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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The dangers of complaining and how to change the conversation

I have never been a big complainer. I just have never really seen the point in doing it. Complaining about students or a group of students or an entire class has never really been something I view as productive. Sure I have had my share of tough students and have done some my fair share of venting, but even in such moments the purpose is not to indict a student or throw my hands up in the air and say "Woe is me". For me it is recognizing that what I am doing is not working and that I need to figure out a better way. I am a positive person by nature, so dwelling on the negativity is not how I like to do things.

One of the things that bugs me is when I hear that a particular class, I don't mean 5th period, I mean this years 8th graders, of students is 'tough' or 'behind' or some other less than desirable characteristic. It is very rare that I hear positive traits attributed to classes. Basically I see these blanket statements about a class of students as way to keep expectations low, vent, and make excuses as to why students are not performing well. Overall I think it is a bunch of garbage. Sure there are some kids that are tough and that may be behind among other things, but to label an entire class as such goes against just about everything I believe in as a teacher.

First of all how is helpful to make such a statement? Are you just making an excuse for why students aren't doing well? Is it a way to vent and wash your hands of how things are going? I can't see a real good reason for making such statements. They make you treat and feel differently about your students than you should. I for one never feel better about students that I have complained about. If anything it makes me less likely to help them out, not more.

Secondly I have never seen any issue get better with complaining. Certainly issues need to be addressed. There is a huge difference between noting shortcomings and failings and setting forth to improve than to just outright complain about something. Typically in these conversations there is little said about what can be done, or here is what I am doing to make improvements. I get the need to vent at times but I don't see labeling a whole class of students as a good way of doing it.

I guess I can't really write a post about this without making some suggestions. Here is my first thought. Don't let anyone dictate how you think about a particular student let alone a group of students. I have had countless students do great in my class that were tough in other classes. I only have control over what happens in my room. Sure I want all students to behave and do well in all their classes, but ultimately I really only have control over how I treat them.

When I do have trouble with students I look first at myself. Many times how I handled the situation has led to problems. There are many reasons students may be tough, I try to make sure I am not one of those reasons.

One of the most effective ways to get others to stop complaining is to first not feed the flames. When those around me engage in such talk I don't add to it. The quickest way I have found to end such conversations is to say "Well I really like this group of kids" or "I really like _______" Almost as soon as you say it the complaining will cease.

One of the most productive statements I have found is to say "How can we help ________ out?" The entire dynamic of the conversation shifts from condemnation to concern and action. There is an admission that we can and need to do better in some way. That while these students have many things in their lives that are out of our control, we can and do have an impact when they are in our classrooms.

I believe that each one of my students is capable of learning and of doing great things. If I label them this will limit what I believe they can do and it does effect how I treat them. It is foolish to believe otherwise. Complaining about students has never made me better. It doesn't inspire or motivate me in anyway. Teaching is not easy and certainly there those that make it tougher than it needs to be, but complaining does little to improve situations. As we prepare for new students let us keep an open mind and make our own expectations and focus on the present instead of dwelling on the past.

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