by Kate Roberts, Member of The Educator Collaborative
How To Complain
It will surprise no one when I say that a few months ago I witnessed a debate online about education. (What? A debate? Online?) The same argument arises just about every year around the same time. A teacher, innocently enough, says that they cannot wait until summer vacation. Someone chides said teacher for wishing for break and claims that such sentiments signify a lack of commitment to the field or makes kids feel badly. This leads to others making the point that wishing for vacation is different from not being committed, and that teachers deserve to feel excited for a very real perks of this job: summer. School breaks. Time to breathe.
So – an educator complains, “Phew, I can’t wait for this job to stop for a second,” and people jump on it.
I find this also happens when I as a parent “complain” about–well, parenting. I have two dynamic, adorable, hilarious, willful, and emotional boys. I enjoy commenting on the ridiculous and difficult parts of being a mom. I lean more towards posting the tough stuff rather than the moments of deep fulfillment. I enjoy a slight exaggeration here and there, a touch of sarcasm.
And while much of the response I get is along the lines of “Been there, you got this,” there are almost always a few people who seem to want to chide me for naming the tough stuff, reminding me that these are precious years (I have not forgotten) or telling me to focus on the good stuff (I do, I do).
All of this leads me to think about what it is that I get – that most of us get – out of complaining. What are we looking for when we complain about our jobs, our families, our lives? When is complaining helpful and when is it destructive?
I know what it feels like when my complaining turns ugly, when it corrodes my spirit and those around me. There was a year when the stress of education was tearing me apart. Every day I doubted what I was doing, how much I could help, what my purpose was. I went to work and draped myself in sarcasm and cynicism, crackling with “jokes” that were less funny than biting. I went on like this for months, until my late mentor Kathleen Tolan pulled me aside and called me out with the kind of loving brutal honestly that only Kathleen could bring to the table.
“You are walking around here like you hate it. You want to leave? Leave. But leave doing a good job and with your head held high. Leave with us thinking how good you are, don’t slink out of here in the shadows making snarky jokes.”
It changed my life. I realized she was right, and I recommitted myself to the work. At the time I decided I would leave, but then as I was working hard things got better, I saw what effect I could have on the people and schools around me, and all of a sudden I wanted to be an educator again – I rediscovered my purpose. I still complained, and I was still sarcastic. But my complaining was more like venting steam than digging a deeper hole to lie in.
VENTING VS DIGGING
There is, I think, good complaining. This is the complaining that allows us to release a little frustration and get closer to the people around us. When my wife and I were struggling to conceive, for months and months (and months and years), when even I was bored of my own pain, my friend Sam Young would see me and say “Lay it on me.” She allowed me to just vent it all out. I always felt better. No advice, no shifting of the conversation, just a chance to get some of the struggle out of me.
We need this as educators. We need the people we can just vent to. It allows us to feel less alone and gets some of the crud out of our hearts so that more light can come in. When we are able to vent, people can say “Oh, I feel that too” and boom–our isolation and embarrassment disappears.
But then there is the destructive complaining. This kind of complaining never releases the stress – it builds on it, multiplies it, feeds off of it. This is the complaining that entrenches ideas about kids, teachers, or administrators in problematic ways. This is the complaining that acts as an obstacle to solutions. This is the kind of complaining that hides real hurt and anger but does nothing to heal it. This is the complaining that picks scabs and offers only insult.
There is a way to walk this line, I think. At least, I have tried to walk it. And over the years I have gotten better at recognizing when I have crossed it and when darkness is feeding the darkness. Here is what I try to do:
Know who you are complaining to and what you hope to get.
When I complain online I know that it will be a mixed bag. When I complain to some people in my life, I walk away feeling comforted, amused – ready to move forward. Other people leave me feeling more alone and more frustrated. There is a saying that has helped me across the years – “Don’t try to buy milk at the hardware store.” Don’t complain to people who will judge you, unless you are ok being judged. Focus on the people who know you – who know that you are striving for good, that you just need a space to vent. (As we all do.)
Listen to what’s underneath.
I like framing things in life in funny ways. I see the absurd in situations; I lean towards the sarcastic. In many ways this is a strength of mine, or at least– it keeps me amused. But there is a danger to this. Complaining, sarcasm, and humor can all mask what I am really feeling. When I was a first year teacher I did not know how to connect to my kids. Or I could connect with them when we were, like, chatting, but I could not “get them” to work. My management was such that every Friday, when I had my homeroom for a double period at the end of the day, I had a full on anxiety attack at lunch. I complained constantly about this class. And while I certainly needed a safe space to vent, I also needed to look at what I was really feeling. “I think I’m bad at this,” my complaints hid. “I care more about doing this than anything in the world and I am scared I can’t do it,” my jokes obscured. “I’m angry at thirteen year olds for not instantly respecting me,” ran under the surface of every snarky comment.
Complaining about a tough class is natural, maybe necessary. But it was also important for me to go beyond those complaints – to look for the truths about myself that I was trying to cover with snark.
Ask yourself: Am I complaining to move forward or am I complaining to stay stuck?
There are many ways to use complaining to move forward – we can use it to vent, to feel less alone, to get advice. If I pay careful attention, I know when I am using my complaints in this way. I also know when I am using them to stay where I am. To confirm my position. I fall into this trap all of the time. For example, I have joked about having two boys, and how hard it is, how different it seems from the experiences of my friends with girls. I’ve kept at this joke for a while now. And there is truth perhaps – there are differences I see, aspects of boy-ness that make these toddler years challenging. But lately I’ve been thinking that this complaint keeps me stuck. It makes none of it my responsibility – Boys, amirite? – as opposed to realizing that the truth is that one of my sons is atypical, and both are very active, loud, emotional, hilarious, beautiful kids that I love so much and do not always know how to raise. Letting myself stay complaining about them as boys keeps me in a rut. A problematic rut at that. It doesn’t help me grow.
And when it comes to education and parenting, growth is living. Another phrase I have lived by is this: change or die. Dramatic, but it gets at something that has been true for me…when I am not growing, life becomes less, well, alive. So I will strive to change and grow each year I work in education, every day that I am a Mom.
…and I’ll complain all the way. ☺