We love to complain, but is that all we’re doing?
By Paula Marantz Cohen
Teachers, especially in the field of the humanities, love to complain. We are critics by nature, and what is complaining but informal criticism? We cast a critical eye not only on the details of our work but on the larger world around us. Complaining is cathartic and brings teachers together. If a group of us agrees that the new strategic plan is a waste of time, energy, and money, we feel united in our irritation and more warmly toward each other, sharing as we do our superior insight into this waste of time, energy, and money.
I like complaining as much as the next guy—and I’m good at it. Yet I was made to rethink my habit when I read a new book by a friend and colleague entitled Journey to a High-Achieving School: Eliminate Destructive Excuses. Fred J. Abbate and his co-authors, Ken Biddle and Joseph M Tomaselli, wrote about seven common excuses educators give when things aren’t working for them. The book convinced me that my complaints are sometimes (not always) just excuses—a way of not doing what might be done to make a situation better.
I should note that Abbate et al. are directing their book at principals and superintendents of school systems, not at professors like me. Still, I could see where their ideas could be tweaked to apply to any professional complainer.
The seven excuses they delineate as endemic to educational leaders are:
• You just don’t get our problem!
• Students just aren’t interested in learning.
• Our community doesn’t support us; it’s probably against us!
• Change is something that teachers by nature resist.
• Tenure makes good teaching about as valuable as acne.
• School leaders are really terrible models of excellence.
• School-board politics will destroy every one of us anyway.
If we’re speaking about professors rather than administrators, we could change #4: “Change is something that teachers by nature resist” to “Substantive support for good teaching is something administrators by nature resist.” And #5: “Tenure makes good teaching as valuable as acne” to “Most administrators don’t care about teaching; they care about instituting new initiatives that can raise the university’s profile and earn them higher salaries.” And #7: “School board politics will destroy every one of us anyway” to “Bureaucracy (and unnecessary layers of administration) can get in the way of getting anything done anyway.”
The point here is not the individual complaints or excuses. As the authors note, there are infinite permutations and combinations of these. The seven given are just examples, the number chosen perhaps because it evokes the Seven Deadly Sins. The point, rather, is that by thinking of the complaint as an excuse, you immediately change the tenor of the conversation. I would never want to give up the fun of a good complaint-fest with colleagues, but I do think there’s value in looking past our complaints to the excuses that may underlie them.
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and the recent What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.
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