Help! Our School Receptionist Is Mean

Dear WeAreTeachers,
Last year was my first year at a new school (kindergarten teacher here). Looking back, I almost had exclusively negative experiences with our receptionist. She gossips, plays favorites, and vents about who she likes or doesn’t like often within earshot of parents waiting in the office. But the worst was when my partner teacher needed to send a child to the office for hitting another student. I was making copies right next to the office and heard the receptionist laughing, joking, and agreeing with the student that Mrs. Evans “can be really mean sometimes.” I never told anyone this—it was the last week of school and didn’t seem like the right time to bring up a potentially explosive issue. The receptionist seems to really like me, but it bothers me that she’s so toxic and unprofessional. Should I complain this year, or will this come back to haunt me later? —Do Snitches Get Angrier Receptionists?

Dear DSGAR,

Most teachers will advise you to treat your support staff like gold, and I agree. But this doesn’t mean you should have to accept toxic behavior. Especially when that behavior could reflect poorly on your school to stakeholders that happen to be in the front office.

Since you’ve only been in the school a year, I would continue to lay low for a while as you do a temperature check on how everyone else feels about this receptionist. Maybe she’s a cranky and unprofessional but beloved institution of the school that has been around for decades. Alternatively, maybe everyone’s disgusted with her behavior but hopes someone else will handle the confrontation of holding her accountable. Or maybe teachers find her informative, but no one touches this issue because they know the administration team adores her and have seen the fallout of speaking up. Knowing the dynamic can help you weigh whether to abandon this battle, opt in for an honest conversation with her, or get out of a toxic school where this kind of behavior is tolerated.

When one of my former schools recognized we had a problem with staff either avoiding conflict or reacting to conflict with hostility, we studied the book Crucial Conversations as a school-wide PD. The book walks the reader through what language to use and how to approach tough conversations when the stakes are high. These were some big takeaways for me that you could apply to your situation too:

  • Asking myself when I see or hear other people behaving badly, “What would cause a reasonable, rational person behave this way?” This pause really helps me to remember that we all have misguided motivations, blind spots in our thinking, and things we’re working through.
  • Never go up the chain of command when the person you’re complaining about hasn’t first heard this complaint (exceptions: discrimination, harassment, and other workplace violations).
  • Start with heart. “I love working with you, and I want to be sure we’re both on the same page with something.” “I value you as a co-worker and want to be honest about something I’ve been reflecting on.”

I think it’s too late to address what happened the last week of school with your receptionist. But reading this book can help prepare you if you decide to confront her in the future.

Also, a moment of gratitude for all the wonderful school receptionists out there. You’re angels on earth. Like John Travolta in that one weird movie Michael.

Dear WeAreTeachers,
I teach geometry in a wealthy, highly connected suburban setting. School started last week and one of my former students came to say hi. After chatting about his summer, he was reminiscing about class and how hard his new math teacher is. I told him I’m sure it would get easier since he was such a great student in my class. That’s when he revealed that it was only easy because he had purchased a set of my entire year’s quizzes and tests from another student. Seeing that I was both annoyed and still processing this information, he clarified to not worry because “everyone does it” and there’s an entire online marketplace for my as well as other teachers’ tests and quizzes that get graded and returned. You can purchase individual tests and quizzes or the whole year as a bundle. Obviously I need to tell my supervisor this information, but what do I do about giving students feedback from now on? Won’t parents get mad when I refuse to send graded work home? —Hot Commodity on the Geometry Black Market

Dear HCOTGBM,

Combine the hyper-connectedness of the suburbs with the ridiculous academic pressures on kids and it’s no surprise to me that this education secret market is thriving.

Short answer here. I’m sure you go over tests and quizzes with students—that’s all the feedback they need. If parents want to see the tests and quizzes themselves so they can support their child’s learning, respond that you’re happy to schedule a time to go over these tests and quizzes in person.

Something tell me they’ll be busy.

Dear WeAreTeachers,
I’m struggling with something that feels a little silly, but I can’t help it. I teach third grade, and I know I’m a good teacher. I get along great with my team. But I don’t think I’m anyone’s favorite teacher. It’s hard when I see comments on social media on my teammates’ posts from parents saying, “You were Sienna’s favorite teacher!” or “We’ve been praying Luke would get you!” Former students will come back and say they miss me, but I don’t ever get comments like that. Does this really matter? Am I being ridiculous for feeling hurt? —Mediocre in Medina, MN

Dear MIMM,

Feelings are never silly. It can be hurtful for anyone to hear glowing accolades for your peers that you never hear about yourself.

That said, try to remember that social media is an illusion. I don’t think we’re meant to see everyone at their shiniest, most perfect selves. We’re not meant to have access to read and reread the compliments and conversations of others that would have otherwise remained private. Social media has given us many positive things, but a debilitating sense of inadequacy is not one of them.

A lot of people can resonate with the notion that their best teachers were not necessarily their favorites. Personally, the teachers I would consider my favorites and those I would consider the best teachers I’ve had in two totally different groups. This isn’t to say my favorite teachers didn’t know the content or that my best teachers weren’t fun. They were all respectful, creative, and memorable to me in different yet positive ways.

Do you think you’re doing your best as a teacher? Does an appraiser you respect think so? Are you invested in the personhood of your students and in their academic growth? These are far better questions to use to measure your impact.

Do you have a burning question? Email us at askweareteachers@weareteachers.com.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
We learned this week at in-service, as we do every year, about new district policies. This year’s slide featured an initiative by the district to limit cell phone use in the classroom. Each secondary classroom will have an over-the-door shoe holder to house students’ phones during class, and at the end of class students can pick up their phones on the way out. Fire hazard? Probably. But if it helps with the cell phone issues, I’m on board. Then, they showed the next slide. Teachers will need to put their phones in the shoe compartment too. Predictably (and justifiably), the teachers in the room got very heated. Someone asked if we could have our phone in our desk or pocket, and they said no. “No exceptions.” This is beyond insulting. I can’t believe my school is banning phones for teachers. What would you do in this situation? —I Feel Twelve

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