A friend once asked me whether New Yorkers were as rude as everyone said. I explained that in my experience New Yorkers were not necessarily rude. They just didn't go to any great lengths to make you feel good about yourself. To illustrate the point, I described wandering around Greenwich Village with a UNC classmate one spring break, looking for a place to have dinner. I ducked my head into a shop and asked the woman running the place, “Could you point me to Little Italy?”
Without breaking eye contact or uttering a word, she extended her left arm and pointed.
“No, seriously,” I prodded.
“Seriously,” she insisted. “Keep walking in that direction and you’ll run right into it.”
She was right. She was tremendously helpful, just not very friendly. But here’s the thing. At that moment, I didn’t need a friend. I was already with a friend. And my friend and I were really hungry.
As a woman who works in education and lives in the south, more and more, I find myself wishing for a little more of that businesslike efficiency and a little less flaccid friendliness.
Efficient: Calling one teacher into your office and saying, “The last time we met, I asked you to get your lesson plans to me by 3:00 pm on Fridays, and you haven’t been doing that. If you miss another deadline, I will have to reprimand you formally. ”
Flaccid: Calling the entire faculty into a meeting and explaining, “Some of you haven’t been getting your lesson plans in on time. We really need you to do that. Okay?”
Efficient: Encouraging—nay, demanding—that employees interact with each other as adults, that they stop gossiping and take their complaints to the source of the complaint, not to you. When Employee X comes to your office and says, “Employee Y hurt my feelings yesterday,” your response is, “I think you should talk to Employee Y about that.”
Flaccid: Enabling behavior from adults that you would not tolerate in children. When Employee X comes to your office and says, “Employee Y hurt my feelings yesterday,” your default is, “I’ll talk to her. Okay?”
That word—okay?—like you’re asking permission to lead!
I wonder sometimes if part of the reason little ever changes in education is that we’re all so damn busy trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings. So we allow incompetent people to serve on essential committees because we don’t want them to feel left out. And we neglect to document behaviors because it would make everyone uncomfortable. And we pretend we don’t see bad teaching or abusive administrators.
Because someone might get mad? Or get their feelings hurt? Or not feel affirmed and fuzzy?
Perhaps my upbringing was too no-nonsense but it seems to me that people’s self-esteem should result from their having done something worthwhile, not because everyone else is in a conspiracy to protect them.
In the pilot episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Matt Lauer asks one of the rescued girls how she ended up a victim of kidnapping and, presumably, rape. She explains, “I didn’t want to be rude so… here we are.”
I’m not suggesting we stop being kind to each other or that we take no notice of our colleagues’ feelings. On the other hand, the behaviors I’m describing are not kindnesses. They are duplicitous, cowardly, and, frankly, an abdication of our responsibility to the children we’re supposed to be teaching. It’s certainly not kind to them.