I work in a classroom in special ed. We have 9 students with autism, 8 one-on-one aides and a lead teacher. The teacher has the aides do a lot of her work, including writing curriculum programs for students and editing her progress reports (she is an awful writer). She is on eBay, answering personal emails, etc. many times during the day. When approached with any personnel issues, she gets extremely defensive. People are afraid to say anything because she will say she is "stressed" and doing the best she can. Her personal life is a mess... Bankruptcy, terrible marriage, etc.

How do I handle this? If I go to the director (her boss) it makes it worse.

We do not get performance reviews. I'm not sure why, the communication through the hierarchy is not clear either. She technically manages me.

  • Hi Donna, welcome to Workplace SE! Could you say a bit about the reporting structure in your school/school district? For instance, is the classroom teacher the one who does your performance reviews and generally manages you (e.g. the boss, as you've described) or is are personnel decisions ultimately made by school administrators, etc? (My mother is a special ed classroom aide, so I know that sometimes there are administrative and union hierarchies to work with, and that could affect people's answers here.)
    – jcmeloni
    Dec 12, 2012 at 2:58
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    We do not get performance reviews. I'm not sure why, the communication through the hierarchy is not clear either. Yes, she technically manages me. Dec 12, 2012 at 3:12
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    Great, thanks for the clarification. Could you say a bit more about what sort of outcome you're looking for in the "dealing with" part? Meaning, do you have specific behaviors of hers you want to change, for the good of the classroom, or specific things you want to implement and can't get going because of her issues, or is it that you want to be able to remain sane while working in this environment?
    – jcmeloni
    Dec 12, 2012 at 3:32
  • Why does it get worse if you talk to the director?
    – HLGEM
    Dec 12, 2012 at 22:38
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    @DonnaMerrell: I wonder if she's complaining about the director because the director has noticed her behavior already and commented to her about it. In any case, the director appears to be the appropriate place to direct your comments. Leave off anything personal and focus on the parts that make your work harder.
    – Adam V
    Dec 13, 2012 at 17:31

3 Answers 3


Working in an environment with a stressed manager or co-worker is always a challenge.

However, when that stress is based on their personal life, and spills into the work environment, it becomes unprofessional.

All of us get stressed from time to time, but when someone recognises they are stressed, but uses this as a badge to hide behind and doesn't take action then its not okay.

In any workplace, one stressed individual and their heightend aggressive (or passive/aggressive) responses can draw in other people, creating a "stress vortex" and ultimately a highly toxic workplace. In a workplace with a duty of care, this is very much not okay.

The really positive thing is that she has admited she is stressed.

If you can, then approaching your manager directly is probably the best course of action. As with any confrontation, the simplest approach is often to

  • stay calm and measured, and don't lose your temper
  • reflect back how the other person feels
  • use "however" to invert the situation
  • present your point of view

In this case : "I know you are stressed, and you have had a terrible time at home over the last few months. However, I'm starting to find your stress is impacting on me and the others here. We are really struggling without your leadership, and so I really need you to get some help with your stress, and start to get it under control."

I've had to do this several times with co-workers, but only once to a manager. It has worked on each occasion, but I will not pretend it was easy when managing upward.

If you don't want to do this, you need to go to her manager. Its important to highlight the professional impact this is having on you, and your co-workers, as well as the potential for some kind of escalation in the workplace.

Good luck.


It makes it worse for whom? Her? The students? You?

I understand and I am truly sympathetic regarding the demands associated with being responsible for children with special needs. I was a residential counselor for developmentally disabled adults for two years immediately after high school graduation. My girlfriend also has two children who are autistic. It takes a special person to assume such a vital responsibility, and not everyone can handle it. There is no shame in admitting your limitations, but if they aren't capable of recognizing them and acknowledging them, some has to do it for her. By remaining silent, you are not helping the situation, you are not helping the staff, you are not helping her, and you are not helping the students. She is simply being enabled to not carry her share of the load, and that is fair to no one, including her.

I'm not saying people don't go through bad periods in their life, and that they should be expected to weather every storm with grace. The problem here is that the teacher's inability to address her own shortcomings is having a negative effect that extends far beyond just her space. Someone needs to be told, so that something can be done as soon as possible. She could rebound and refocus, she could find help to get her through her situation so it doesn't affect her ability to do her job, or she could simply find a position which better suits her. In either case, this is clearly a problem desperately seeking a resolution.

UPDATE: If I wasn't clear before, you need to talk to the director.

  • I also have a son with Asperger's so have lived and worked with autistic kids! Dec 12, 2012 at 3:04
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    Hi Neil, how do you recommend Donna handle this situation?
    – jmort253
    Dec 12, 2012 at 3:55

Too stressed to do your job is too stressed to physically be at work. This is just an excuse and not even a good one. I have personally seen people successfully work when grieving a spouses death, when getting a divorce, when dealing with a serious illness in their immediate family, when dealing with a serious illnes of their own. If you can't work, there is no excuse for allowing this to continue. This person needs to be confronted with her poor performance and immediately placed on some sort of emergency leave to get her life together or be fired.

I would suggest documenting the things she does that should not be happening during work hours such as the ebay surfing. I would document the tasks that are her repsonsibility that she has assigned to you. Document when she is late or takes too long a lunch or behaves unprofessionally in front of the students.

Once you have facts and figures, set a meeting with all the other aides and the director and show him the documentation and ask that this person be put on leave or fired.

  • I know it isn't what you mean, but "I have personally seen people successfully work when grieving a spouses death, when getting a divorce, when dealing with a serious illness in their immediate family, when dealing with a serious illness of their own." may be interpreted by some as "people should just suck it up and work".
    – jcm
    Mar 14, 2015 at 4:36
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    Well, that's basically what HLGEM is saying...there are two options: either you are able to "suck it up and continue working" or you are affected by the situation in such a way that you should take time off to recuperate. Doing the first when you should be doing the second means you are doing a disservice to both yourself and your co-workers.
    – Cronax
    Mar 19, 2015 at 12:19
  • Having said that, I don't think documenting everything is the correct approach. If you approach the supervisor with that kind of material, you are basically showing that you have been spending company time on this that should be spent on other things. Basically, you're doing the same thing you're accusing the other party of. I would advise to simply talk to the co-worker in question, explain kindly but objectively how her actions are affecting the others, and if that yields no results to flag the issue with her supervisor and nothing more. Chances are the supervisor is already aware.
    – Cronax
    Mar 19, 2015 at 12:24

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