Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Culture of complaint: self-reflection of (dis)engagement

It is time for a self-assessment: Are you "checked in" at work? What does it take to keep you focused and contributing during a busy day? When do you find the extra time and where do you find the extra energy to carry out those endless tasks? Today I am eager to examine faculty engagement.

I have previously written that many of us are struggling with motivation and I thought that was reasonable and understandable with more and more work expected from our limited time, especially as higher education budgets are evaporating. However, I recently began thinking that motivation might not be the best word to describe some of the feelings seen and heard lately. Perhaps it is better identified as disengagement. What's the difference? Motivation represents an acceptance of some type of impetus for action. I am motivated by my students' energy. So being unmotivated simply means I am lacking an impetus to produce action.

Disengagement is defined as moving away from/detaching from a connection. To me there's a difference here as disengagement can mean we drift from our overall connection with something and can near apathy. It seems MUCH scarier and MUCH more permanent to me than a simple lack of motivation. Consider this: Do you feel yourself slipping away from the courses you teach, not being "on" in the classroom, not preparing for the classes the way you should, not really listening at meetings, kind of checking out of the process? I found myself slipping into a disengaged phase when it came to committee work, as some of my previous posts have noted this work is currently quite demanding. Because of this, I hit a "griping" phase. I tried to reign in this unusual nature of complaining to a better place where I can use my concerns to foster change and not to simply complain. This shift to a complainer came about innocently as I walked into a meeting upset (ironically, over the amount of time I was spending in meetings) and frustrated by my subsequent lack of time to prepare for my classes. A colleague came in and noted I looked tired. That was all it took! I verbally dumped my complaints out. Then I heard a lot of complaints back. The next person who sat down began complaining right with us. We were talking over one another simply trying to voice all of our frustrations. We weren't listening, we were just complaining. When the meeting began, I was completely checked out of the process. After I left, I realized I missed great opportunities to voice thoughts about new directions at our institution. I was angry at myself for ranting about a problem instead of jumping in to DO SOMETHING about the issues that we are facing. Then I thought about it: complaining could become an institutional culture. Yipes! What could I do to foster positive change in myself and fight this disengagement before it contaminated more people?

What I mistook for a lack of motivation in some of us as faculty members may actually be a disengaged faculty! What does a disengaged faculty look like? Well, generally they offer up a lot of problems without caring about or searching for solutions. It is criticism without the constructive element -- and without that constructive element, how can we be guided toward a better outcome? Being around disengaged people can be incredibly frustrating for anyone attempting to pitch a new idea or opportunity. It is frustrating to face disengaged faculty (or administrators or staff or students--substitute your group of choice here) because the disengaged group constantly (and perhaps unintentionally)
undermines ANY attempt for change. The don't like your ideas, but they don't offer ideas of their own, and they often find fault with everyone and everything around them.

As Julie Sweetland, from the Center for Inspired Teaching wrote in Challenges to Creating a Culture of Professional Learning, " The teacher-driven culture of collaboration that is the hallmark of a mature professional learning community can be impossible to foster in the absence of a sense of personal and collective efficacy, a deep and abiding 'can-do’ attitude. In schools where teaching professionals are subjected to isolation and other forms of professional insult and injury, faculty and staff may act in ways that reflect a learned helplessness, consistently avoiding responsibility for problems and their solutions. Conversations in the faculty lounge—if they touch on issues of teaching and learning at all—are likely to focus on the failures of administrators, policy makers, parents, and students. The ‘blame game’ can be especially frustrating for change agents who believe that teachers are the most powerful influence on student achievement (Haycock 1998)."

I have to own my place in this conversation. In that meeting, I was disengaged. I was checked out, I was self-absorbed, and I ceased being a part of the solution and became part of the problem.

Have you found your energies leaning more and more toward this disengaged category? Have you noticed this in others? Have you noticed it in your institution? A great way to boost yourself out of this quagmire is to build awareness of your personal agency (according to Sweetland). She notes this can help transform the "laundry lists of complaints into more meaningful areas for positive action." Isn't that what we're in academia for? We are here to create positive change in our students, to foster growth, to mentor, to share, to examine. How can we do any of that if we are checking out of the process?

How do we work on our self-agency or perhaps on the culture of our institution? It is easy for us to individually get caught up in the disengaged mindset, as I can attest, so I encourage us to become active participants in crafting a culture of problem-solving and further challenge us to truly listen to one another. This has proven to be a useful approach in several of my meetings and it has helped to shake me out of my temporarily disengaged ways.

My new goal this past week to was to help craft a culture of empowerment and I feel that the simple change in mindset made my busy, accreditation-focused, meeting-filled week so much more enjoyable and I am no longer infecting others with my toxic complaints. I am still busy, but I am mindful that the work serves a purpose and helps maintain the value of education that I hold so close to my heart. Be prepared for my latest mantra: "I will help craft a culture of empowerment."

I would also note that we should be self-reflective and own our place in institutional culture--sometimes our voice may feel small and unheard, but it can be far-reaching and do many positive and negative things.

Haycock, Kati. 1998. Good Teaching Matters: How Well-Qualified Teachers Can Close the Gap. Thinking K-16:31.

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