I’m afraid I have some bad news…
I’ve recently been working with a teacher whose students consistently give her negative criticism. For the last three years she has come in for criticisms about her ability to teach effectively and engagingly. For the last three years, we have put that evidence in front of her and talked to her about what she might do: get some further qualifications; do some peer evaluations; try to include a bit of [insert as appropriate] into her lessons; teach this way; follow this lesson plan; don’t do this, do that. But in 2013, the complaints that are coming out of her classroom are the same as the ones that came out of her classroom in 2010.
What I find interesting, however, is the fact that she is now irate about how she is being treated. We recently observed her classes and put together an action plan that was linked to some external standards which identified potential areas for improvements and how she might adapt her teaching to get closer to these standards. Now she feels that this is overkill and that she is a perfectly good teacher who has only ever had a good relationship with her students. She feels that she is being singled out for criticism by her managers and that there are more nefarious intentions afoot.
All quite natural, you might think. After all, who wants to face up to the reality that perhaps they are caught in a job that they are not very good at. But wait a minute! Isn’t that fascinating in itself? That it is natural to construct a false reality in order to protect yourself from a more objective reality? Because if one was asked to try and draw an objective conclusion about what is happening here, one would inevitably come to the conclusion that the teacher’s students are the ones who are criticising her and her managers are only acting upon these criticisms.
What appears to be at play is cognitive dissonance – a peculiarly human trait. Our brains – the powerhouses of creativity- appear to be hardwired to deny all data that calls into question any interpretation of reality that doesn’t square with what we already believe to be true. Your hero appears to have said that he can’t stand black people? He must have meant something different. You didn’t get the job that you wanted? They must have already decided who they were going to give it to before they saw you. The doctor said that it was just a virus and that you shouldn’t have booked an appointment? She must be one of these newly-trained inept types. Your managers have highlighted problems with your teaching? They must be bullies who are trying to hound you out of your vocation.
Cognitive dissonance means that it doesn’t matter how much evidence that is laid before your brain – it won’t budge from squaring the circle. This is seen when doomsday prophets are inevitably proven wrong – “Aah! Bien sur! Our faith is what persuaded the Lord to spare the planet! Praise be! And pass on your bank details…” And interestingly, once the brain has made up its mind, even a full investigation that categorically denies your brain’s woefully idiosyncratic interpretation will only serve to confirm it.
Which calls into question the approach that our institution uses to address employees’ grievances. My aggrieved teacher has complained officially about the way her managers are treating her. She has made allegations of bullying and these need to be given credence. As a result, a formal investigation has been launched. Inevitably, this will conclude that there are no objective grounds for an allegation of bullying. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that the investigation will conclude that the employee has been supported and encouraged for the last three years. I suspect that the grievance will not be upheld.
All of which will confirm the employee’s feeling that she has been bullied and that her teaching is exemplar. Of course, she will think, the institution is not going to admit that their managers are bullies. The institution condones bullying and there is probably a conspiracy to force her out of the company, much to the chagrin of her students. She will need to surround herself with confirming evidence of this and so will confide in colleagues who are most likely to agree with her (or at least not disagree with her) and it may be that they have their own vested interests in giving credence to her perceptions. The atmosphere will begin to fester and a small group of staff will feel bitter and resentful. All this in order to protect one individual’s perception of herself as being beyond reproach.
Ironically, if this individual were to take a step back and look at the situation objectively, she would agree that teaching English as a foreign language is not what she wants to do. Objectively it is quite understandable that she is as bad a teacher as she is because her passions lie elsewhere. Teaching pays the bills and allows her to pursue her true passions. If she were particularly brave, she would admit this and would take an approach that would be more coherent. Unfortunately, the modern workplace -or at least my workplace- does not encourage objective appraisals of reality and appears geared to supporting individual perceptions, no matter how absurd they might be.
All of which makes me ponder on how ill-served humanity is by its powerhouse of creativity. Kahnemann’s Thinking Fast and Slow tells us of an organ that is so ineffective that by holding a pencil between your teeth and forcing your mouth into a shape that is wide and narrowly spread, you must be smiling. It then proceeds to activate the areas that are associated with happiness and relaxation. Unfortunately, it also shuts down the areas that are concerned with attention and caution. The opposite effect can be achieved by wrinkling up your forehead and faking a frown: OMG! There must be some sort of danger! We’re frowning! Activate all resources for identifying the danger and dealing with it! What I am amazed by, these days, is the realisation that neuroscience seems to be leading us towards: despite everything we would like to think about ourselves, science would suggest that we are influenced mostly by brute animal instinct and that the civilising forces that we thought differentiated us from the apes are actually just an illusion. For me, personally, that is a mindblowing thesis. If it isn’t for you, you’re undoubtedly engaged in the practice of cognitive dissonance!