Dear Teachers: Please Stop Being So Difficult

There is a terrible little book called Dealing With Difficult Teachers (2002) by Todd Whitaker. I’d been curious about this book since I saw it on my assistant principal’s Amazon wish list three years ago. I finally read it this week. It was even worse than I had imagined, both in terms of ideas and prose.

So, let’s get started!

What do you do with a difficult teacher?
And what is a difficult teacher anyway?

Difficult teachers are defined entirely by how the principal feels about what a teacher does. The principal, in this book, is always validated. Always.

The principal is positive; the difficult teacher is negative.
The principal is trying to move the school forward; the difficult teacher is trying to stop him.
Difficult teachers are bad and ineffective; even dangerous.

Armed with this validating and elastic set of truths and hints, the principal-reader is empowered to define difficult teacher as suits his needs. A difficult teacher could be anybody who questions, dissents or fails to fully comply with any of my directives…as I move the school forward in a positive direction, of course. The book certainly encourages this type of combative thinking in principals as relates to their staff.

In the face of bad ideas implemented poorly, the best man is still a Yes-Man.

However, for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume the principal is infallible and the difficult teachers are just being whiny assholes because they hate children and want to block progress. With these assurances in hand, the principal is then armed with a number of techniques for marginalizing or eliminating difficult teachers. (Examples below.)

Dr. Whitaker takes the further step, for some strange reason, of dehumanizing and passing moral judgement on difficult teachers. In essence he makes a full-fledged moral and social-psychological indictment of every teacher who has ever been found difficult by any principal anywhere. These difficult teachers…they are not like the others. These are not people with whom we simply have personality conflicts or professional disagreements. They are bad people with serious problems. And they are dangerous.

My young, brand new assistant principal had this book on her Amazon wish list by November, two moths after starting the job. (Described at the end of this post.) She was having a hard time because she was in way over her head. She was in no way intellectually or inter-personally prepared for the job.

This book must have been like crack to her. It’s short and very easy to read. It tells her that she’s right and good and how to vanquish those who are wrong and bad. Reading this book would not encourage her to ask herself whether she’s doing a good job, making sense, and making her staff feel comfortable and confident in her abilities. No. This is the time to find other people to blame.

In the hands of an uninspiring rookie principal this book could do serious damage. And remember, this book was written in 2002. Think of all that’s happened in education since then. Can you imagine how much broader the definition of difficult teacher must be now? I don’t know how big a player Dr. Whitaker is in principal circles, but he’s clearly working it. He could be the next speaker at the Annual School Principal Administrator Leadership Training Development Institute Workshop Summit and Gala Event Spectacular.

For my part, I am rather proud of having been a difficult teacher. My school was a giant sack of ill-tempered smoke and mirrors. At its core, I think most of my difficult teacher tendencies were honest reactions to dishonesty, disrespect, and ineptitude. The rest can be attributed to my being part sarcastic asshole. I think that’s fair. In any case, when teachers stop being difficult, we’re fucked.

Rather than take the time to weave quotes from the book into my narrative, I have selected several nuggets that illustrate Dr. Whitaker’s approach and key points. (By the way, one funny thing to do with these is substitute something else whenever you see a phrase like “difficult teacher”, or “negative staff person”, or “these people.” I used Nazis. I also used mimes. Both of those were pretty funny. Try it on your own.)

General Characteristics of Difficult Teachers
Almost every school has teachers who work against school improvement and do not have students as their central focus. (Intro to 2nd edition);

Other professions difficult teachers might be good at: The answer, of course, is that they would not be good at anything…What employer wants a lazy, negative, rude backstabber? p4

As we are well aware, many of our most challenging staff members are continually in the gossip and rumor mill mode. p100

[Difficult teachers need to empathize with each other] to maintain the “griper bond” that they have built over the years. p102

The difficult people sit together, in the back, and near the door. p66

Some of the negative staff make every attempt to be the first ones out the door. p128

Difficult teachers often associate most closely with other difficult individuals. They have lower regard for students, their profession, and themselves. p127

I noticed that she was grading papers and pretending to be disinterested in workshop activities. Appearing disinterested was obviously an emotional shield for her…p136

With difficult people, opportunities to praise are rarer than are opportunities to be critical. p44

These people are very good at controlling the conversation and making others feel defensive. p113

You Are Good; Difficult Teachers Are Dangerous
[Principals cannot assume that] everyone is in the field of education for the same reason we are – to do what is best for the children in our school (Intro to 1st edition)

It is difficult for a principal to sleep at night if even one child in school walks through that difficult teacher’s door each day. p5

We give too much power to these difficult people. This must stop. p19

Nothing is more damaging to a school, especially one attempting to bring about positive change, than a negative teacher-leader. Someone with the capability of not only fighting good ideas, but worse, convincing other teachers to be negative is tremendously harmful. p121

One teacher who resists change can be harmful. A negative leader who resists change and recruits others to fight change can be catastrophic to school improvement. p122

When the opportunity arises, however, the seemingly positive destructive leader will quickly make every effort to be a negative influence. p122

If you can convert saboteurs, then their interpersonal abilities can be very beneficial. p124

If a teacher chooses ineffectiveness, then you must eliminate the teacher from your school. p156

I knew that I had to diminish his impact on other teachers in order for us to sustain any positive energy. p133

Difficult Teachers Are Sociopaths
Something to know about difficult teachers: …difficult teachers know exactly what they are doing. They work at being difficult. p35

One similarity that a great number of less effective teachers share is low interpersonal intelligence. p55

Among a group of difficult teachers mutual respect and friendship might be absent. Although they may associate with each other regularly, keep in mind that these people generally do not have a great number of lovable characteristics…they are often not friends; they are more like a “loser support group.” p127

A difficult teacher’s spouse may not be looking forward to having this person around all the time either. Difficult people are often miserable. p161

If people are rude and overbearing at work, they probably are at home also. More than likely they have been that way their entire lives. p56

The least effective staff members often have trouble showing any empathy. p106

Because of the close correlation between difficult teachers and feelings of low self-worth, being able to reach them on an emotional level can be of great value….A very effective way to do this is by utilizing peer pressure. p80

You should feel pity for this person. You do not want to be around the difficult teachers for even five minutes. Not only is this true for you, it is true for everyone around them. If you do not want to be around these people for five minutes a day, just think how they must feel. They have to be around themselves 24 hours a day! No wonder they are cynical, negative and bitter. p131

This person seemed to be incredibly unhappy as evidenced by the way he carried himself, approached work, and especially by his approach to life. p81

Battling and Interrogating the Difficult Teacher
Some of our most dominating negative personalities can be intimidating…the reason we want to be so nebulous is to keep the discomfort on the teacher…she is working very hard to determine what you know and whether or not to lie. The less detail we provide the more stressful it is for the teacher to determine how to respond p115

Your tone must be sincere and sound genuinely concerned…Be aware that the longer you draw out the “investigation” and questioning, the more it will make her uncomfortable p116

On being the good cop: I met with this difficult teacher privately a few days later. After some small talk, I asked her in a very calm, relaxed, and caring manner…In a very concerned, soft manner I shared…I then asked her again, in a very sympathetic manner…I very calmly and sensitively shared…And I softy noted that…p78-9

Gently yet directly sharing a story about how you observed several students in the cafeteria all imitating the teacher’s behaviors and then making fun of their actions is a powerful persuader. p82

On being disingenuous: Optional meetings open to all staff offer exceptional opportunities to reduce negative influences. The nice part about an approach like this is that people who are interested can come; others stay away. If negative people choose not to participate, not only will the meetings go better but you can reduce their power of resistance at later meetings…Do not speak sarcastically…Share that you hope to see them at the next planning meeting. p143

If you eliminate an unpopular teacher, there is less impetus for unrest among the staffers. p157

Successfully finding the path of least resistance (that is, rapidly dismissing one difficult teacher) gets the attention of many others…This is one of the ultimate ways of making difficult staff members feel uncomfortable. p157

On motivating a difficult teacher: …I decided to try to use her one positive talent to cultivate in her a higher energy level. p33

On estimating a difficult teacher’s weakness to peer pressure: “…think beyond how they would answer these questions publicly…Unhappy people often work very hard at protecting their own feelings, even if they show little regard for the feelings of others…attempt to delve deeper into their minds and comprehend what they really think and feel” p75

On being a chicken shit when confronting difficult teachers:
Delay the meeting if you are not prepared…generate a reason why you cannot talk with the teacher at this time…I would not even commit to a time…this compares to a child waiting until dad got home from work to receive punishment…with our most challenging staff members any time they have advance notice, they get mentally prepared with an excuse for anything they have ever done wrong in their entire lives…Instead, we need to be the ones who are prepared. We should also plan so that they will not be. p94-5

On arguing with difficult teachers: Realize that they have much more practice at it than you do. Because of their attitude and approach to living, they have spent many hours in their lifetime arguing and they are probably more skilled at it than you are. p27

Attempting to alter difficult teachers who are held in some regard by their peers is a special challenge…p32

The other benefit of praising a mediocre teacher to one of your superiors is that before or after you can explain to the superintendent why you did it…Otherwise, the outside person might develop a diminished regard for your professional judgment of staff quality. p40

Proceed with caution in using written praise with a teacher you may have to dismiss…If you feel praise might motivate them, praise verbally; it may be less likely to interfere with a future dismissal process. p171

Can anybody say “dick”?

Review Part II: Seriously, Teachers, You’re Being WAY Too Difficult


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