By Janet L. Royal

You are born into your family and have the luxury to choose your friends, but you usually cannot choose your coworkers. No matter what position you hold in your school or district, you will likely work with people who don’t look like you, share your cultural values, have the same political affiliation, live where you live, or even speak the same first language as you do. Because we spend most of our day with our co-workers, we all play a role in making sure that our work environments are the best they can be.

Never hesitate to ask questions

How you do your job will have an impact on your colleagues’ ability to do their jobs effectively. If ever you are uncertain about your responsibilities or what is required of you, ask your supervisor. Confirm exactly what is expected. If you’re unsure of how the question may come across, discuss it with your local association building representative first.

Asking questions avoids misunderstandings. Often, the only silly question is the one that is not asked. And remember that colleagues who have been in your school district long before you are often your best resource for understanding the culture, the climate and the history of your workplace.

Avoid gossip

When your colleagues see you talking about others, it can leave them with a bad taste in their mouths. They are likely assuming that you are talking about them as well. You will lose their trust when they realize what you are doing. Gossip is destructive and harmful to others. Remembering what you may have been told by your own parents, if you don’t have anything pleasant to say, don’t say anything.

Strive to listen with intent

Do your best to be a team player. This may not always be possible depending on your position, location, or even the project at hand. It takes the commitment of every employee to help make the school, the district and your local association successful. Lend your expertise when you can, and always be ready to listen to others’ points of view. Listening is one of the hardest but most important things you can do. Don’t be so anxious to jump in with your thoughts and response, wait for your colleagues to finish before you respond.

Focus on the things you have in common

It’s so easy to point out differences in people rather than seeing all the ways that we are the same. You may be pleasantly surprised with the interests, hobbies, and past-time activities you have in common. There is always a respectful way to have such conversations that is not invasive and a way to share that is not imposing or tiresome. Humans are very social by nature and many people feel good when you take an interest in what’s important to them.

Give yourself wait time when communication seems fraught

With email, it can be too easy to speculate on the tone or intent of the sender. Many times, we are way off in our interpretation. When in doubt, reach out to the sender outside of email to make sure you aren’t reading anything that isn’t there. The same holds true for when you encounter a colleague who may appear impatient with you, or seems to ignore you. If this is not typical for them, they could simply be having a bad day. Avoid judgement and give them some latitude.

If you must to confront a colleague, use “I” statements instead of pointing the finger. If your tone comes off as accusatory, you may send your colleague into a defensive mode that will not be productive for either of you. Sometimes it may even be better to sleep on it as you may feel different when you’ve had time to reflect on your relationship with your co-worker.

Janet L. Royal is an associate director in the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division and is the coordinator for the annual NJEA Convention. She can be reached at

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