5 Things to Remember when…….Listening to colleagues complaining in the office

This is the first in a new series of monthly posts called 5 things to remember when…..  The inspiration for these has come from our experiences working in a number of different schools:  Large schools, busy schools, schools with many off-site centres, awkward split shifts and unconventional weekend patterns, disorganised schools full of the familiar faces of less experienced and more experienced colleagues we recognised but never knew the names of.  With such a range of places to work, staff rooms to work in and colleagues to work with – we realise that delivering INSETTs and meeting the full range of needs of all the teachers in your context is an insurmountable task.  Indeed, there are some things that are important – dare we say essential – to the health of the workings and mechanics of a staff room, yet may not receive the explicit attention of a full training session.  And so, it is in this vein that we embark on our monthly escapade to look at a number of areas oft neglected, forgotten, resented and possibly taken for granted.  This month, we look at 5 things to remember when listening to your colleagues complaining in the office (insert brass regalia here).

Dealing with whingers (from Creative Commons)

Dealing with whingers (from Creative Commons)

1) Stop and take two deep breaths

(Especially if they are complaining about having to go to an INSETT, which you just spent hours putting together.)

In our experience, there are 3 types of people in most offices: those who love a whinge, those who love to stick it to the whingers and those who quite simply can’t be bothered with whingers.  Regardless of where you may fall on the spectrum (we personally have a foot in each camp, depending on day/time/blood sugar level/proximity of 20 screaming children), everyone is entitled to raise their concerns, should they have any, at work.

It’s important to remember that offices are in fact professional communal spaces and there is (or at least there should be) an unwritten rule about behaving in that space in a way that minimally impacts upon others (you wouldn’t walk into somebody else’s living room, take off your dirty socks and fart loudly, would you……or, would you….?).

It’s also worth keeping in mind that in many cases, office complainers merely want to be understood (and are possibly just in need of a big warm, purely professional, hug).  There is nothing more irritating than someone chirping up from across the room, in response to a publicly voiced complaint, in a way that aggravates and feeds the complainer and gives them even more reason to spend their precious work time spinning their wheels about (insert THAT book’s name here) Pre-Intermediate.  Being reactive is one of the least helpful things you can do in conflict situations, so hold off on offering your two cents worth.  Not every argument is worth getting involved in and above all…….remember….the walls have ears (insert cheesy Kung Fu movie zoom-in with added creepy music and evil, long-bearded man chuckle here).

2) Keep some perspective.

Sometimes (often…usually…delete as appropriate depending on your current context) complaints are genuine, and there’s something quite annoying going on at work. Let’s think of a purely hypothetical example, say, gosh, you find yourself teaching a class in the DOS’s office, as the school’s opened more classes than has classrooms and the students are balancing photocopies of a book on their laps as the books haven’t been delivered because the previous books haven’t been paid for and the distributors are withholding new stock. You are concerned about the level of professionalism at play. Purely hypothetical, of course, as no school would really let this happen, right? Riiiiiight. (tumbleweed)

Genuine concerns deserve to be voiced, as long as they are done so with the intention of precipitating change/improvement in some way.  And the hypothetical teacher in the above hypothetical situation certainly got their hypothetical whinge on. But when you’ve got through that sort of debacle, hearing the uproar from across the room that printer number 12 is out of order, and the inevitable question asked, “How can we be expected to maintain professional standards in this office without access to resources?!” (even though the massive and amazing printers 13-16 are in fact still working just fine!!) – just hang on to your sense of perspective – even if the complainer has lost theirs. Tell yourself quietly that one day this teacher will move on to a school with one mouse-powered photocopier squirreled away under the back stairs which breaks down every other day and is shared by sixty teachers. Console yourself that one day said whinger will understand how good they had it.

3) Don’t be dismissive….at first.

Along with being reactive, being publicly dismissive is antagonistic and not really constructive. Ultimately, we’re all entitled to our grievances – some of us find more appropriate ways  to air those grievances than others.

Sometimes I wonder if TEFL staff room design principles 101 ought to be a compulsory unit for anyone taking postgraduate management qualifications – a course which ought to be assessed by a candidates ability to recognise and complete appropriate staffroom conflict resolution lexis:

“That’s really……”   (interesting…..not trivial)

“What do you….” (mean by that….not think you’re achieving by involving the entire office floor in your disgruntled attitude towards the ambient temperature of the water cooler?)

“I’m really….” (sorry to hear you feel like this….not looking forward to the moment the lift doors close to take me home, thereby muffling the sound of your piercing voice and placing 3 levels of industrially reinforced concrete between you and I)

All said phrases ought to be drilled at induction, and permanently on display on the central staff noticeboard.  Remember that inviting the person to explain a little more about what they mean and why they are disgruntled may:

1) Give them the perception that you’re even the slightest bit sympathetic

2) Avoid direct confrontation

3) Bring the conversation that little bit closer to the point at which it is actually appropriate to say “I really need to get on with my work now, and by the sounds of it, so do you”.  And as always, beware the serial whinger….sometimes it IS actually ok to slap someone in the face with a wet fish.

4) Whose job is it, anyway?

Wouldn’t it be nice, if every time you had a question or issue, there was someone whose job it was to deal with and resolve that specific problem? Chances are it’s highly likely that someone in the building will be able to help.  Be it a senior teacher, manager, technician, cleaner or resident expert – perhaps the simplest solution to helping your colleague in need is to point them in the right direction?

If there were a motto we’d like to see printed on the footer of every TEFL certificate ever issues, it would be…..”Be an enabler”.  Help when and where you can (unless your colleague is complaining for the sake of complaining….in which case be a wet-fish-slapper.  Or unless they are complaining about you not having done something which actually is your job…in which case do your job.)

One of the more common complaints we have come across is the situation where teachers take issue with terms of employment that are actually clearly stated in contracts and job descriptions (and yes, we are totally guilty of this ourselves – 6am starts and late night weekend finishes….sound familiar to anyone?).  It is important to make a distinction between complaints that can be solved (i.e. when a person is asking for help) and when complaint cannot be solved (i.e. when someone is complaining for the sake of complaining, even though there may be a very clear and reasonable solution).  While one of these scenarios deserves attention, smiles and a friendly follow-up, the other one deserves – now we won’t say this is the most professional thing to do, but your discretion may indicate that the situation warrants it – a smile, patronising look of concern and a poignant rendition on the world’s smallest violin.

5) Stand up, when the time is right

Ultimately, there are things that are worth fighting for, comments that ought to be publicly challenged and contributions that deserve further explanation.

“God, I LOVE The Silent Way”……(please….tell me more…)

“I simply don’t have time to correct the mistakes I find in shared documents and materials”……(but somehow you manage to find the time to soap box about it!)

“We’re planning to change the terms of our contracts to allow administration the flexibility to pay teachers up to 3 weeks’ late”…..(rather than……….?)

The truth is that we are, by and large, all guilty of falling into the trap of simply feeling like a bit of a whinge – and given the fact that the TEFL industry generally doesn’t pay enough for its employees to necessarily feel like going the extra mile is really worth their time or effort, it’s hardly surprising. On an individual level, however, we can each make a small difference to the way we listen, show compassion towards each other, and above all, exercise the judicial implementation of wet fish.  Collectively, and cumulatively, small changes make a big difference.

* By James Pengelley and Jane Pyper (Hong Kong), purveyors of Australian wit and bathers tans.

The views expressed in this post are our own and not those of #AusELT as a whole, or of English Australia

One thought on “5 Things to Remember when…….Listening to colleagues complaining in the office

  1. Pingback: 5 Things to Remember when……..Covering a Class at the Last Minute | #AusELT

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