Fight Against Cynicism – Why you should say yes and bother

It’s been a little while between posts lately – I’ve been busy job hunting for 2016! I’ve had a particular blog post on my mind for a few months now and my topic of interest this time is teacher stereotypes and cynicism, particularly cynicism of teachers and the way this can spread, infect and disadvantage not only teachers, but also students.

Pop culture has long projected exaggerated caricatures of a certain teacher stereotype; one who is angry, miserable and disinterested in their role as a teacher and the success of their students. Some of my favorites include the terrifying Mrs. Trunchball, the principal in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Mrs. Krabapple, the wry primary school teacher in The Simpsons and the painfully boring unnamed Economics teacher from Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, with his classic monotone drawl as he tries to get a response from his class; “Anyone? Anyone?”

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Ok, so thankfully we do occasionally get a different teacher stereotype; even it if it is a little cheesy. Teachers such as Robin Williams’ John Keating in The Dead Poets Society, Hillary Swank as Erin Gruell in The Freedom Writers, and Jack Black as Dewey Finn in School of Rock, all embody the joy, passion and drive of the stereotypical ‘inspiring teacher’.

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Sometimes I’m struck by the ways in which teachers emulate some of these stereotypical qualities; the good and the bad! We can all have our moments of cynicism; there’s even increasing research that proves that strategic negativity can actually be useful and contribute to happiness. However, according to educator and blogger Alex Quigley, the most damaging quality a teacher can posses is cynicism. He refers to a metaphor by author Hywel Roberts, who defines two types of teachers; those who ‘drain’, and those who ‘radiate’. The characteristics of ‘drain’ teachers can manifest as a fixed mindset of student ability, placing blame on students when they themselves have failed, and condemning students to failure.

The always-interesting Dr. Richard Curwin warns that cynicism can spread through a school, potentially destroying the atmosphere and the learning. He’s listed some symptoms to look out for:

  1. You check your watch before your first cup of coffee or before nine AM to see how much longer until you can go home.
  2. What you teach becomes more important than who you teach.
  3. You begin believing that nothing works with “these” kids, that they are beyond hope.
  4. Every day feels the same.
  5. You often wonder why no one is doing anything to make life better for you.
  6. You have lost your own love of learning. Tedium has replaced wonder.

With these symptoms in mind, what can be done and what is it that the ‘radiator’ teachers do differently? Hywel states that “‘radiator’ teachers  have “botherdness, warmth and generosity of spirit”, with a growth mindset about the ability of their students. Additionally, Quigely suggests that another antidote to cynicism is humility: “The best teachers I know are incredibly humble. Indeed, they often appear to lack confidence in their ability, such is their deep-seated humility. This leads them towards seeking out new knowledge, willingly adapting what they do and constantly striving towards self-improvement.”

Stephen Colbert, American comedian , beautifully describes cynicism:

“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge.”

As 2015 comes to a close, and the hectic pace of Term 4 takes hold, I hope this post prompts you to consider these points, reflect on your own contribution to the morale of both the staffroom and your classroom, and to keep your focus on self-improvement. Rock on, and spread the ‘botherdness’!

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6 thoughts on “Fight Against Cynicism – Why you should say yes and bother

  1. This is amazing Mel. It’s strange how in a staff room cynicism can spread like wildfire, often used as a lame way to ‘connect’ with others. Then, sadly, it’s those who don’t buy into it, or challenge it (GAH!) who are then sometimes considered the ‘strange’ ones. However, I think this applies to many work places, but interestingly, more so those ones in which people have less acknowledgement of what they contribute.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jacq! I have certainly been made to feel like the strange one, someone in Canada even said to me once, “Are manners an Australian thing?” – meaning to put me down for using manners! I told them it was just a me thing. Thanks again 🙂

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  2. Melanie,
    Thank you for such a well researched and interestingly presented blog on cynicism. Sadly, this is a topic many people have experienced during their teaching lives. Of course, there are degrees of cynicism but I doubt anyone enjoys the negativity of the consistent cynic. As you mention, cynicism has the potential to drain goodwill, positivity and energy from individual teachers or even whole staffs if the cynicism has become pervasive in a school. This begs the question of what, if anything, should be done to address cynicism? The simplest and most popular strategy is to simply ignore the sneering comments of the resident cynic/s, move to the other end of the staffroom table and focus on getting back into your own classroom after lunch and enjoying the challenges and rewards that all classrooms offer. This works to a point but does it develop or maintain the type of relational or communications framework that will sustain you in your role as a teacher? If, for example, you are avoiding going to the staffroom because that is where the cynics hold court then maybe it is time to attempt to deal more proactively with the overt cynicism you are faced with each day.
    Perhaps the first place to start is by introducing a different narrative into the discussion. If you have had a good lesson then mention it to others. If Johnny has been a brat again, mention it but also that you haven’t given up on him and are looking for other ideas. You might be pleasantly surprised how many people will offer suggestions. The subtext here is that you enjoy your teaching, are continuously trying to improve yourself and that you value the ideas and support of colleagues. This is the antithesis of how the cynic thinks. They may think that you look through the world through rose-coloured-glasses and that you have always been lucky with the students you have been given. You may not change their minds about how they see things but at least a competing narrative has been introduced into the mix.
    A more direct approach can also be effective in addressing the energy-draining cynic. However, I’m not suggesting something like this, “For God’s sake Bob, shut up with the constant whining!” Using the DESC model (Describe the facts/situation, Express your feelings, Specify what you would like, and explain the likely Consequences) would be a more assertive and effective approach. For example:
    (D) Bob, almost every time you are in the staffroom you seem to complain about how terrible the students in your class are and how they will never change.
    (E) I find this depressing and also worrying for you and your students.
    (S) What I would like is for you to talk about different things from time to time and if you think things are so bad in your class to talk to people on staff for ideas to help improve things.
    (C) If this happens Bob, I will enjoy your company more and things may improve for you in your teaching.
    Bob, of course, may not change his behaviours dramatically but I would be surprised if his negativity was not tempered somehow, at least around you, which would be an improvement.
    When cynicism and negativity about a student or group of students becomes pervasive in a teacher’s language it indicates that the all important relationship between a teacher and students has broken down. This is damaging for the health and well-being of the teacher and the well-being and learning opportunities of the students. The situation needs to be addressed by a Principal or supervisor of the cynical teacher in a way that seeks to provide support and encouragement as well as providing the opportunity for the teacher to enhance his/her skillset to become more effective (and hopefully positive) as a teacher. If the program is confidential, targeted and sensitive to the needs of the teacher then a positive change in the classroom is possible. If the cynical teacher is determinedly focussed on maintaining a negative disregard for the potential of students then questions about his /her suitability as a teacher will inevitably be raised.
    I guess the message I am trying to articulate is that it is not a given that teachers and other members of staff have to put up with the overbearing cynic/s. To do so will inevitably lessen the effectiveness of individuals and teams in the school. Change the narrative, be an assertive and supportive colleague and things can change for the better. Thanks again Melanie for your insightful blog on this important topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Brian!
      Thank you kindly for this excellent info about how to respond to workplace cynicism. I think people in all professions could take something from the DESC model you described. Great to get your thoughts on this and to hear a little about how Principals/supervisors can step in. Thanks again!

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