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Tackling Teacher Cliques

Whispers, eyerolls, and Evites without your name on them. If it seems like you're in junior high rather than teaching it, read on.

By Cynthia Kopkowski

If you think the only cliques you'll encounter on the job this year are the pep squad, goth, and marching band factions in the cafeteria, you might be in for an unwelcome surprise. Social divisions among staff members can be just as prevalent at some schools. Learning how to navigate the social groupings at your workplace will make for an easier induction period.

The cliques at Chelonnda Seroyer's school in Madison, Alabama, tend to form along the lines of age and subject taught. "The older teachers are together; the younger teachers are together. It's departmental sometimes. Athletics coaches are one clique. And the new teachers are in a special group," says the 33-year-old high school English teacher.

Feeling isolated in the face of a strong faculty clique system, some teachers express their frustrations on the Web. Mike, a science teacher in Texas, writes online that he stopped eating lunch in the cafeteria after growing tired of a clique discussing their social plans in front of the uninvited. Commenter "Art4U" says that teacher cliques at her school "look at you like you are just something they found on the bottom of their shoe."

For new teachers already insecure about their abilities, being rejected by colleagues (or even the perception of that) can devastate their outlook on their new profession. Yet if you ask new teachers how much preservice training they received in settling in socially, you'll likely draw blank stares. "This is a topic that a lot of teachers struggle with and one that is not taught in education classes," says Amy Mangan-Fischer, a 27-year-old teacher in Germantown, Maryland.

So we've rounded up some tips from the teachers who've lived, loved, and left alone the cliques.

Be nice.

Sounds obvious, but it's the easiest way to build a foundation with your colleagues. "If I see a teacher in the hallway, I stop to introduce myself," says Tiffany Packard, a high school Spanish teacher in Lodi, Ohio. "I don't want to seem disconnected." That strategy has paid off for Packard, who has been teaching for 15 years and has built relationships with a diverse group of teachers. Even bringing in cookies can help. Sure it's a bribe, but the hope is that the goodwill will be returned. "Eventually someone will say thank you and that can be a starting point," says teacher trainer and pedagogy guru Harry Wong.

Don't be pushy or presumptuous.

It can be off-putting to have new teachers enter a school assuming they'll be BFF with everyone on staff. Millennials with 500 Facebook friends can be especially susceptible to this. Cathy Davis, a 50-year-old teaching veteran in Clarksville, Indiana, advises new teachers to "listen and learn," and pick veteran teachers to emulate. Offering to help colleagues—but not in a pushy way—can open to a friendship or respectful relationship. "If you see another teacher struggling with technology or something like that, I don't think there's anything wrong with saying, 'If you ever need any help, let me know,'" says Packard.

Try not to assume the worst.

Getting the brush-off from a colleague may have nothing to do

with whether or not they want to hang out with you in the bus loop. They might have just been up all night with a sick child and are tired. "I don't take it personally when someone doesn't seem friendly," says Seroyer. "Everyone has a life they're living."

Stay away.

Elmira Ratliff, a 23-year-old high school English teacher in Vicksburg, Mississippi, says she's had good luck in her first two years of teaching by staying neutral. "It keeps your name clear," with peers and administrators, says Ratliff.

Seroyer agrees. "The tendency is to attach yourself to make yourself more comfortable," she says, "but in the long run it's a better option to be friendly to most but to resist the urge to join any."

Also, it keeps you from judging students based on group-think. "Staying away gives you an opportunity to see students individually for what they're doing in your classroom," says Ratliff.

A 1990s study of successful and unsuccessful schools in Maryland found that faltering schools were beset with cliques.

Focus on the work.

Consider if you even have the time for social-life tending. "With so much paperwork in the teacher world, I don't," says Ratliff. "I come to school to teach my students. Other than that, I'm pretty much in my room."

Look beyond school.

Attend workshops, conventions, and professional development classes to meet people with similar interests and professional drive, urges Wong. "People outside of your school can be very receptive to you and they are already being professional by going to these activities." But don't get disheartened and give up at your home base. "All a teacher needs is one or two really nice people out there to overshadow the negative," he says.

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What Hollywood Can Teach Us About Cliques

Movie: Mean Girls

Clique Clue
Regina: We do not have a clique problem at this school.
Gretchen: But you do have to watch out for "frenemies."
Regina: What are "frenemies?"
Gretchen: Frenemies are enemies who act like friends. We call them "frenemies."
Karen: Or "enemends."
Gretchen: Or friends who secretly hate you, we call them "fraitors."

Lesson: Don't change who you are to fit in with a group just because you perceive them as being more popular than other individuals. Find colleagues who are comfortable with and appreciate your exotic Middle Eastern-Soul fusion lunches and your impassioned recap of last night's Grey's Anatomy.

Movie: Pretty in Pink

Clique Clue
Principal: If you give off signals that you don't want to belong, people will make sure that you don't.

Lesson: There's being independent and then there's deliberately alienating your colleagues. If your most common work outfit is a world-weary expression and indifferent shrug, think about adding in a smile and a willingness to hear what your fellow teachers have to say. Sure, discussing a colleague's knitting blog may not be your cup of tea, but it can open up conversation to other avenues in which you are interested.

Movie: Heathers

Clique Clue:
Heather Chandler: You wanted to be a member of the most powerful clique in school. If I wasn't already the head of it, I'd want the same thing.

Lesson: No matter how old you are, it can be hard to resist thesiren song of hanging with the popular people. But considerwhether the benefits of fitting in with a select group outweigh the drawbacks. You might be alienating other co-workers and setting yourself up for bigger problems than whom to gossip with during the next in-service session.

Movie: The Breakfast Club

Clique Clue:
Allison: Why are you being so nice to me?
Claire: Because you're letting me.

Lesson: Offering to lend a hand—maybe letting a colleague know you'll help her hang her bulletin board backgrounds—can go a long way to starting a friendship. Try it even if you think the teacher in question doesn't like you. It can be the first step to clearing up misconceptions or rectifying a misunderstanding. First impressions don't have to be the last.