How Can I Stop Rescuing A Problem Assistant?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about irresponsible dependent assistant: Also, I have to work with side by side with Jane 40 hours a week. I don’t want to provide any more assistance to Jane because her problems are a bottomless pit but I want to have a good working relationship with her. I just want this problem to go away.

 I am a Special Education teacher at a middle school. Since the beginning of this school year, I have been working with an Instructional Assistant who has a boatload of personal problems and has been “written up” twice in the last three years for theft in the workplace. At the end of the last school year, I was told by my principal who my new Instructional Assistant would be. When I mentioned to coworkers who my new Instructional Assistant would be, several coworkers warned me to be cautious with this new coworker as previous teachers that she had worked with had suspected her of stealing school supplies from their classroom.

This Instructional Assistant, “Jane” I will call her, has a large collection of school supplies and admits to a passion for children’s items such as “Hello Kitty” notebooks, crayons, and children’s videos. When she was in the hospital on parent conference day, she was terrified that the teacher that she had worked with the previous year would search her desk and accuse her of stealing her school supplies. I have had a couple of small items from my classroom disappear this year and although I can’t prove it, I strongly suspect that Jane took them.

Honestly, if this were the only problem with Jane, I could live with it but her personal problems are overwhelming me. Jane has no transportation to work. I offered to drive Jane home from work each day even though it is out of my way because I felt sorry for her as she had a very difficult childhood and her personal life is a mess.Her husband only works occasionally, a total of two weeks last year and has brought in very little income in the past ten years. I assumed that the reason for this was the poor job market in the area that we live and the lack of transportation to work.

Jane recently told me that her husband has a CDL license (truck driving) but she won’t allow him to work out of town because he has high blood pressure and a “bad back” I know that to renew a CDL license, he has to pass a physical so that doesn’t appear to me to be a legitimate reason to not work. Also, there are gas stations and restaurants within walking distance of their house so if he really wanted a job, I believe that he would have one. According to Jane, they have no transportation because they owe the department of motor vehicles $2,000 in fines for driving without insurance and are unable to pay the fines.

Within the first two weeks of school, she cried to me about needing money for her medication, having no transportation and having no money for groceries or cat food. After talking to our Guidance Counselor, I secured the telephone numbers to the health department for medication and our county bus system which provides transportation to work for low income individuals. She didn’t follow through on calling either.

Jane is also an animal hoarder. She has 24 cats; none of which were spayed and neutered or had rabies vaccines when I met her. Being the animal lover that I am and using the resources of low cost clinics, I have paid close to $2,000.00 of my own money to have these cats spayed/neutered and obtain rabies vaccines. I’ve also paid for medication to treat an upper respiratory infection in this colony of cats and purchased cat food on several occasions.

I have contacted animal welfare for assistance but have received none as they are overwhelmed with unwanted cats and dogs.I am planning to place an advertisement in the local newspaper this weekend to try to find homes for some of these cats but I am gathering from some of her comments that she is not willing to let many cats go to new homes. I have shown numerous videos to our class on the importance of spaying and neutering your pets and proper care of pets.I also had my Veterinarian speak to her about this overpopulation problem but I’m afraid it has been to no avail.

At the beginning of the school year, Jane’s husband bummed a ride from me to the liquor store and asked me for grocery money. I ignored his request for money and informed Jane that I don’t make loans. Jane and her husband are chronically late on their rent and utilities as well. Jane doesn’t ask directly for money but she breaks out in tears at least once a week over money problems or just out of the blue, asks “Are you mad at me?” and starts crying.

Jane has three adult children in the area who are unable or unwilling to help her with transportation or finances. I recently discovered from Jane that she tried to sue a local pharmacy because she slipped and fell on an ice patch in the parking lot so naturally I am uncomfortable with driving her in my vehicle. Would she sue me if I had an accident? I also recently discovered that her husband who portrays himself to be a former Vietnam POW is in fact not a POW.I’ve spoke to my principal (who is sympathetic and advised me not to help anymore) and the Supervisor of Special Education about these issues.

They referred the problem to our Employee Assistance person who explained to me that I should try to get Jane to contact employee assistance to get help with transportation and prescription co-pays as she has not had much success when she approaches employees, but I am feel certain that Jane will not do so. The problem is this, Jane’s problems have become by problems and I am feeling upset, resentful, depressed and angry.

This situation has greatly impacted my life; I have been obsessed by this. My family and friends are tired of my complaining and everyone recommends that I stop helping Jane because they believe that she is taking advantage of me.My problem is that I am not very assertive and I hate confrontation. Also, I have to work with side by side with Jane 40 hours a week. I don’t want to provide any more assistance to Jane because her problems are a bottomless pit but I want to have a good working relationship with her. I just want this problem to go away. Please help! What should I do?

Signed, Tired of Being the Rescuer

Dear Tired of Being the Rescuer:

I don’t want to be excessively harsh, but I must admit that your letter frustrated me a great deal. Not only is a very problematic employee allowed to continue her employment, apparently indefinitely, but her ineffective, problematic behavior is supported royally by those who should know better. Honestly, can’t you see how unreasonable and inappropriate your actions and the actions of other teachers and the principal have been as it relates to this employee? She may or may not have a variety of mental or emotional problems, but she has certainly become an expert at manipulation!

Think about this: What professional development book have you ever read that said actions such as yours and others in response to this employee would be effective? None. If a student told you about helping someone to the extent you and others have been helping this employee, would you tell the student to continue doing it, no matter how much it harms the student? Of course you wouldn’t. If the newspaper did an article about 24 cats living in bad conditions and dying of ill health, would it look good for them to print that you not only knew of it, but instead of stopping the unhealthy situation you encouraged it with your financial support? No. And, if the principal could do it over again, knowing what she knows now about this employee, would she hire her? I’m sure she wouldn’t.The other concern you should have is that if you don’t get yourself and this problem under control your credibility and reputation will suffer even further.

You can bet there are some already who are shaking their heads about YOUR problem as much as that of the assistant. You know that is the case, if you consider how many people you have talked to about this and their advice to stop helping her so much. I’m sure some of them were shocked at your judgement about it. That’s not the way you want to be viewed.You asked about how to make the problem go away. Your school should be doing that for you, with your help.

The best solution is to document her ineffective behavior, document her emotional outbursts, investigate the stealing, find her stolen items and dismiss her. But, I doubt that will happen and she will continue being an albatross around every assigned teacher’s neck, instead of an assistant. Doesn’t anyone see how ludicrous that is? In this era especially, when unbalanced employees do bizarre things,it should become even more apparent that she should not be working in that setting. If you only want her to stop asking you for help and for you to no longer feel obligated to help her, here is one way to do it that would work and would keep you from ever having to help her again:Either write your own letter to yourself from the principal and let her know what you are doing, or ask your principal to write one for you.

I’m certain your principal would do it, since she knows how destructive this situation is and how much worse it could get. In the letter, (either a pretend-one or real) have your principal forbid any of the actions that you have been doing. You can word it in the way that covers all of it and use the terminology appropriate for your school.Consider something like this, which you could give as a draft to your principal:Dear Ms. XXX, It has come to my attention that you have been engaged in actions that, while likely are well-meant, are not appropriate for the teacher and teaching assistant relationship as it involves Jane Smith. Specifically, you have provided a wide range of financial and personal aid and support and have become involved in Ms. Smith’s personal life excessively and inappropriately.

This has the potential for presenting a severe liability risk for the school and must stop.Therefore, I am directing you, starting immediately, to cease any and all activities and assistance not directly related to the classroom or the school, for Jane Doe or any other employee. This includes but is not limited to loans, providing money for home or personal items, payment of bills, giving financial advice, providing transportation in your vehicle to and from work, or other actions related to an employee’s private life, their home or family or any other personal situation that does not directly involve work.If an employee is in need of assistance related to issues outside of work you should briefly refer the employee to our Employee Assistance Program or suggest that they research the community resources available, since those resources are trained to assist in such matters.

You are directed to not provide personal advice or assistance yourself, not become involved in researching the community assistance available and not counsel an employee about personal concerns. You are also directed to inform Ms. Smith or other employees who you have assisted, that you can no longer do so. If any employee attempts to coerce you into countermanding this directive, you are to inform the school administration immediately.

Failure to follow this directive can result in sanctions, up to termination. Principal XX XXX Give a copy of the letter to your assistant immediately, the next time you see her. Don’t hint around, get it out and get it over with. Tell her that you were asking around about ways to help her with her problems and apparently someone told someone else and you received that letter. Don’t blame anyone, of course, just say, “I can see why I’m being told this because I realize I HAVE been overly involved with things that aren’t really my business. But, as you can see, I have to stop that immediately. So, I can’t do anything else away from school about your cats or anything. I’m sorry. But, at least you have your kids and I’m sure you can find some resources until you can work the problems out.”

Chat for a few minutes, then wrap it up and don’t let her talk to you about it again. If she does, THEN you do have a reason to talk to your principal and I would hope you would do so.The bottom line is that everyone at your school has created this situation, perhaps you more than others. But someone has to stop it and it looks like it should be you. You will be respected for your stand on it, I can assure you! That alone is reason enough to do the right thing.Best wishes with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens. But, don’t give in and don’t give up. This has to be a line in the dirt thing, where you stand your ground. Good luck!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.