They are Always Watching Us

“If we don’t model what we teach, 
then we are teaching something else.”

Several years ago, I worked with two middle schools that were nearly identical in every way. Now, I believe that every school is a unique learning community with unique learners, unique educators, and a unique school culture, but these two schools were about as similar as two schools can be. They were about a mile apart and had nearly the exact same number of students enrolled. Moreover, the demographics at these two schools were almost identical in terms of race, gender, economic status, limited English proficiency, and students with disabilities. The schools had the exact same level of staffing and program resources. The parent community at both schools was equally similar. In short, these two schools were way more alike than different.

Interestingly, however, one of these schools had what some deemed a student bullying problem. The other middle school seemed to have very little in the way of student bullying incidents. At first, I was puzzled by this and could not determine why two schools whose students were so similar could have discrepant instances of student bullying. The more I observed in these two schools, the more the answer became evident: the school with significant student bullying issues also had a significant amount of teacher bullying occurring. The vast majority of staff at both schools was comprised of dedicated and passionate professional educators. Yet, at one school, there were a few powerful teachers who bullied certain colleagues. For anyone who thinks professional bullying does not exist, I encourage you to read When Teachers Bully Teachers and Let's Be Honest: Professional Bullying in Schools Is a Thing.” Sadly, although it may not be as common, teachers bullying other teachers is just as real as students bullying other students.

Unfortunately, in the very places where students most need to see adults modeling and promoting acceptance, support, encouragement, connection, empathy, and sincerity, in some schools a few teachers do the opposite. In some cases, these teachers may actually do a fine job of promoting anti-bullying in their own classrooms with their students, yet when it comes to interacting with colleagues, they inexplicably engage in the behavior they profess to detest. Why does this happen and what can we do about it?


Some teachers who bully other teachers do so because they feel threatened. They see a colleague taking risks in the classroom, going above and beyond in their work habits, working closely with the school’s administration, and building such positive relationships with students that they become the “favorite” teacher of many. Although working hard, taking risks, working closely with administration, and having kids genuinely like their teachers are all things I want to see happening in schools, unfortunately, teacher bullies view these differently. It threatens their status and challenges the status quo. Perhaps one teacher had been the students’ “favorite” until another teacher came on board and students started gravitating toward this teacher. Maybe another teacher is resistant to change and views a colleague who is willing to change and try new things as a threat to them. Yet another may resent the fact that a colleague arrives early and stays late each day, thinking this makes her look like a slacker. Student bullies behave the way they do for a number of reasons, many of which we fail to understand. Sadly, teacher bullies are no different.

So what can we do?

  • If we are the victim of bullying by a colleague, it may behoove us to first try to understand why the person is behaving as they are. Determining the “Why?” behind the behaviors might drive our subsequent actions, including standing up to the bully. One approach, suggested by Angie Miller, is simply sharing the following: "My feelings were hurt today when you did this. Can you tell me what I've done to upset you?" Of course, confronting a bully may be no easier for an adult than it is for a child. Sometimes we simply need to recognize the behavior for what it is, ignore what we can, and stay positive at all times. George Couros often states, “We need to make the positive so loud that the negatives are almost impossible to hear.” No matter how we are treated by staff members who bully us, we must take the high road and not fall into the trap of becoming negative or acting in kind. This is difficult. Being bullied hurts, whether we are 12 or 42. 

  • Another thing we must do when we experience professional bullying is realize that the issue is about the bully and not about us. Moreover, we must remember that the bully is the exception, not the rule. Find your tribe, remembering that “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” Find those colleagues both within your own school community and educators around the world who are equally passionate and energized about students and our profession and who refuse to be distracted by the vocal few who behave otherwise. Connect with like-minded colleagues who will help you stay the course.

  • Finally, if we are not the target of adult bullying but recognize it happening in our school, we need to speak up and call out our colleagues who bully--respectfully, privately, professionally. In schools with the most productive and positive cultures in place, all staff members--not just principals--hold each other accountable for adhering to group norms and modeling for students what we expect of them. If we cannot muster the courage to approach a bullying colleague about their behavior, we can at least do something almost as effective: don’t join in any conversation in which one staff member is making fun of another. Remain stone faced silent. Walk away. Do not laugh or play along. Let it be known by your actions, if not your words, that this is something you do not support.
It strains credulity that a few adults in some schools exhibit the very behaviors we try to eliminate when we see them displayed by students, but the problem is real. As bad as the problem is by itself, here is what makes it even worse: when staff members bully staff members, it does not go unnoticed by students. They are always watching us and listening to us. Kids are ridiculously smart and observant and possess an uncanny capacity for picking up on things lurking just below the surface. At the middle school level, especially, when many children are at their most impressionable stage, students are likely to follow our lead. If we send the message in any way, however subtle, that bullying is something we do, you can rest assured that for some students it will be something they do, too. Be the teacher students look up to for all the right reasons by modeling respectful, professional, collegial behavior at all times. It is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

The Things They Remember

“Students will remember how we treated them long after they forget what we taught them.”

This January I spent most of the month on St. Simons Island, Georgia, partly to get away from the Chicago cold for a bit, and partly to begin work on a new book. I lived on St. Simons from 1995 - 2002 and it remains one of my favorite places on earth. When living there, I taught middle school language arts, high school English, and coached a number of sports. I have many fond memories of many awesome students I taught and coached during those years.

One weekend while on St. Simons during my visit, my entire family also joined me there to celebrate my mother's 85th birthday (she had me when she was 50 or so). When my sister and I got off an elevator to enter a rooftop restaurant where we would be celebrating, a young man waiting to take the elevator down exclaimed, “Coach Zoul!” Although I vaguely recognized the face, I had to ask his name. When he told me, I immediately remembered him from my English class and high school baseball team. I asked him how old he was now and he let me know he was 34 (Yes, it made me feel quite ancient). We hugged and he told me a rather interesting story. It went something like this: “Coach, you were the best! My cousin and I still talk about you all the time. Just the other day, we were talking about the time you slid down a pole into the classroom from the ceiling when we did not even know you were up there.” This former student-athlete and I reminisced a bit more, hugged again, and I went about my my business with my sister, who asked somewhat incredulously, “You slid down a pole into your classroom from the ceiling??!” Well, I suppose I did since this young man seemed to have it etched into his memory, but here’s the kicker: I have no recollection of this event whatsoever.

Now, it certainly sounds like something I would do. And, I taught in an ancient Works Project Administration building classroom that had several supporting poles throughout and ceiling tiles I 
suppose could have easily been removed. As a teacher, I always loved teaching my content, but I loved playing practical jokes and having fun with my students even more, so his anecdote certainly rings true, but I just don’t remember it. Yet, this now 34-year-old former student did and was still talking about it with his cousin 17 years after the fact. 

To be honest, I have had similar encounters with a number of former students over the years. They always seem to remember something crazy we did during class that had nothing to do with the curriculum. A former first grade student reminded me once of the time that we squeezed my entire class of 24 first graders into my 1975 Ford Thunderbird as a reward for perfect behavior. I have mixed feelings about the things my former students remember actually. On the one hand, I sincerely believe that learning is the ultimate purpose--or “Why?”--of any school and I expect all teachers (including myself during my 18-year teaching career) to actually be teaching a guaranteed and viable curriculum each day. At the same time, I also realize that kids need to know we care about them as people first and students second and they need to not only work hard but also have fun in our classrooms. Dylan William suggests that pedagogy trumps curriculum--or rather is curriculum--because what matters is how things are taught, not what is taught. And I would suggest that sometimes pedagogy includes the zany things we do as teachers that have nothing to do with learning standards.
via: @RossCoops31 on Facebook

Although I am a firm believer that we must ensure what we are teaching includes actual grade level (or above) learning standards, the “how” is even more important and this "how" can include all the non-academic things we do just for fun. I suspect that sliding from the ceiling down into the classroom took no more than three minutes away from my instructional time on this particular day and I suspect it was three minutes well spent. Even though my former student did not mention any of the works of literature we were reading that year or papers that we wrote, maybe on that particular day he was just a little more engaged in reading Julius Caesar after starting class with the teacher making a surprising entrance from the ceiling.

One never knows what the students sitting in front of us today will remember many years hence; my hunch, though, is that it will more often than not be something completely unrelated to the curriculum. Take time to ensure that the non-academic memories our children retain many years down the road are memories of fun, laughter, caring, and even silliness. I believe our very best teachers--even those focused like a laser beam on standards--make time for pure fun each and every day in their classrooms. Indeed, it is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

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