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In this episode, we are talking all about how to collaborate and deal with difficult or challenging colleagues. It’s a really difficult topic to chat about, however it’s an important conversation that addresses the elephant in the room, and we will provide some strategies to help support teachers as they move forward.

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Show Notes

This week we are tackling a bit of a difficult topic in education: how to collaborate with colleagues that are difficult or challenging to work with. It can be really stressful to work with a variety of different personalities, particularly when you find yourself not getting along with someone very well, so it’s important to have strategies that we can use to help use move forward in our work, and not let that stress affect us, personally or professionally.

We all have these experiences – this happens in every single workplace, and in every area of life. There are times when you are not going to get along well with someone, and that is totally normal!

The question is: how do we deal with it as educators?

There is no easy answer here, and it really does depend on the situation. That being said, here are some strategies and/or pieces of advice:


This is likely challenging, however it is the first step in most of our interactions with others, regardless of whether it is in education or not. It’s important that we take the time and space to listen to what people have to say so that we can better understand where others are coming from, why they do things a certain way, etc.

It doesn’t mean you have to agree or change to be more like someone else – it just means that you are giving people a space to share, and are showing that you are willing and able to hear people out, which is an important aspect of any relationship.

Have an open mind

We all have something to teach one another. What works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work for someone else. So listen, and talk with others, but just try to keep an open mind as you encounter a variety of people and strategies throughout your career.

In order to do this, the first step is to listen, which can be really difficult. You may also want to consider taking notes. Instead of just taking verbatim or summary notes, perhaps consider writing down some “how might we” questions! This will help you to reframe your thinking a bit more, and may naturally lead to a more open mind when approaching a difficult situation.

You don’t necessarily have to agree with someone else’s position, however approaching with this “how might we” framework, it gets you thinking about solutions and how to have positive working relationships with others, despite your disagreements. This also prevents you from shutting down and getting defensive – something that happens to us all, and can make things quite difficult!

Value the voice of all of your teammates

Often times, discussions can be difficult, or people can shut down in a disagreement because they don’t feel like their voice or view is valued by the team.

We need to make an effort to acknowledge and value these different voices. It goes back to the conversation about asset vs deficit mindsets, but with colleagues!

We need to try to approach one another with this asset-based mindset, and look for the positives in our colleagues, as this will make a huge difference in the interactions that we have. 

Building Community

Educators often talk about the importance of building community in the classroom. This extends to the school and staff community as well! There needs to be purposeful activities and time dedicated to getting to know one another and building a strong and positive working culture.

A strong staff community will prevent many from feeling unappreciated or undervalued, and will create a safe space for all employees. It also creates an opportunity for staff to better understand one another and their perspectives.

It is not fair to ask people to take risks, challenge their beliefs or push them out of their comfort zones until you have established a positive relationship with your colleagues or staff.

It’s so important to embrace new and old staff, and to find ways to bridge the gap between these groups of teachers to build a stronger staff community. If this isn’t done, then you will find that there are conflicts, and often those conflicts will show division between new and experienced staff.

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With increased stress and fatigue due to the pandemic, extracurriculars, government, etc. in Ontario, now is the time to really focus on relationship building and ensuring that staff are okay and feel supported. These high stress and fatigue times make it more likely for people to feel frustrated, to shut down, and for negative situations to occur. These negative encounters could lead to tense relationships amongst staff.

Develop Norms or Expectations

It is interesting because, as educators, we have strategies and processes in place for how to deal with these situations in our classroom, however we don’t always extend it to course teams, departments, etc.

Something as simple as establishing norms together for communication within course teams could really help to set the stage, and make boundaries and expectations really clear for one another. This way, interactions are preceded by these norms, and colleagues are aware of how to approach each other.

Extend this to a department, or even whole staff, and communication becomes a lot more clear, and much less tense, particularly in situations with someone you may consider to be a challenging colleague.

As disconnected as it may seem, sometimes moderating marks in course teams and sharing reasons and/or feedback with one another can also help to break down barriers between colleagues. It gives people a space to share their perspective, and their reasoning, and allows people to consider another point of view, while also allowing course teams to align their thinking or expectations of student work.


Majority of the time when colleagues disagree, or relationships break down, it is due to a lack of effective communication.

Something as simple as meeting regularly as a team can really help to create a more cohesive group, and to avoid a breakdown in communication. It seems so simple, but the reality is that regular communication is important for maintaining and building positive relationships.

If there’s anything that we have learned during this pandemic, however, it is that not all forms of communication are created equally! Email does not count as effective communication! The volume of emails that teachers are inundated with on a daily basis is overwhelming, and it is tough to remember important details or information that is shared.

Thinking of sending an email? Go and talk to them!

In addition, tone is misinterpreted regularly! Depending on how the recipient is feeling, and the word choice of the author, it is so easy for a message to be misunderstood, or for someone to insert a negative tone where it wasn’t intended. To top it off, some people are more blunt than others (Katie is one of those blunt people), and it may not be as well received in an email versus how the message would be delivered in person, when an individual’s personality, voice/tone, and body language will be provide more clarity. It also gives others an opportunity to ask follow up questions to ensure that the message is understood.

You can only control your own actions/reactions

In all of our interactions with others (colleagues or not), it’s important to remember that you can only control you own actions and reactions, and not those of the people around you.

Rachel came across a great infographic on Twitter (shown below) that showed things that are within your control, and things that you can’t control. This visual acts as a great reminder, particularly in situations where we are working with a challenging colleague, or we are concerned or stressed about an interaction.

Focus on what you can control, and let go of those that you can’t.

On TikTok, Rachel came across the following video entitled “Anger is a Choice” – this video is an important reminder to let go of what we can’t control, to try to choose the positive emotions, and to move forward instead of allowing anger or frustration to take over our moods.

Anger is certainly a natural reaction and emotion, but we can’t allow it to take over our daily lives – we need to find a way to let it go and destress.

Our brains also have a way of filtering all of the data that we are taking in throughout the day. It sorts all of that data based on what, in our minds at the time, have deemed relevant. If we are constantly focusing on the negative, there is a higher likelihood that our brain will filter all of that data looking for the negative.

In the same way, if we choose to focus on the positive, we are more likely to pick out the data with a more positive approach.

Initial reactions are going to happen, whether they be positive, angry, frustrated, etc. – these are valid emotions. It’s what we do AFTER that initial reaction that is important. We need to find a way to allow the reaction, but move forward.

Self Care

The message of self care is all around us, and often we just have to roll our eyes because it seems so insincere in the way the message is delivered. However, when we find ourselves in difficult or challenging situations with colleagues, it’s important that we find an outlet to destress and not let that frustration ruin or impact our personal lives.

Bitmoji of Katie and Rachel in a yoga pose

Self care can also be quite challenging, particularly for those with young children, evening jobs or responsibilities, etc. We tend to put self care pretty low on our list of priorities. But we need to change that, because we need to find something that is just for ourself; something that brings us joy, or allows us to work through our emotions.

It doesn’t matter what it is – music, yoga, kickboxing, walking, reading, cleaning. . . it doesn’t matter! Even mindfulness or meditation can be a good approach. An app like Headspace is a simple and quick way to build in a routine and to help you manage and work through your reactions and emotions.

Find a critical friend

Having somebody that you can fully open up to, say everything on your mind, and will not judge you is so important! They can help you work through it, and problem solve possible solutions, etc. This way you aren’t bottling up all of your emotions, which can lead to more discomfort.

So find your people, and take the time to vent and get it out there!

Set Clear Boundaries

We need to set clear boundaries with ourselves, and others, in how we deal with colleagues and people. It will give us a space to calm down, and try to clear our mind so that we can leave work at work, and find ways to

What NOT to do

While there are many things that we can do to help us through difficult situations with challenging colleagues, there are an equal number of things that we should NOT do in these situations.

Here are some things to avoid:

  • Don’t bad mouth your colleagues
    • This is divisive and will only increase tensions within your community, plus it doesn’t make you look that great either
  • Don’t let a negative interaction influence future interactions
    • This one is HARD! We all still need to work together, so we need to find ways to compartmentalize and find a way forward in that working relationship.
  • Try not to be passive aggressive
    • Be very aware of how you are acting towards someone as you move forward
Bitmoji of Rachel and Katie smiling; Katie is giving thumbs up; Text: "#Adulting"

It all boils down to communication and relationships. One great resource to check out is the book “Crucial Conversations“.  It is a great resource that helps you understand how to respond to difficult conversations, how to create a space for everyone to have these conversations, and how to keep your reactions and emotions in check. There are some really great strategies – so check it out!

Biggest Advice?

Don’t let challenging colleagues or difficult conversations affect who you are and your passion as an educator. Keep hold of those good parts, because that is what really drives your growth and brings joy to your profession. Hang on to who you are, and don’t let these difficult situations affect that part of you.

We hope that you enjoyed this episode! If you did, consider buying us a coffee – and check out our new EduGals membership on our buy me a coffee page!

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