Q: I teach in a public school in one of the wealthiest parts of Washington, D.C. The students aren’t all rich by any stretch of the imagination, but their parents are educated and mostly comfortable. There are a lot of lawyers and lobbyists and professor types. That doesn’t mean there aren’t struggling families, or that rich kids don’t have problems. Yes, they have different problems than kids whose families can’t make ends meet, but as the saying goes, “rich kids, rich-kid problems.”
I have friends who teach at schools in poorer parts of the city, and they’re constantly telling me I have it “easy” and that their jobs are so much harder. If a teacher in my school gets a “best teacher” award, for example, they grumble that the city should be recognizing someone who faces more challenges at work. Well, we’re teaching the same curriculum, and it annoys me that they feel the need to compare. Plus, they don’t have to keep as many overly demanding parents happy, and I’m pretty sure they’re held to lower standards. They can get a decent evaluation as long as their students show up for class and make even modest progress. So why can’t they live and let live? This comes up every time I see them, even for a fun night out, and I’m losing patience. I usually snap and get very defensive, and I’m getting close to avoiding these friends entirely. Do you think I have a right to be ticked off? What can I tell them the next time this comes up? I want to shut down this whole line of conversation.
A: The problem is that you’re playing the exact same game as them. If you don’t like the rules, stop trying to convince them that they’re “wrong,” or that your jobs are equally challenging. Right now, you’re focusing on your school’s demanding parents, rich-kid problems, and higher evaluation standards. (Which, by the way, is a highly inflammatory assumption to make. It’s certainly not a peace offering!) You’d be better off debating the merits of having the discussion in the first place. You could say something like, “You’re right. Your job is extremely difficult, and I really respect what you do. I always love to hear about your work and want to be supportive, but I’d rather not compare, because we teach in very different communities. I definitely think we should exchange ideas, though.” You can even make a request that you share those ideas at a specified time. Many educators hold monthly meetings with teachers at other schools. The whole point is to solve problems collaboratively and to learn from others whose experiences differ from your own. Tell your friends that you prefer not to talk about work when you’re out socializing with them.
What’s coming through in all of these comments (theirs and yours) is that you feel underappreciated. You may not be able to change how much feedback your administrators give you, but you can validate each other and learn how to validate yourselves. Try asking them to share some of their biggest student success stories. Chances are they’ll ask you to do the same. You’ll then have the opportunity to give each other positive feedback. This also would serve as a reminder that you should take pride in your own accomplishments. The reality is that administrators are spread thin, too, and they can’t get into classrooms or give feedback as often as they’d like. I’m a fan of programs such as Critical Friends, which provides a framework for teachers to give each other suggestions and to share best practices.
As for your friends’ grumbling about “best teacher” designations, that complaint is part of the same underlying issue. The award probably rankles them because they’re feeling invisible. But no good comes from denigrating the winner, so if they bring it up, deflect. You could say, “I don’t know that teacher very well personally, but good for her. I wish the District would honor more great teachers — so many amazing people deserve recognition.” You could debate the politics all day, but what’s the point?
Teaching is a hard job, and it’s easy to focus on the negative. But you’ll all feel better if you focus instead on the stuff that’s within your control, including validating yourselves and supporting one another. If that doesn’t do the trick, you may need to remind your friends that you all have the ability to apply for a transfer. It may simply be time for a change.
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