conversation with a particularly negative teacher," said Hagen, "but I made use of that form of branding over and over again.
I always coupled all those efforts with consistent positive feedback on their willingness to try," added Hagen. "I reinforced how their efforts were making a true contribution to the school. too. I always did this with a smile, a handshake, and a 'thank you.' "
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