How to Stop Playing the Blame Game

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It happened every year at the first faculty meeting. A summer rejuvenation leading to a renewed energy for teaching was all but derailed by the “blame the students' speech.” I’m not sure how to give this one a positive spin, because it was a toxic annual event when a member of the faculty would interrupt the administrator and remind everyone that if the kids don’t do their part there’s not much we can do. Before the students even walked through the door, the air space was infected with the feeling that all our efforts would be useless anyway.

This year was different. A small group of stakeholders met over the summer to work on our school improvement plan. As we prepared for that first faculty meeting, there was a collective plea to the principal to act proactively. She agreed and began the messaging right after saying, “welcome back.” This year, she explained, we would not be blaming the students. Instead, we would work together, alongside the students and each other,  to support measurable achievement growth. While I let out an internal cheer, I’m not certain everyone felt as empowered.

If we were not going to blame the students, then who would be to blame if we weren't successful? Fear led to an answer that had fueled the original diatribe in the first place, because if it’s the students’ faults for not learning, then it’s not ours. We do all we can. Our job is to teach it, and it’s their job to learn it -- right? If they don’t do their part, there’s not much we can do about it. Clearly, the annual speech gave voice to a paralyzing fear that resides in the hearts of educators. If the kids don’t learn, does that mean we failed?

I’m not going to sugar coat it. I don’t think there was any magic to the initial “no blaming the students” message. In fact, there have been times when it reared it’s ugly head behind closed doors safely away from the administration. Slowly, however, the conversations have evolved to asking questions: “If the students don’t learn, then what can we do?” This has been critical, because it opened the door to figuring out an answer. Clearly, for every student at any moment, that answer might be a little different. Therefore, it has also been the start of more brainstorming, more research, and more conversations.

As we hit that banana peel headed to the end of the school year, there is a new message floating through the space between our silos. It’s coming from the voice of fear that originated the first message, but it has evolved in an important way.

Nowadays, it sounds like this: “If we knew how to do things better,  we would do it.” Followed by the important response, “Then let’s try to figure it out.” And just like that the tone and tenor of our work is different, because we have voiced the fear and decided to move forward together. We know that not every student will meet every goal. However, we are also beginning to trust that where we came up short, we will keep working to figure it out, alongside the students, but equally important -- alongside each other.