How to Cope with a Toxic Co-Teacher: One Teacher’s Journey

Monica Berns-Conner
How to Cope with a Toxic Co-Teacher: One Teacher’s Journey

Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. – Conrad Doyle, Author

After four years as a 6th-8th grade teacher and switching to a new school to be closer to home, I could not have ever imagined the harsh reality that awaited me. At the time, I took for granted that my previous principal was a veteran special education teacher who valued inclusivity and equality. I came to my new position with an impeccable track record of district accolades, awards, and high student achievement.

The new position was as a Co-Taught traveling Special education teacher working with 6-8th graders. Although I had previously worked as an intensive reading teacher, it was with the same grade levels, so I felt very confident and was excited to make a positive impact as a co-teacher. My new principal informed me that I would work with the Language Arts department in three different inclusion classrooms throughout the day. I looked forward to the change of pace and was excited to meet all my new colleagues. However, I soon discovered that almost all the staff in the special education department were new. It turned out, two of the three co-teachers I was assigned were new hires as well, working out of the field with a temporary teaching certificate. I did not give that much thought or that the principal was a recent transfer. I figured the administration must have good judgment in their several new hires; I was one of them after all.

After the start of the school year, it became apparent that something was wrong. The facade of a warm and professional work environment quickly wore off, and I found myself battling a pattern of unprofessional and inappropriate behavior with the treatment of my special education students in the classroom. Within a month, one of my co-teachers was fired in the middle of the school day without an explanation. It was a wake-up call, but it was too late by then.

My second co-teacher was increasingly singling out the special education students, often berating and humiliating them in front of the class. She said things like, "These aren’t my students; you deal with them." Her behavior became increasingly erratic and unpredictable. Finally, she began to turn on me for bringing my concerns to her.

I was bewildered by the situation and did not know where to turn. I could not stand there day after day watching the special education students treated in such an unfair way. For a while, I chalked it up to my co-teacher being new, but after several consultations with her with no results, I finally brought it to the attention of administrators. After all, my co-teachers behavior was illegal, traumatizing, and just plain wrong. Surely the administration would step in and make it right.

It turned out the principal was gunning for a district position at the time while obtaining his EdD degree. It was clear he did not want to be bothered by the situation, actually telling me in one meeting, "We all have to deal with these things from time to time. I guess it’s just your turn.” He brushed it off as if it was some petty catfight between two grown women. That was when I got the union involved.

After a meeting with the union and my principal, I was shocked to hear my union representatives tell me point blank, "Get out of here; they are trying to ruin you for speaking out.” Luckily, I had enough sick days saved to lay low until a new position in the district opened. Miraculously, it was at my previous school.

I found out later that my co-teacher got arrested outside of a Target store for grand theft and drug trafficking. As a result, my former co-teacher was fired. Later, the courts sentenced her to probation and drug counseling. To think the children and I were subjected to working with a drug addict thief that year says a lot, not only about the principal but also the school district.

The principal received promotion upon finishing his EdD degree. The district has faced several lawsuits for inadequate teaching conditions of special education students ever since.

I was lucky. However, not every teacher is fortunate enough to escape a toxic co-teacher. Here are some tips to help you deal with an unhealthy co-teacher situation.

Keep a Record of Everything

If you are working with someone breaking the law, creating a toxic learning environment for children, or harassing you, keep a record. Document each instance by writing in a journal the date and time of each offense. Try to use time during your lunch period or planning period, so your co-teacher does not know you are keeping a record of them. Make sure to write your documentation as soon as possible so the instance is fresh in your mind. The same goes for any unprofessional emails sent to you. Print the emails and keep two hard copies on file. In case you need to produce them at any given time. I would also recommend not responding to emails written to you in an unprofessional manner. It's better to ignore it.

Play the Game

It's always better to try and work things out in a professional matter if possible. Usually, when we have an issue we would like resolved, we talk about it constructively, but sometimes, it may not be. So ask yourself: Does my co-teacher need to know I don't like them, think less of them, or whatever the case may be. The answer is "no." Whether you like them or not, it is none of their business, and they do not need to know. It may seem not very easy, but the better you become at letting them think you like them, the less likely you will unintentionally react to poor behavior. I like to think of it as taking the high road. Some may call it "poker facing it" or "killing them with kindness." However, it helps you to look at it is okay. Just make sure you do it. Never let them see you sweat!

Talk to Your Union

I’m not big on telling people what to do, but I highly recommend you become a union member if you are not already. Even if you have a beef with a fellow union member, it doesn't matter because the union must advocate for what's right. They make a set of ethical codes and rules, and if people don't follow them, they will get sued. Plus, administrators are less likely to screw you over if you’re a union member. You never know when you will have an administrator who is gunning for a higher-level position and gives you a poor evaluation to prove something to the decision-makers he's trying to impress. That’s what happened to me. Preceding that incident, I became a union member and remained a union member throughout my tenure are a contracted teacher.

Inform Your Administrator In Writing

As special education teachers, we are taught to “stick to the facts” and only report what we observe, not how we may “feel.” A teacher should write no correspondence that contains phrases such as “I think” or “I feel.” Instead, use words such as "I observed" or "It has come to my attention." Keep your feelings and emotions out of any documentation you maintain or send. It's best to type a letter, print, sign, and hand-deliver it to your administrator. Once an email is sent, it becomes a public record. The goal is to resolve the situation, not give the school lousy publicity and make administrators angry.

Always Stay Professional

This strategy is an extension of “Play the Game.” Protecting your reputation by not getting caught up in petty drama is essential. Besides, speaking from experience, when you go head-to-head with someone, it rarely solves anything. I have always admired those people that stay calm and never get angry. It takes an evolved individual to have that type of self-control. I mentioned this phrase before, but what I did not say was that whenever I dealt with other people, I would repeat the words, "poker face it" or "never let them see you sweat." It would calm me down and remind me to remain calm and professional. People will try your patience, and you will get riled up from time to time, no matter what.

Remember it's Temporary

If all other efforts to resolve or leave the situation fails, remember: it's only ten months, and then you can transfer. I would try to make plans for the next school year by talking with the principal or other schools, possibly even looking at job boards.

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How to Cope with a Toxic Co-Teacher: One Teacher’s Journey
January 16, 2022
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