June 3, 2009 / Consider This

Handling the difficult staff member

Written by Jan Hensel

Sometime before the first grading period is over (alas, sometimes by the end of the first week) the realization may come that you made a serious error in allowing someone on staff. Of course, in schools where counselors provide the line-up, you have no choice. However, many yearbook sponsors select their staffs, and still live to regret it.

What can you do when a staff member is not meeting expectations, lacks basic writing skills, or suffers from TDP (Tediously Difficult Personality)? Frankly, even suggestions from a veteran may not work for you. But after 25 years of teaching, I can at least share some that have worked for me.

You may have a staff member whose work is frequently late or who cannot be counted on to follow classroom rules or yearbook standards (for us this might be someone who keeps interviewing their friends, misses final draft deadlines, or goes AWOL during class). The first thing to do starting TODAY is document every conversation with this student. Keep an index card handy on your desk and write down every time you scold the student for wasting time, note every incomplete assignment and those missed entirely, and list specific infractions of staff policies.

Then, work systematically to alter such behavior or cull the one who detracts from staff. Allow a maximum of three warnings before taking firm action.

The first step is to hold a private conference with the student, at which time you clearly identify each behavior that is both harming the student’s grade and the overall progress of the yearbook. Warn the student that you intend to continue to monitor his or her behavior and, if problems continue, will set up a conference with his or her parents. Document this conversation on the index card.

The next step is to set up the parent conference as soon as the student commits the next infraction. Parents have a right to know about such problems, even for a senior in high school. More importantly, you will be following the “chain of command.” With the parents, try to work out a specific method for identifying progress and promise a contact in two weeks to report improvements. Also, have a clear “next step” in mind and communicate it to parents by saying something like: “You know, I hope Junior really will be able to start showing some progress on his assignments and follow class rules better. I believe that if he cannot, it would be so much better for him to be moved into another class where he can succeed. I hate to see him lose a high school credit.” I find that sounding pathetically sincere about getting Junior into a situation more to his liking (and secretly mine) makes it more difficult for parents to be disagreeable.

Finally, if the student is still not up to par after the parent conference, repeat your concern that yearbook is just not right for him or her. Offer to make an appointment with the counselor to arrange a schedule change. Do not agree to give the student any more time to shape up.

If the student and/or his or her parents do not agree to a schedule change, plan to discuss this all together with the counselor or even the principal. At this point, it is essential that you pull out your now-lengthy list of the student’s misconduct and the interventions you have tried, thereby impressing the counselor and principal, no doubt.

During the conference, remember that no matter how obnoxious the student or his or her parents may be, as an educator you should show the most concern about the appropriateness of course work for him and the likelihood he can learn the skills and receive credit. It is hard for opponents to argue with someone who appears genuinely concerned about a student’s academic progress, openly empathetic with someone having difficulty dealing with class rules, and calmly tolerant of anyone who finds yearbook is not for him or her.

If the parents accuse you of simply having a personality conflict, do not get defensive. They may be wrong, but so what? Saying something like : “While I may disagree with that assessment, I’m sure I cannot change how you feel. Under the circumstances then, it is probably best there be a schedule change,” is always better than arguing.

Having said all this, you may still be stuck with the difficult student the rest of the semester, or worse yet, the rest of the year. In that case, I recommend doing as I would with students who turn out to lack adequate verbal skills or have trouble getting along on staff Ñ give them less-important work to do. Be honest with them, in private, that because of their abilities or personal characteristics, the yearbook staff simply cannot assign them Homecoming or a color student life spreads or group work on the mini-mag. You need to seem accepting of their individual differences, exuding the belief that you are certain they will succeed brilliantly with jobs personally selected for them. Leave the door open for them to “move up” to greater responsibilities, too, if they should earn the right.

You must handle such delicate situations calmly, matter-of-factly, and tactfully. Students who break rules lose privileges. Students who show themselves to be unreliable get different tasks than those who can be counted on. Students who cannot write well enough to be published need to make a different contribution to the yearbook.

If parents later complain that you are treating their child differently than the others, try saying: “I’m glad you noticed! I am going out of my way to find a way for Junior to succeed in yearbook since he cannot behave or perform as my other students usually do. I’m sure we can find simple tasks that he can do so that the quality of the yearbook is maintained and the school does not get into trouble missing plant deadlines which could cost us money.” This can be a real whiner-stopper. After all, in business, tasks are meted out according to abilities and merit (for employees who are not flat-out fired), and you are running a business. Differentiating yearbook tasks is sound methodology, which trains students for real life.

By the way, we do occasionally flat-out fire staff members. Plagiarism, for example, results in an automatic, immediate dismissal from staff. This consequence is communicated on day one and written in the staff manual.

So, follow sound educational procedures for handling difficult students and, in the end, do not be afraid to revise the division of labor according to abilities. If you find you have a student who cannot write, see if he or she can count. Put the student in charge of making a list of every student who is quoted or pictured in the book, even if another student will need to check it later. Give the student the club spread with the nicest, most-accessible sponsor and send the editor along to help with interviews so he or she will be able to finish the story if the student cannot.

I learned some terrific lessons about calmly dealing with students, parents and administrators while team-teaching many years with a wonderful lady named Juarenne Hester. Once, I overheard her talking with a student named Robert, the class miscreant. Robert slept in class, read paperback novels whenever he could, never turned in assignments and was feared by most students who considered him a threat outside class. His beligerance never seemed to ruffle Juarenne, though. Even as she handed him a slip of paper with his first-quarter “F” on it and Robert angrily blurted out, “An ‘F?’ I don’t deserve no ‘F!’ she had a soft, calm reply: “Oh, I know you don’t deserve an ‘F’ Robert. But it’s the lowest grade I can give.”

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Jan Hensel

Jan Hensel is the former adviser at Liberty High School in Liberty, Mo., where she taught yearbook, newspaper and photography.