The toxic person may be a teacher, a director, or even the center’s owner, and there are some common themes:
- The person has a divisive, difficult personality
- The person has at least a few (perceived, anyway) fans among the center community – staff, parents, or both
- There is concern about a “Pied Piper effect” – i.e., “If I get rid of this person, parents and staff will run off and follow her.”
Unfortunately, given the number of queries I’ve gotten, the toxic teacher phenomenon is not unusual – but there are effective ways to manage it you may not have tried. Here are some things to think about:
1. Have you actually spoken to the person about the problem? Oftentimes, the toxic teacher is viewed as an unstoppable force of nature – yet no one has actually tried to do anything to change the unwanted behavior.
Now, I will be the first to tell you that oftentimes this will not work – but it’s where you should begin. It also helps to start establishing a paper trail for the personnel file should termination eventually become necessary.
2. Have you considered that the problem may actually be you? I have noticed that my husband is never more irritating, or I more defensive, than when he’s 100% right about something. Fortunately (or not) for me, he’s right annoyingly often, which means I have grown accustomed to turning that mirror back on myself on a regular basis.
Unless someone is truly a psychopath, there is often at least some tiny kernel of truth at the core of even the most dysfunctional-seeming workplace behaviors. And if the problem keeps coming up again and again with different people, it’s time to consider the hard-to-accept possibility that you may be the problem – or at least part of it.
3. Have you let the problem go on too long? At a certain point, you can be reasonably assured that a) the person’s behavior is not going to change and b) this is simply not someone you can continue working with in a positive, productive manner. At that point, you need to cut the cord and let the person go – period.
Even if your center’s policy is two weeks’ notice, I advise immediate termination and sending the person off with two weeks’ pay. This is much better than having the person hanging around badmouthing you for two more weeks, or simply not showing up to work at all (which, let’s face it, is quite likely if things have already gone that far south).
As long as you are not terminating someone for an illegal reason – on the basis of race or religion, etc. – you generally have nothing to worry about from a legal standpoint.
4. Is the Pied Piper phenomenon something you should legitimately be worried about? No matter how persuasive the toxic person in your midst may seem, it’s unlikely that she will actually be able to lead people away from your center in droves all by herself.
Finding a new job is hard. Finding new child care is hard. People aren’t going to make knee-jerk decisions about this sort of major life decision based on one person’s presence, or absence, at your child care center.
(The same is true of raising your rates – centers always worry that families are going to flee in large numbers, but the bottom line is that you will almost always get some grumbling but very few departures – too few to negate the considerable financial benefit of raising your rates.)
And look at it this way: If you do determine that this toxic person needs to go, and she takes a bunch of folks with her when that happens, aren’t you better off finding new teachers and families to replace the defectors? These people will almost certainly be a better fit for you and your center anyway.
Note that all of the advice above applies only if the toxic person is subordinate to you. Unfortunately, if you’re a teacher trying to reform a toxic owner or director, you’re fighting an uphill battle – my best advice to you, sadly, is to either hope to outlast them or start looking for another position elsewhere.
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