The label “narcissist” has become relevant in the United States in recent weeks and months. I will avoid comment on current events, but I will observe the concept is useful in understanding the actions of some educators.
For the professional psychologist familiar with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder has a very specific meaning and is made only when certain criteria are met. For the layperson, the label narcissist can be applied much more liberally. In both cases, however, one who is a narcissist has an elevated sense of self-worth and importance which is manifest in several characteristics; we recognize a narcissist as one who:
- Expects constant attention and validation;
- Expects special attention and recognition;
- Is arrogant;
- Believes himself or herself to be beyond criticism;
- Lacks empathy.
These are all variable personality characteristics, and depending on a range of factors everyone demonstrates these on occasion. When we recognize these characteristics are displayed frequently and consistently, an individual earns the label “narcissist” by laypeople. When the antisocial behaviors demonstrated by the narcissist exceed normal limits and adversely affect relationships, a professional may apply the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
The association between self-esteem, narcissism and the teaching profession is interesting. In general, teachers need greater than normal self-esteem; this allows us to interact with students, colleagues, parents, and other stakeholders as we do. The current thinking surrounding narcissism suggests that it arises from excessively weak self-esteem; the elevated sense of self-worth is an unconscious and misguided attempt to strengthen one’s sense of self. Differentiating one with a strong self-esteem who is having an extreme day and a narcissist can be difficult.
At several times during my almost 30 years in education, I have found myself working for narcissistic leaders and working with narcissistic teachers. My experience and the reading that helped me understand those people led me to the observations described here. Look for these actions or reactions to identify the narcissist in your midst.
Ex officio authority
Educators are in positions of authority. Teachers plan how students will spend hours, days, weeks, and school years. Administrators have even greater authority, as their decisions affect teachers’ careers and children’s (and their family’s) lives in important and permanent ways.
On occasion, every educator uses his or her authority to justify decisions. When educators are transparent and admit they are using authority and the rationale for it, students usually understand. Students will often comply with the use of authority to mediate conflicts, give direction to groups that need it, and maintain order. The teacher who decides “Jimmy will pitch this inning and Sally will pitch next inning” is using authority to stop the argument and allow students to play in the few minutes they have a recess rather than argue. Those educators who take time to explain their rationale to students when using authority have more credibility with students, and they are more likely to follow unexplained authoritarian decisions from those teachers.
Narcissistic educators use the authority of their positions as the default rationale for decisions, and the explanation is simple, “You will do this because I am the teacher (or principal or superintendent or whatever), and I decided it.” There tends to be little recognition of other circumstances, and the unspoken demeanor is “all must defer to and recognize my greater expertise.” Teachers who adopt this stance lose credibility with students, and administrators who adopt this stance towards teachers lose credibility as well.
A corollary to ex officio authority is narcissists’ expectation that all will use his or her formal title. Students refer to me by many names and nicknames (gackerman which is my network user name is frequently used), but if I insisted on being called “Dr. Ackerman,” I would be demonstrating the narcissistic characteristic. If an adult insists other adults refer to him or her with a formal title, then one is most assuredly are naming a narcissist.
Education is a complex endeavor and initiatives, projects, and lessons fail and fail frequently. The reasons are many and diverse and in many cases unpredictable. Most educators are able to recognize those failures as a part of the process of designing and refining their practice. In the jargon of organizational leadership, those educators “own” their role in the failure accept a role in improving further effort.
The narcissistic educator is decidedly Pollyannaish regarding failure; the excessively optimistic stance is demonstrated in several ways. First, failures are denied. Even when there is strong evidence that the individual narcissist was responsible for bad decisions, they will reinterpret the outcomes in a positive manner. Second, others who maintain there was failure are blamed for it and become the targets for future blame.
Third, in the face of persistent calls to recognize failure, the narcissistic educator will commonly feign ownership in a sarcastic manner. One particularly narcissistic administrator for whom I worked was known to respond, “Well, I’m sorry I’m not perfect…” and then walked (actually storming away is a more accurate verb) away when others refused to accept his Pollyannaish interpretation. He missed the point that whoever was challenging him was not seeking perfection, but they were seeking to understand the situation and find which part of the system failed.
Narcissists Flock Together Until They Don’t
“Birds of a feather flock together,” is an adage that applies especially well to narcissistic educators. They tend to form tightly closed cliques and support each other’s sense of self-worth with a style of groupthink that supports the members. These groups have tight boundaries, and the insiders regard outsiders with disdain.
The interesting characteristic of these groups, and the narcissistic individuals who belong, is that they tend to dissolve at a moment’s notice. Most frequently, a disruptive event will trigger the dissolution, and the group seeks to reorganize groups. In many cases, the reorganization is relative to an individual, and the groups are “for” and “against.”
In the 21st century, social media plays a part in this phenomenon. Facebook is full of groups that seek to organize in support or opposition to an individual or a program. The educators who participate in them (frequently covertly) are almost certainty narcissists.
Narcissists Challenge Competence
The narcissistic educator has a decidedly adversarial reaction to competence. Competent professionals tend to be:
- Stable because they can justify their actions with a well-articulated rationale;
- Insightful because they are constructively critical of themselves and others;
- Humble because they have internalized their competence;
- Confident they can adapt to new situations.
The narcissistic educator is likely to perceive these qualities in him or herself, but few others (except for other members of the clique) recognize these characteristics in the narcissist.
Narcissistic educators do identify competence in colleagues and will actively attempt to weaken those individuals, although they will not admit it. A narcissistic administrator will:
- Disempower competent teachers by assigning others to roles of formal leadership (the competent science teacher will be replaced as the chair person of the curriculum committee, for example);
- Diffuse competent teachers by separating them in time and place (interdisciplinary teams of competent teachers will be broken up);
- Deflect changing the focus of the school away from their areas of competence (the competent literacy teachers will find the school begins math initiatives).
While the changes to disempower, diffuse, and deflect are supported with an independent rationale and justified with Pollyannaish reasoning, these actions are familiar to those who work for narcissistic administrators.
Teachers who are narcissists rely on lecture and instructionism as their pedagogy. This seems to follow from their elevated sense of self-importance, which contributes to their perception of themselves as the expert with the correct version of the curriculum.
An interesting corollary appears to be the narcissistic teacher’s reliance on a single explanation. When a student asks for clarification, the narcissistic teacher will respond with the same explanation that has been given previously. This is grounded in the assumption that his or her understanding is complete and clear, and that the difficulty in learning must be with the students’ attention or effort or capacity to learn. Teachers with minimal narcissistic tendencies will recognize that different individuals may need different explanations and will quickly different approaches and see that as posing no threat to their abilities.
A similar effect appears when a narcissist is a principal (or other administrator). The narcissistic administrator becomes a strong advocate for a single approach to teaching (typically method of instruction, less frequently a student-centered approach); regardless of the nature of the method, the administrator imposes it and prescribes how it is to be implemented.
Excessive Demands on Others
Schools cannot operate without the work of support staff, and this includes both licensed professionals such as librarians, technology specialists, art and physical education teachers, as well as unlicensed professionals, including janitorial and secretarial staff, computer technicians, and others. The narcissistic teacher keeps students late, expects them to miss other classes (especially classes like art and physical education—in an much earlier version of this essay, I included shop teachers, but they are exceedingly and distressingly rare today). All narcissistic educators expect support staff to immediately attend to their needs regardless of the other demands.
Reactions of Convenience
Another corollary to ex officio authority is a seemingly random reaction to proposed changes in pedagogy. All educators are familiar with the endless series of new teaching methods that are advocated by leaders. While we find it tiresome, most educators are willing to try new practices (within reason) if they feel supported and if they feel they are empowered to assess the new practices. Teachers will formally (and informally) apply the test “Is it helping students?” to judge new practices. When teachers are convinced about the value, they are generally quite flexible and accommodating to new ideas.
Compared to other educators, who exercise precaution and quickly adopt new practices that are reasonable, narcissistic educators adopt a rationale of convenience when deciding how to react. As a result, they (paradoxically) tend to both adopt new practices more quickly than colleagues and they tend to show more inertia than others.
Narcissistic educators tend to adopt new practices with little reflection or evaluation. This appears to be done with the desire to be perceived as “on the cutting edge,” and they are more likely to adopt these methods if it will help disempower, diffuse, or deflect competence. The administrator who attends a conference and returns having spoken with a vendor, thus “discovering” the next great curriculum initiative of the school is a narcissist. Narcissistic educators appear to be easily swayed by the self-serving research done by vendors.
The narcissistic educator will remain pedagogically unchanged in the face of reason and evidence that their practice is flawed. In recent decades, a growing body of research has supported “student-centered” practice in which students’ previous experience is an important factor in determining instruction and students are given an active role in deciding some detail of curriculum. Narcissistic educators will frequently listen to the reasoning for adopting the practices, and then conclude, “Well, I want my students to do well, so I really am ‘student-centered.’” This is an example of how the narcissistic educator regards his or her own work with a Pollyannaish perspective. They are very positive about their work, regardless of the true experience for students.
The narcissism is damaging to the cultures we need within school communities to promote out diverse student populations to become the flexible and innovative thinkers that they need to become and that our society desperately needs. I hope this conclusion has been established in my brief observations of this subpopulation of educators.
The question, “How do I respond if I find a narcissistic educator?” is easily answered: “Leave.” What leaving looks like depends on many factors, but narcissists prevent teaching and learning, isolate yourself from those individuals, but if they do not leave (voluntarily or forcibly), then you must.