Many teachers I know live with fear. They fear failing their students. They fear angering vocal parents. They fear the judgment of their colleagues. But above all, many teachers fear a poor evaluation from an administrator that leads to the loss of their job and puts their teaching career in jeopardy.
This fear is why so many teachers are nervous when their principal walks in the room. It’s why they can’t sleep the night before an observation. It’s why they keep a close eye on the economy, state funding, and the financial health of their district. And it’s why so many teachers are afraid to speak up about harmful policies, unrealistic expectations, the misuse of data, and systemic exploitation.
Teachers can never fully bulletproof their careers. Because we work for a government entity that receives funding from the state, we’ll always be at the mercy of recessions and budget cuts. Because we work for other people, we’ll always be vulnerable to petty tyrants, budget-slashing Superintendents, and office politics. Still, there are simple things teachers can do to protect themselves from poor evaluations, dismissals, and layoffs. Here are seven things every teacher can do to make their career as bulletproof as possible.
1. Provide Uncommon Value
You don’t need to sign up for every committee and attend every after-school event to ensure that your principal values you enough that you’re never vulnerable to layoff. You don’t need to be a yes-man or a suck-up. But if you want to bulletproof your career, you should stand out from the crowd by providing uncommon value. When supervisors think of their building without you in it, they should wonder how you’ll be replaced.
Perhaps you’re the go-to person for making the specials schedule and the job would fall to your principal if you didn’t do it. Maybe you’re the disciplinarian, dealing with student misbehavior so the principal doesn’t have to do it all. You could have one major project that you do every year that is valued by the school and the community, such as Career Day or an annual Make a Difference Day project. Become known for one important extra and you’ll make it much harder for your principal to envision a day when you’re not there.
2. Be Likable (or at least not unlikable)
Most people hold the erroneous view that competence is what determines career success. They believe that those who are better at their jobs will be rewarded and those who don’t get results will be dinged on their evaluations. But research suggests that it isn’t true. While everyone would love to work with a charismatic star and no one can stand an incompetent jerk, things get murkier when it comes to choosing between capable assholes and lovable slackers. Professors Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo found that while many employers say competence matters most, their actions reveal the opposite. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, the professors stated:
“Personal feelings played a more important role in forming work relationships—not friendships at work but job-oriented relationships—than is commonly acknowledged. They were even more important than evaluations of competence. In fact, feelings worked as a gating factor: We found that if someone is strongly disliked, it’s almost irrelevant whether or not she is competent; people won’t want to work with her anyway. By contrast, if someone is liked, his colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence he has to offer. And this tendency didn’t exist only in extreme cases; it was true across the board. Generally speaking, a little extra likability goes a longer way than a little extra competence in making someone desirable to work with.”
Researchers have also found that the more likable a physician is, the less likely he or she is to be sued for medical malpractice, and that you’re more likely to get hired if you focus on being liked by prospective employers than if you highlight your skills. People want to work with likable people. If it comes down to laying teachers off, it won’t matter how good of a teacher you are if everyone despises you.
3. Make Students and Parents Happy
The more liked you are by students and parents, the riskier it will be for administrators to let you go. Schools hate negative press, and nothing generates negative press like when students and parents pitch a public fit over the loss of a popular teacher. News organizations eat that stuff up. To bulletproof your career, focus on pleasing your “clients,” the students and parents you serve, to such an extent that they will show up at Board meetings to speak on your behalf. Be the teacher who garners the most parent requests. Be the teacher who, if let go, will engender an emotional response from the community and lead to Facebook rants and news stories. Be the kind of teacher who administrators wouldn’t dare fire because they know what kind of hell will rain down on them if they do.
4. Complain Laterally
I thought about writing, “Don’t Complain” here, but I’ve been a teacher for 20 years and I’ve only met about three teachers who never complained, which leads me to believe complaining is probably rational, unavoidable, and maybe even a healthy way to alleviate stress. Given the state of public education today, I also have to wonder if those who don’t complain are paying attention.
All that said, nobody really likes a complainer. That includes principals. And if principals have to decide who gets kicked off the island first, you can bet they’ll want to remove the complainers. The paraprofessionals and janitors in your building don’t want to hear about your teacher problems either; they have their own, and some of them are worse than yours. So when you complain, do it laterally. Complain to your colleagues. You’re in this thing together, after all, and sometimes it’s nice to know that you’re not alone in your frustrations. In this way, complaining can actually bring coworkers together.
5. Handle Your Business
Most principals will tell you that they are there to make your job easier. They might encourage you to enlist their help to remove any barriers you’re facing to effective teaching. They may even work with the staff to develop a list of behaviors and consequences, some of which will include office referrals. You might interpret this to mean they want teachers to send students who break certain rules to them.
Be careful, and before you write a student up, consider the situation from your principal’s perspective. They are busy. They have a lot of problems to deal with. When you send them a student, you are giving them more work to do. You better have a damn good reason. While good principals will say all the right things, the reality is that no principal looks forward to having misbehaving students in their office. They especially resent it if those students seem to come from the same teacher. And they really resent it if that teacher sends her problems to the office when they’re hardly even problems. Deal with the swearing, mild disrespect, and occasional interruptions of your lessons yourself. Handle your business. Issue your own consequences as much as possible. Call the parents yourself. To the greatest extent possible, avoid sending problems to your principal.
6. Disagree in Private
I once worked with a teacher who would regularly question and criticize our principal during staff meetings. I never understood why. Of course, teachers regularly disagree with their principals, and sometimes, policy decisions must be questioned. But doing so publicly, in front of every other member of the staff, is counterproductive. While it may gain you the respect of your colleagues, it puts your boss on the defensive, a position that’s likely to cause him to dig in even deeper to save face. Publicly calling out the boss also puts the teacher and principal in an adversarial position, so it shouldn’t be a surprise when the principal, who is in possession of the full spectrum of human emotions, looks for ways to even the score. Teachers don’t want to be called out in front of their colleagues, parents, or students. If we’re going to be criticized, we want it done privately. Do the same for your principal. If you have a problem with her decisions, ask for a meeting, send an email, or make a phone call. Don’t unnecessarily make an enemy of the person who’s doing your evaluation.
7. Ask for Feedback
You don’t need to be a great teacher to keep your job. That much is obvious. In most cases, you don’t even have to be good, especially if you’re likable and don’t cause additional problems for your principal. What you should do, especially if you’re not yet one of the better educators in your building, is show that you’re trying to get there. You needn’t sign up for a bunch of conferences or constantly mention the professional articles and teaching books you’ve been reading. All you need to do is ask for feedback. Invite your principal into your room. Ask her for her honest opinion about what she observes. Ask to visit other teachers in the building to learn from them. Ask for book recommendations. Show you’re invested in becoming better at your job. I don’t know a principal alive who wouldn’t want to give such a teacher another year (or five) if they were willing to work on their craft.
Two Alternatives and Their Dangers
You could also be a suck-up. Plenty of people are. You could bend over backward to make your principal happy. You could compliment her during staff meetings. You could send him a thank-you card whenever he offers feedback on your teaching. You could volunteer for every extra bit of work the district tries to squeeze out of teachers, and you could even squeal on your colleagues in your quest to curry favor. You could ingratiate yourself with obsequious behavior.
All that might work, but the dangers are many and the payoff isn’t worth it. You’ll alienate your colleagues, most of whom you will be working with for far longer than you’ll be working for your principal. You will likely end up lonely, which is a bad thing to be in this profession. And for what? To hold onto a job that you likely would have kept anyway? Education is the one field where sucking up to the boss really doesn’t get you anywhere. You won’t get paid more and you won’t get a promotion. You’ll just get to keep doing the same job you’ve been doing, except just about everyone will hate you and talk behind your back.
Alternatively, you could follow the advice in this article, which suggests being a huge pain the ass (because supervisors tend to fire weak people who won’t pitch a giant fit if they’re let go), faking a heart attack or seizure, and claiming discrimination. The only problem with these strategies is once you’ve protected your job, you still have to live with yourself.
Bulletproofing Is Actually Pretty Simple
I know a principal who summarized much of the above with a simple story he told me. This principal has a teacher in his building who is a former professional athlete. His classroom is regularly the loudest one in the school. Walk by his room, and you’ll rarely see kids sitting quietly at their desks. The other teachers in the building complain about his classroom management and insinuate that they believe he’s not the most effective educator. But his principal told me, “I love him. He’ll never get a bad evaluation from me because students love him, parents write me letters that say, ‘My kid has never liked school and he loves it this year,’ and he never complains about anything.”
Principals are people too; it behooves teachers to remember that. Principals don’t want to hear about your problems. They don’t want to solve all your problems. They don’t want to be criticized in front of others. They like teachers who are likable. They appreciate teachers who make their job easier. They want to keep teachers who students and parents like. Bulletproof your career by being the kind of teacher you would value if you were the principal.
I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort is starting this summer, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to receive a reminder email to sign up for Early Bird Access on June 8.