Saturday, June 28, 2014

We Need Fewer Nice Teachers

A colleague tells the story of taking an on-line graduate course and being chastised for calling out fellow students for some fairly low-information posts on the topic. Could my colleague please be more polite, reword the posts so they were less "offensive." So he did, and the original posts were erased. The punchline, of course, is that the topic was censorship.

For some reason, it is often a problem in our profession that teachers value niceness over truth.

We sit in a professional development session and listen to a presenter give instructions that we know are questionable at best and just plain dead wrong at worst, but we nod and smile and politely avoid asking any questions or making any comments. After all, we don't want to be rude. We wouldn't like to make anybody uncomfortable. So the presenter leaves thinking he's hit a home run and we go back to our rooms and tell each other how terrible it was (but we don't tell our principal, because that would be rude).

When I was president of a striking union, I had many members who simply didn't want to do anything that might make anybody uncomfortable. Some members were pretty sure that the board and their attorney would be more giving and conciliatory if we were just nicer.

Sometimes this conflict avoidance turns teachers into institutional enablers. A principal creates a new policy that causes some problems, but rather than confront him with the problems, some classroom teachers go out of their way to fix the problem. In the worst version of this scenario, they then sulk because fixing the problem makes them sad, and they think the administration should see their sadness and feel compelled to address it. "Why don't they see the problem and fix it?" they ask. The answer-- because you fixed the problem already. The fact that you are now sad is not his problem. It is no more motivational than telling an alcoholic that you had to lie to cover up for him again.

This is not to say that we should not be team players and do our best for our schools. It is also not to say that we should be contentious shrews who pick a fight over every picayune peccadillo (how long have I waited for an excuse to stick those two words together).

Sometimes conflict happens, and you can only deal with it by dealing with it.

Trust me on this. It's one of the lessons I learned at Divorce School (or "Top Ten Ways I Blew Up My First Marriage") In ALL relationships in life, Rule #1 is You Must Show Up. When you run away or hide to avoid conflict, you break relationship rule #1.

People often blast Laziness as the big enemy of virtue; I think Comfort is far worse. We will go to amazing lengths to avoid being uncomfortable. Like a nice girl being pawed by a grade-A lout, we will allow ourselves to be victims of inexcusable indignities because we don't want to "be mean" or "cause a scene" or "make anyone uncomfortable."

Teachers do this way too much. Way too much. We avoid confronting or speaking out or just standing up and saying "I think that's wrong." We don't tell the truth, or we wrap it in comfortable layers of cotton until it is muffled and all its sharp edges are hidden.

But if you won't tell the truth, you can't be surprised that nobody hears it.

Given the choice between Being Nice and Telling the Truth (and we don't always have to choose between the two), pick Telling the Truth. Pick telling the truth. Show up. You cannot fix what's wrong in your relationship, whether it's with your spouse, your child, your students, your colleagues, your bosses, your profession-- you can't fix ANY of those relationships until you follow Rule #1 and Show Up. And you can't run away from an uncomfortable truth AND show up both at the same time.

Yes, sometimes conflict arrives when you wish it wouldn't. Sometimes we don't get to choose, just like the times that some student in a classroom does something so obvious and unmistakable that you sigh and think, "Well, dammit, now I have to do something." It's like your hungry crying baby or your parent with newly-diagnosed cancer or the spouse who announces they can't take it (whatever it is) one more minute-- you don't choose the fight, but to walk away from the fight is to walk away from the relationship. Sometimes you don't get to choose.

That's why it's generally no kindness to lie to people. And truthfully (and I say this as someone who used to, believe it or not, love Being Nice), Being Nice is basically a selfish impulse. It's not about making life easier for other people; it's about making life nicer, more comfy, for ourselves. Being Nice is not a virtue, particularly when it excuses running away from the truth.

The usual teacher niceness, our compliance, our love of rules, our belief in the hierarchy of schools, has been used against too often. Too many people feel they can kick us knowing that we will not complain, that we will in fact turn on any of our own number who do complain.

We don't have to be mean. We don't have to be unkind ("kind" and "nice" are not the same at all, but this post is already too long). But we do have to speak our truth. We do have to stop sitting silently when people say things in our hearing that are just not so. We have to stop taking attacks and slander on our profession because we don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable.

Believe it or not, I am not really a fighter. And one of my guiding principles is that life produces enough pain and challenge on its own, so it's a sin to make more pain and challenge in the world when you don't have to. Bu I also believe it's wrong to sit silent so that someone else can commit a wrong unnoticed and unchallenged. You can't just talk; you must also listen (also a whole other post). But you have to speak up. You have to value the truth over niceness.


  1. Bingo, you nailed the problem on the head. This is exactly why so-called ED "reformers" can do things to teachers that they wouldn't dare consider doing to Teamsters or the NRA.

  2. How do you convince the teachers in the building, or district, or state about this? Maybe this needs to come down from our unions, (if a state has one), to teach teachers how to be more responsible and honest and to speak up; for the sake of the children.

  3. Replies
    1. Read the post: Dear Teacher: Shut Up or I'll Starve Your Children ... it explains why so many teachers don't speak up.

  4. It's also why there are some (not all, but some) teachers coming out of education colleges who can't write a properly-spelled sentence or do anything above 5th-grade math. Their instructors are too nice and refuse to hold them accountable, or even tell them their basic skills needs work.

    When I was a union representative, the response from teachers to an untenable situation was usually, "Can't *you* do something? File a grievance or something?" Yes, I could and probably will, but it's nowhere near as effective as you all making your voices heard ... today, tomorrow, next week, next year. Yes, it's uncomfortable. Yes, it's hard. Yes, it takes time. No, it's not guaranteed to work. But if you really want to be effective, it's what needs to be done.