All In The Same Boat

Below is an updated version of a post I wrote last year about cynicism. I’ve tweaked it for the start of a new year to focus on positivity and collegial support in schools. UPDATE: I was really excited to learn that this article was published in the Queensland Teachers Journal in their March 2017 issue. 

Melanie Ralph finds that there is a place for negativity at work; just don’t contaminate your whole crew.

Pop culture has long peddled exaggerated stereotypical images of miserable teachers. Some of my favorites include the terrifying Mrs. Trunchbull, 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?” These stereotypical representations depict teachers who are burnt out – or strung-out – and disinterested in their role and the success of their students.

All of us, including teachers, have our moments of negativity and pessimism; some research even suggests that sharing gripes and personal struggles in the staffroom can be seen as a form of social-intimacy; a way of solidifying trust. I, for one, am relieved to learn that a little bit of cynicism and negativity isn’t so bad. I recently observed a pillow at my local gym that read “Be Happy All The Time!” In my typical rebellious manner, I chose not be happy in that moment just to spite that pillow.

No one likes phony optimism, however, if we allow frequent and pervasive negativity to consume us we run the risk of becoming emotionally exhausted and cynical, as well as draining those around us. In the face of many realistic stressors, ranging from high-workloads to staff conflicts to vicious attitudes in the community towards our profession, it should come as no surprise that a University of South Australia study which compared 26 occupations revealed teachers to have the second poorest physical health and psychological wellbeing.

One cause of this dismal finding could be the tradition of isolation common to teaching, which can negatively impact teachers in two ways. Firstly, good teachers can be demoralized by a lack of recognition for their efforts. Secondly, teachers who may be struggling tend to not seek support for fear of judgment or humiliation.

Structural approaches can improve the culture of sharing and collaboration, both in formal and informal ways. Education consultant Bill Rogers suggests that creating teams and groups of teachers who have a shared purpose can empower teachers and lift their sense of moral, whilst reducing stress and competitive behaviour.

Beyond formal support networks, it is the deceptively small acts of collegial support that make a bad day more survivable. Examples include positively greeting each other, leaving a funny post-it note on a colleague’s desk, collecting photocopying for others, remembering a birthday, smiling in the corridor or leaving a choccy in a pigeon hole. These small expressions of support indicate a shared knowingness about the challenges of the job, and remind us that we are in fact all in the same boat.

If cynicism is contagious, then so too is kindness, creativity, courage and belief in our colleagues and students. I know which I’d prefer. On the most hectic days in this job, I remind myself of the saying “Attitude is contagious, is yours worth catching?” Anyone? Anyone?


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