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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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The Politics of Teaching

Virtually never addressed, this topic influences every aspect of one’s teaching career.

Office politics, or as I call it, the politics of teaching.

Politics exist in schools across the country, however, aspiring teachers learn nothing directly of this matter in classrooms or internship experiences. Perhaps their education of the political dynamics of education start occurring through observation and osmosis. For instance, they might see the dynamic of their mentor teacher and fellow teachers on a grade-level team or hear or witness happenings between a mentor teacher and administration.

Yet teacher preparation programs and universities steer clear of this topic.

I think office politics, at least some discussion of it, should appear in every teacher education curriculum. New teachers need to know what they face and how to navigate the extremely delicate matter of how people politically interact. In my opinion, teaching seems click-ish or tribal to a great degree. Teams of teachers, based usually on grade level, band together. They eat lunch together. They plan together. They meet with parents together.  I have also witnessed what happens when a teacher does not fit into a team. It’s not pretty. Teachers can isolate each other, band against one or more other teachers. The same can occur with administration. Some teachers work their way into a principal or administration’s “inner circle.” Others remain on the outskirts. There’s also the politics of parents. Parents who serve on parent-school associations, who volunteer, raise money for schools. They can exert a certain influence over other teachers and administration.

And this is just at the school-level. I haven’t even begun to mention politics at the school system or school board level.

Whether someone agrees or not with school politics is irrelevant. The truth is school politics exist, and teachers need to learn to cope with it in a productive way that preserves their job and their sanity. Looking back at my time in k-12 schools, I wondered what I did to survive the ever-present political undertakings where I worked. I think I would offer those new to teaching the following advice:

  1. Become aware of the political dynamic. Observe interaction between administration and staff members, between teachers, between parents and teachers. First understand the dynamic that exists.
  2. Remain out of the political dynamic, as much as possible. Sometimes, this is not possible. For various reasons, you become entrenched within a particular team of teachers or administration takes a liking to you. That’s fine. Just realize you have now entered the political landscape of the school.
  3. Be a professional. Treat everyone with respect and be as fair as you can when working with others at the school. I have found that by being someone that others enjoy working with, you develop a positive reputation, which spreads around the school. Understand that whatever you do or say to another teacher, staff member, or administrator, it has the potential to circulate. You words and actions are like pebbles constantly being thrown into a pond, rippling out.
  4. Remember the mission. Finally, focus on helping the students—the children-that’s why you are at the school. Yes, you must navigate relationships with other adults and work collaboratively, but when making decisions, make them in the best interest of the students.

The political landscape differs at every school, thus it’s difficult to provide any type of explicit instruction. But, as I did in this blog, I think experienced educators can provide some guidelines, some wisdom, to help new teachers survive and thrive in their positions.