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A Priest, a Rabbi, and a Chimp Try to Run a Religious School…[HorroR Stories]

Dear Madame HR,
I’m a 7th grade teacher in a faith-based school. Last June, our respected long-time principal retired. The Board of Trustees of the school hired a man I’ll call Dr. P as the new principal. So far, Dr. P has called the 5th grade teacher a “booby” because she jammed the office copier; contemptuously discouraged the veteran kindergarten teacher from organizing her signature student projects; refused to allow the school to be the site of an annual community teachers’ gathering, because he doesn’t want “outsiders” in the school; used disparaging language at a faculty meeting to refer to teachers of other faiths – and it’s only October! He appears to have no knowledge whatsoever of pedagogy or curriculum development. 

We don’t have a real teachers’ union, only a weak faculty association. The few mild comments we’ve made to the Board of Trustees, have been met with derisive response that “The teachers are whining because Dr. P is making them ‘toe the line.'” Also the Board is made up of wealthy male doctors, lawyers, business leaders, while the faculty is mostly female.  This used to be a great place to work. Now it’s a nightmare. Help! What recourse do we have? Oh, there is no HR department in the school. What can we do?

Thanks for listening,
Hoping for Help

Dear Hoping,

I was thinking about your question while I was driving home from work one day when a story came on NPR (as part of their election coverage) about how animals make decisions in groups and more importantly how they choose leaders and how those leaders behave. Like, for example, honey bees don’t lie, but chimps do! Who knew? It’s a fascinating story, here is the text of it. Anyway, the line that I thought was particularly relevant in your case was this: “It’s not necessarily the most talented or intelligent individual that ends up in a leadership position,” [the expert] says. “Unqualified animals sometimes rise to power,” he says, “but most of the time they don’t last long.” Amen, brother. From your lips to G-D’s ears.

I grew up with two teachers in the house, and that’s why I went into HR! Wait, that doesn’t make any sense. Anyway, what I’m saying is that I’ve hung around a lot of teachers in my life and here’s what I know about teaching: principals suck. I guess if those that can’t do, teach, then those that can’t teach are principals. And before the indignant squad gets all raring to go, yeah, yeah, yeah, noble profession, yadda, yadda, yadda. But here’s the deal, principals are essentially managers and managers suck all over the place so it’s not like they get a special exemption because they are in a “noble profession.” Your situation seems even worse since it’s a “holy noble profession.”

And isn’t it refreshing to see that the good ol’ boy network seems alive and well even when it comes to faith based education? (Hint: the answer to this question is NO). I mean, what the heck does a wealthy male doctor or lawyer know about things like “pedagogy” or “curriculum development” anyway? I’m guessing nothing. But again, this happens a lot, Boards of Directors are often random wealthy men who may or may not have any clue about the day-to-day of the company they are on the boards of. I once worked for a bank where the majority of the Directors were architects. Explain that one to me. And because this is a fact of the world, Boards just care about the bottom line, not the day to day crap you have to deal with. That’s why their response was that y’all are a bunch of whiners because they have no clue, that’s what fat cats say when people complain about things that the fat cats don’t understand and ultimately can’t fix. It’s your fault that you can’t work with this idiot they hired, not theirs—live with it. Their reasons for hiring him have nothing to do with you or your colleagues’ reasons for needing him.

So you ask about recourse. What’s your recourse? Well, I figure you have a few different options, some good, and some bad. Let’s break it down:

Ask for help. From what you say there aren’t a lot of places you can go with this one. You have no union, no HR and the Board is a bunch of blowhards. My parents taught in public schools and I don’t know if it is different in faith based schools (where I’m guessing the parents are paying tuition?), so the parents of your students might be more invested in the goings on at the school than your average public school parent. I mean, when you think about it, the parents are essentially the shareholders of the school and therefore in theory the one group of people your Board would listen to. However, if this is the recourse that you choose, I would be VERY careful. It’s a fine line between creating a coalition of concerned parents who are willing to go to bat for you and pissing off a bunch of parents while looking like an actual whiner. You know better the finer points of the political climate at the school when it comes to parents, so I’m going to say that this probably ISN’T your best recourse, but I might be wrong. You decide.

Sue, sue, SUE! If I had $1 for every time someone in my life (personal and professional) asked me the question “Is that legal?” then I wouldn’t be working in HR right now, let me tell you. Even Lucy Van Pelt charged for her advice, so maybe I should start? Here’s the deal about suing, and remember, I’m not a lawyer so you can probably trust what I’m saying. Usually when you sue there have to be damages, there has to be something that you’ve lost and that you can sue for. And, remember, suing doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. Even if you could sue someone for calling you a booby (and maybe you could) and maybe get $5,000 for pain and suffering. Oh, the humiliation of some moron calling me a booby! (Back of hand to forehead). Ok, I get it, whatever. However, it doesn’t mean they are going to fire the guy who called you a booby. They might tell him to stop calling people boobies, but that isn’t going to make him a better manager. He might switch to calling everyone knuckleheads or something else equally charming. But maybe you won’t care anymore, you’re $5,000 richer, but think of the good of the school, man! Mr. P is still there, still spreading his incompetence like a bee spreads pollen and you’re probably going to still be as miserable as ever. So, I’m going to say NO to this one too.

Quit. I have no clue what the religious school teacher job market is like, but I would imagine it’s not flush with open jobs. I recommend reading my post about crazy managers, I tell a little parable about what happened when I quit a job where I hated my boss. OK, now that that shameless plug is out of the way, let me just say that I doubt your current school has cornered the market on hiring incompetent buffoons. Say it with me people: “sometimes it’s better to stick with the crazy you know.” Oh, and if you’re thinking that maybe you should threaten to leave to scare them a little, put the fear of G-d and so forth in them, well, you can try. Sometimes they call your bluff. All indicators point to them not valuing their teachers much, so I’m not sure this would work. I’m going to say NO on this one too.

OK, so I just gave you a few ideas of things to do that I wouldn’t recommend. What kind of advice column am I running here? Anyway, here is the recourse I WOULD recommend (drum roll):

Wait. Here’s what I’ve learned in the world: if someone is incompetent you are not the only person who has noticed. In my aforementioned post regarding the “crazy boss” I talk about one of my favorite strategies of “giving them rope.” Nine times out of ten they’ll wind that sucker into a noose and hang themselves before too long. The question here is can you outlast this little melodrama? Some people are stubborn, some problems take a little while to untangle. So, here are some strategies to bide your time until Mr. P is twitching in the wind:

  1. Judging from your email, you are very proud of what you do, it means a lot to you. That’s fantastic. I imagine in your field it’s essential. Try and create some emotional distance between your self-worth and what is happening at school. So, an example: You say Mr. P “contemptuously discouraged the veteran kindergarten teacher from organizing her signature student projects.” Here’s how I know you are taking this personally, your choice of the words “contemptuously” and “signature.”  Here’s the word I focused on when I read it, “discouraged.” Not stopped, not forbid or outlawed or banished—discouraged. So there is a respect thing going on here, he doesn’t respect the work that you do and it pisses you off. Ok, it sucks, but tying yourself in knots over it isn’t going to make him respect what you do.
  2. You can call his bluff. This might speed up the lynching party a little, but it is at the expense of your students so you might not want to try it. What am I talking about? Well, here’s the thing, if the kindergarten teacher really does have these fabulous “signature” programs than chances are she’s a popular gal. The good news is that the inverse of what I said above is also true, if someone is fantastic and doing a great job you are not the only person who has noticed. So what if she cut down on these programs a little? And then when Mrs. Muckety-Muck who just happens to be the wife of Board Member Mr. Mucktey-Muck asks her about it, she should say (with the most innocent face she can possibly construct) “Oh, Mr. P thought our time was better spent on other things,” or some other statement that very neutrally places all the blame on Mr. P’s doorstep. If she needs help coming up with an innocent face, I’ll introduce her to my husband. He’s perfected the “What? Who me?”(blink-blink, blink-blink) face. Judging from how emotionally invested you are, this might be hard to do (maybe the kindergarten teacher isn’t as emotionally invested, who knows?). And, yes, this is all about the KIDS, and we wouldn’t want them to suffer or anything, it was just an idea.
  3. Ignore him until he goes away. Just keep doing your thing. Remember what I said in point #1, he discouraged the programs, not forbid. When he comes to give you his advice, crack out the whole innocent face, nod your head until he leaves and then keep on trucking.

The key to success is presenting a façade of neutrality. You’ve already learned that when you point out Mr. P’s flaws you are a whiner, so let others witness his flaws and then just sort of serenely smile and nod your head. Be the solution here, not the problem. Because if there is anything that Board of Directors like more than money it’s easy solutions.

So I hope you can wait, because, yes, we are all just animals and while chimpanzees might be smarter than us (they told me so) they make terrible faith based school principals. Because really, when it boils down to it, we’re all in it to survive, right? So whether you teach evolution or not, you gotta recognize that the strong will survive here, so here’s to strength!

Good Luck Out There,

Mme HR

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