Sunday, June 19, 2016

To Lounge or Not To Lounge: The Venting Question

Most beginning teachers have heard the advice-- stay out of the lounge.

That advice has been echoing around the internet for the last month or so, as exemplified by pieces like this one at Edutopia. The concerns is that lounges are where the negative teachers collect, where all that venting about the terrible students occurs.

Should teachers vent? Well, I would be a spectacular hypocrite to say no, sitting here and typing away at what is essentially my personal venting project. So, yeah-- teachers should totally vent.

But there is venting, and there is venting.

Look, if you don't find teaching occasionally frustrating, you're probably not doing it right. And anti-venters sometimes forget that public school teachers work with the entire range of human behavior. Think about the worst person you know, the worst person you've ever read about in the news. That person was, at some point, a child in some teacher's classroom. Some teacher had to deal with the younger version of that awful person.

The one reliable way to never be frustrated in a classroom is to not care what happens. That is not a good sign about a teacher's professional swellness.

But it's also not a good sign if all of the venting is in the form of blaming. There is a difference between "I am going to tear all of my hair out trying to get through to my third period class" and "My third period students are so stupid that there's just no point. Jesus could not teach those morons."

There is a problem if venting takes the form of "othering" students. Any venting that slaps a dehumanizing label on a students is a bad sign. This can be tricky for outsiders, because while there are proper professional terms for a students who faces certain cognitive and processing challenges, or a student who has problem reading and responding properly to social cues and who demonstrates a need to develop some non-cognitive skills, our culture has handy short-hand terms for people with such issues. In other words, when a teacher uses words like "dumb" or "jerk" in a lounge, she doesn't necessarily mean what a civilian means by those terms.

As shades-of-grey as some of this can be, I nevertheless believe in drawing a hard line at othering labels. If a teacher is dealing with stress and frustration by reducing students to something other than people (It's not me-- I just have a big roomful of dummies), then we have a problem.

The other factor is time and repetition. There are going to be days that you might feel a level of frustration, anger, hurt, despair beyond anything you usually feel, and you will say things that, a day later, you would gladly take back. But if someone is bitching and moaning day after day after day, then we have a problem.

To look at from another angle-- sometimes what comes out when someone "vents" is a momentary thought or fleeting reaction, and sometimes a "vent" reveals a more deep-seated and problematic attitude. The first can be an opportunity for sharing, support and problem-solving, while the second can be a sign of trouble and a source of spreading morale rot. The first is necessary for revealing and understanding issues in order to deal with them, while the second is just an excuse for meanness.

I'm a big believer that there's no issue that can't be discussed or spoken about, but I'm also a big believer that being unkind is always a bad thing. Be blunt, be clear, be direct, even be harsh-- but never forget that you are talking about actual human beings with lives and feelings of their own, and that you are supposed to be the professional charged with watching out for the interests of that small human.

3 comments:

  1. To me it always seemed like the problem for most teachers is that we have so little time when we're not actually teaching or getting things ready for a later class, so little time when we're with other teachers. So what little time we have with other teachers ends up being spent venting. If we had more time we could just vent for the first few minutes. We'd have more time to just talk with other teachers professionally and to collaborate. I don't like mandated collaboration because I work better with some people than with others. But if we had more time we could learn more from each other and find natural ways to collaborate.

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  2. I remember the days of sitting in the staff room, talking about the latest movies or TV shows, maybe listening to another teacher talk about their grandchildren. When another teacher would complain or steer the conversation to work issues, they were effectively frozen out. Nowadays, there is no staff room, no casual time to chat, it's constantly go-go-go. I know nothing about my fellow teachers, never participate in after school activities or even volunteer. I just don't have the desire since there is no more prep periods. We're always working on something. Even non-teachers get a break from it all. Unfortunately people think we should always be "on"!

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