Sunday, October 13, 2013

How To Be That Guy

One of the more annoying in-service experiences is to sit in a room full of people smiling and nodding who afterwards step into the hall and begin to tear apart how much they disagreed with the Stupid Content of the presentation they just sat through, smiling and nodding. You could ask why they do this, but I already know the answer-- they don't want to be That Guy.

You know. That Guy. The guy who always asks questions, who always acts borderline rude to presenters, and who keeps prolonging the agony of the session when everyone just wants to get on their way to lunch. The guy whose very voice can set dozens of eyes a-rolling.

Well, in this day and age, we need more of That Guy.

Now, we don't need to confuse him with That Other Guy. That Other Guy is just kind of an asshole. I've been both That Guy and That Other Guy, so I can help you hit the mark. Here are what to do, or not, to be That Guy.

Most importantly, keep in mind that you are usually dealing with a delivery person, not the creator of the Stupid Content you're being subjected to. If you want to Fight The Man, I salute you. But you need to recognize that The Man is not there. All you've got is some lower-level flunky for the state DoE.

This is important to remember because this guy will never, ever break down in front of you and cry, "Yes, I see now that objective-based-project-guided-cooperative-learning-module teaching will never work. I hereby abolish it!" Even if he admits that his content is crap, all he can do is shrug as if to say, "Hey, I have kids to feed, too."

So your goal is not to break him or turn him. Your job is to appear in his report to his boss.

A win for you is when he goes back to the main office next Friday and tells his boss, "I've spent the whole week tramping around this region, and there isn't anybody out there who is buying what we're selling."

That in turn means that in the meeting you must be reasonable, fair, and hard-nosed. The fact that the presenter is advocating (or even requiring) a bunch of educational malpractice can't send you off the deep end, because as soon as you start frothing and barking you become easily dismissible. Instead of reporting back, "I think we have a problem," he gets to say, "I met one guy with a problem."

Likewise, do not fall into the trap of performing for your like-minded buddies. Activist groups often fall into this peculiarly useless habit of hollering something obnoxious and then turning to each other and yelling, "Boy, we really told him!" High fives all around, while the supposed target shakes his head and goes his way, unchanged, uninformed, unimpressed. Preaching to the choir is worse than ineffective, because it lulls the choir members into thinking they've really accomplished something and now it's Miller time.

So here are the tools in your arsenal.

Body language. Suppress your well-trained instincts to be polite and attentive. If he just said something objectionable, frown, scowl, shake your head. You know how this works. You know how you feel when your classroom is filled with students who are visibly disengaged and resistant.

Interrupt, if the format allows it, with questions of substance. Don't just object; responding to an objection is easy and, more to the point, is entirely his choice of options. A question begs a response, and it can help you nail down what may be a nagging feeling that you don't like what you're hearing, but you can't put your finger on it yet.

Also, the worst of what we're hit with includes a variety of assumptions that are generally just slid through quietly without comment. Not coincidentally, it's these assumptions that are often the most objectionable part. So drill down to these with "Why" questions. Why do it that way? Why are we using that metric?

Questions of substance also include requests to back things up. We have heard a million times how teachers helped write the Common Core, and we have said back a zillion times that it's not true. You know what I would have done if I were shilling for the Core and teachers had helped write it-- I would have gotten some or all of those teachers to pen articles such as "How I Spent My Summer Vacation Writing the Common Core with My BFF David Coleman" and I would include a sidebar entitled "Here Are the Specific Parts I Wrote." Has anybody seen those articles? Send me a link. I'll wait.

Okay, kidding. I won't wait because I don't have that kind of time (technically called "forever") to wait. But my point is, ask questions like "So who exactly were the teachers who worked on this?" or "Which research exactly did you use to figure this program out?"

Questions of substance also include requests for clarification or detail. The trick is not to phrase them as challenges, a la "How the hell could that possibly work?" Instead, just ask for more detail. "How exactly would that assignment play out from start to finish?"

Here's how to gauge whether you are asking a question as That Guy or That Other Guy. That Guy questions wouldn't bother somebody who knew what they were talking about one little bit. In fact, for someone who had actual answers for any of his stuff would welcome these questions, because such questions would only strengthen his case. When there really is a wizard behind the curtain, he doesn't care whether you pay attention to him or not.

But if he doesn't have answers, that's your cue to be just as relentless as Toto. Keep asking. Keep pressing.

Other quick tips.

Yield ground where appropriate. Don't get so hung up on being oppositional that you end up arguing that water is not wet just because the presenter said it is. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

If you can, talk to the presenter afterwards. On more than one occasion, I have had presenters from the state, after the meeting was over, admit that their stuff was crap, and more. This is where I learn the most, and this is often where, if I haven't been That Other Guy in the meeting, real dialogue can take place.

Have a thick skin. Some of these people will push back, hard. Sometimes they're just angry. Sometimes they are just trying to get YOU to be angry and say something stupid so that you can be easily dismissed as That Other Guy. Hold your ground, and keep your cool.

Observe the three-time rule. This is actually an informal rule on a message board I've spent time on: if I've made the exact same point three times and the conversation isn't going anywhere, it's time for me to shut up.

Final note for this not-deliberately-long post.

The teacher population is generally observed to be about 85% blandly pleasant Good Team Players and 15% fire-breathing activist rage-monsters (most of them, for some reason, teaching middle school). Both have their place and their uses, but there is a need these days for a third group: teachers who are firmly, deliberately, unashamedly advocates for our profession and our professional values and judgment. And there is a need for us to take that stance 24/7, and that includes when someone is standing before us and telling us things that we know aren't so. Many of these people now have power, and they expect us 85% of us to be pushovers and the rest to be beatable. We need to show them that we are firm, steady, no-longer-silent force for education and children, and that means that sometimes, we have to be That Guy.


  1. This fire breathing middle school teacher appreciates this post!! Thank you for advice that will help us ALL in this fight.

  2. And another fire breathing middle school teacher also appreciates this post! I'm using your tips. Immediately. Wish I'd read something like this about fifteen years ago. Hmm... wasn't as great a need for it then, I guess.

  3. From the blandly pleasant group, this newbee will also be using your tips, because the 2 fire breathing mentors I've come to trust have so advised.