A complaint on complaining

My first flirtations with leadership came when I was 26. I was named Team Leader and had visions of a community of learners that would be unlike anything seen before. I was lucky to work with teammates who had vision, drive, and the desire to try new things. My years with that team were amazing.

But being a team leader meant going to Building Leadership Team meetings. At one of the first ones I attended, I disagreed with a policy. Today, I have no idea what that policy was, but I was against it. I talked about how stupid it was, and pointless, and how it didn’t help teachers or students. When an assistant principal asked, “what do you suggest?” my answer was, “I don’t know, but not this.”

I walked out of that meeting proud. I had taken a stand against something that I didn’t agree with. I’m sure I told everyone I could find about the soapbox I had stood on to protest this awful policy. I was completely immature.

A week later, my principal left me a dreaded, “See me” note in my mailbox. I went in to his office nervous about what would happen next. He had a tendency to lose his cool at times and scream until you could see the veins pulsing in his head. He asked me to close the door, and I braced myself for what would happen when it latched. To my absolute surprise, he was sitting in his chair perfectly calm. He motioned for me to sit across from him, and I did. There was a long silence before he spoke. “Chris, what do you want to be known for in this building?”

I wasn’t prepared for that question, and stumbled through something about being a great teacher. Silence again. What he said next changed the way I would behave in future meetings. “Last week, you made it very clear that you didn’t agree with a school policy. But when asked to make a suggestion, you said, ‘I don’t know, but not this.’ If you want the respect of others, which all of us do, you need to give it. If you don’t have an idea of how to make the situation better, don’t complain about it.”

I was reminded of this today when I listened to a podcast. A teacher was on talking about amazing things that he can do in his classroom, but he complained about the curriculum he had to teach, the way professional development was handled in his building, and the policies of the district. In fact, he seemed to take great pride in pointing out all the problems education has from building to district to state to nationwide.

I kept waiting for him to talk about what he did to fix them, but that statement never came. He complained about the curriculum, but didn’t seem to volunteer to fix it. He complained about professional development, but didn’t say that he volunteered to lead better sessions. He complained about everything, but never said what his role was in making the situation better.

I cringed as I listened because I’ve been there. I’ve been that teacher who lacked the maturity to push towards a better direction. I was the one who complained without a solution in mind. I was the one who complained about the people standing up on Institute Day sharing something, while not volunteering to do it myself. But as my leadership roles have changed, I have a new appreciation for how to act and respond. I’ve spent the past three years working with a partner from another building on new assessments for our district without being compensated for weekly lunch meetings, summer work sessions, and countless hours of brainstorming phone calls, vox messages, and texts. I know that our assessments aren’t perfect, but they are better than what we’ve had in years past and I take pride in them.

I know there are people who don’t like them. Some have told me directly, others have quipped about it to others. For the people who tell me directly, I go back to the question I was asked in 2003, what do you suggest? When the person has a suggestion, I thank them profusely, even if I don’t agree with it, because at least they’ve thought it through. But to the ones who don’t have a suggestion, I think about what my principal said to me years ago, what do you want people to know you for?

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