Advice From the Trenches

Stuck!: One reader wonders what to do about an unsupportive boss

Dear C and Dr. B;

I am caught between a rock and a hard place, and not sure what to do. I teach at a middle school in Providence, and the disciplinary problems are pretty bad. Lots of my kids come from what I would charitably call “dysfunctional” families, with a history of criminal activity and physical and emotional abuse from many of the parents. Their kids are a handful, and unfortunately the administration at this school does not have my back. I feel like I can’t even help the kids who need it the most. 

Yesterday, a mother came to pick up her daughter early. The child wanted to take some clay home and had it packed neatly in a plastic cup. But the mom just said, “You make a mess with everything, no!” And when the girl started crying, the mother jerked the clay out of her hand, threw it on the floor and started dragging her out. I couldn’t take it, and said to the mother, “You have a good girl there, she’s a good student.” The mother screamed, “Stay out of this!” and left. She later told the principal I’d interfered. The school is taking the parent’s side and I am ready to quit. Should I?

Dr. B says: Working in an environment where the administration, the board, or the boss do not back you up can be like working in Hell. If you want to keep your job, the only way to survive is by learning to be numb. Go in, do your work, go home, with nothing of yourself invested. 

In many, many fields, jobs have become structured this way – employees are expendable and the public is catered to as entitled customers. There is financial incentive to bend over backwards to please the client, whether they be a parent, patient or funding institution – even if they are impossible to please. More and more, there is a lack of respect for, and even mistrust toward, authority in America that puts teachers, police, doctors and many others on the firing line. If the staff is not supported in a workplace, it can encourage clients, parents and patients to treat them with disrespect.  

It is true that in past years many in power have abused their roles and now the pendulum has swung the other way, trapping many working people in the middle. You could quit your job, but it is difficult to find a job these days where these dynamics do not exist.  You have to decide if the sacrifice is worth it – in learning to become neutral, you may lose the passion that led you to want to be a teacher in the first place.  

There is no easy solution to this – if you decide to work for yourself, you stand to lose a steady paycheck, benefits and long-term security. If there is a board that rules over your field, like there is in medicine, there is no escape from the restrictions. This is one reason why more than 40% of doctors no longer like their jobs. I assume teachers have similar statistics. Some union jobs might have pathways, but unfortunately, if you want benefits, there isn’t a lot you can do as an individual. If you need the security of a steady job, find hobbies and interests outside of work where your passion can bloom.  

C says: There is nearly always a trade off between job security and personal fulfillment in work. But life is not black and white and the obvious choice doesn’t always yield the obvious result.

The happiest people I have ever known were not the richest, by any means. We all need money to pay the bills, but if your job is eating at your gut, it is bound to have an effect on your health and well being. How many people have worked their whole lives to get to retirement, only to find that heart disease, cancer, ulcers or anxiety disorders have rendered their old age a place with more restrictions than ever? I have also known people who gave 25 years of their life to a company only to be replaced by a newer, cheaper model. Seeming security can be loaded with booby traps.

I’ve always freelanced, and I went to many advertising agency holiday parties. They were always lavish affairs overflowing with liquor and expensive food. It never failed – at 2 am, some executive who pulled in seven figures a year would be drunk as hell, get me off in a corner, and start ranting about how much he envied my life – I had so much creative freedom – and how he was trapped by the thousands of dollars a week in overhead from of all his condos, cars, ex-wives and debts. He couldn’t leave the agency and change his life even if he wanted to – not without faking his own death. 

There are no sure things in life, so don’t stay in a job that makes you miserable just because you think it’s your only security. Life constantly throws us surprises. The person who can deal with uncertainty is better equipped to meet unexpected challenges, and to continually learn and grow, than is someone who quietly succumbs to the rules and never asks questions.

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