Ask The New Girls: A Delicate Situation, Race, Gender and Work
Dear New Girls,
I am a recent (White) college graduate working as a teacher for students with disabilities. Due to the severity of my students’ disabilities, several teaching aides work with me in the classroom. The teachers’ aides are Black and older than me. In the classroom, the aides technically work “under” me, though I am not their supervisor per se. The problem is, I’ve been having an issue with one of the male aides. He is often late, leaving me understaffed in the classroom. Once he left early without bringing it to my attention. These actions truly affect my ability to teach, and are detrimental to the classroom dynamic. Needless to say, his actions were becoming a problem I couldn’t ignore. So I talked to him about it, and he simply replied, “I don’t like your tone.” The conversation has had no effect on his behavior. I was direct, but I don’t think I was overly harsh. What’s a girl to do?
In a Delicate Situation
We’re sorry to hear you are going through this. It’s important to point out that while gender is in the mix, race likely is driving this dynamic. You are a young White woman working above several Black men and women who are older than you, and likely have more job experience. Think about it: since Reconstruction, a key expression of racial supremacy is that Black men have had a hard time getting work, much less good jobs. Unemployment for Blacks in the US is generally twice as high as Whites, no matter the economic climate. Hearing criticism from a young White girl who got a good job right out of school could feel an affront to this man’s dignity. Note: White girl. Gender is part of this equation, for sure.
Some men, of all hues, feel their dignity is threatened when a woman is forceful and direct. This is a classic Tightrope problem: you are not acting the way he expects a woman your age to behave. As always with Tightrope problems, mix the masculine with the feminine and practice good tone control. Men don’t generally have to do this kind of self-editing, but it is a tried-and-true path to being both respected and liked by those you work with.
No need to be deferential: remember, you can be empathetic without being deferential. For example, you might consider leading the discussion with the fact that you recognize you are new and younger, but add you both have jobs to do and when they aren’t done well, the students suffer. Indicate that you want to be fair and that you’d prefer to work things out between the two of you, but if this isn’t possible, you will escalate the matter. I suggest letting him know this in advance because it gives you some degree of power/control without sounding as if you are abdicating your role. Finally, some situations don’t lend themselves solely to verbal exchanges. You may need to reduce your concerns to writing, which usually causes them to be taken more seriously.
In order to prevent him assuming you are just singling him out, think about starting an evaluation process for all the aides. Sit down with all of them to tell them you are going to start this process to try and ensure that the team is working together in a way that best serves the students. Outline the things you plan to evaluate such as punctuality and work hours and as well ask them to list other things they consider important that should also be included. This may not only help your students have a better experience; it may also make the aides feel like they are all being treated fairly and judged by the same standards.
Still, if this man continues to threaten your (and his) ability to create an effective educational space for your students, you’re right: you have a problem. Our advice? If you are not comfortable confronting him again, then take yourself out of the picture. Familiarize yourself with formal disciplinary processes, in case you choose to go that route. Or seek out a higher-up (either his supervisor, or yours), and explain your concerns (stressing the needs of your students over your own frustrations). Work out a system where you report any problems to the supervisor instead of confronting him directly. Again, you may want to do this in writing.
The New Girls
Work conflict getting out of hand? Then Ask The New Girls!