Masterclass: Difficult colleagues - Try not to flare up

13th February 2009 at 00:00
When dealing with a problem colleague, approach them early and informally - and don't forget everyone has their own style

The best strategy for dealing with difficult colleagues is to broach the subject with them as early as possible. The most successful example I have seen of this was a teacher mentor who, within two weeks of identifying an NQT with an abrasive approach to colleagues and pupils, informally tackled the issue.

By grabbing the bull by the horns early into the mentor-teacher relationship, the problems were brought to a swift and successful end. The mentor took the NQT for a coffee and an informal chat to talk through their argumentative style and their unsuccessful hardline stance in the classroom, which was spectacularly backfiring with some confrontational pupils.

As it happened, the NQT didn't realise there was a problem, and just assumed that the pupils reacted like this on a daily basis with other staff. The teacher admitted that when under pressure he became bullish.

Once they'd outlined the problem, the mentor brainstormed other potential ways of handling the situation. Because they'd collaborated on these ideas, the teacher could buy into them as his own, rather than feeling he was having a procedure imposed upon him. The early difficulties were quickly corrected and the teacher began to progress quickly, establishing himself as a core staff member at the school.

Coaching and mentoring is an excellent way to tackle difficulties, although be warned that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. On occasion, difficulties do spiral out of control. In these cases, mentors or management can fail to act, either through fear of confrontation, ineptitude or the vain optimism that things will improve of their own accord. Or the opposite occurs: the mentor flies in guns blazing, aggressively imposing their own way of working - an approach that often breeds resentment.

Dealing with difficult colleagues is something that isn't always covered in initial teacher training or even in continuing professional development. The key is effective communication. Pre-empting the situation and face-to-face conversation is central to tackling difficulties, so don't shy away from this basic tactic.

In some cases, teachers fail to understand that every person is different and may work in ways that are alien to their own approach. The key is to try to let people develop their own style, while ensuring that school policies and educational procedures are still followed. Get early buy-in to ideas, concepts and your thinking by talking through how school procedures work and why they will help. Don't be tyrannical unless you have to be. But, likewise, don't be too hands off and remain in control.

Keep the situation informal as much as possible and only raise the stakes as a last resort. File emails and take notes of meetings. Talk, communicate and be open to other people's approaches. Human beings are all different, so be prepared to look for solutions that you might not follow yourself, but that you are confident will work.

Neil Simco is Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Cumbria

Next week: Building teams


  • Avoid email. Face-to-face conversation is central to tackling problems.
  • Be informal, but professional. Don't be over familiar, but don't follow the book word for word.
  • Early intervention is key.
  • Be flexible. Perhaps the right resolution is not the one you would naturally go for.
  • Take records. Keep emails and keep notes with dates and times clearly annotated.
  • Follow procedure if a disciplinary is necessary.
  • Get colleagues' buy-in to solutions rather than imposing your own thinking.
  • Accept that people are not perfect.

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