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Constructive Criticism

Constructive Criticism

Head for the Edge, Library Media Connection, February 2009.

To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing. - Elbert Hubbard

My guess is that you’ve made some changes this year in your library – changes that you believe to be in the best interest of kids, parents or staff. I’m also guessing that these changes were not universally appreciated. Were a few of those people not liking the changes more than happy to let you know what an idiotic incompetent you are?

Never underestimate the importance of being able to deal effectively with criticism if you are to be a change agent.

This year my district’s teachers’ first workshop day was spent learning to use a new student information system. The implementation of big systems always include some, ahem, surprises, and of course, new ways of doing familiar tasks. Not everyone was happy and more than a few let me know that I was the source of that misery.

I take heart in knowing that by the time you read this, a few months after my writing it, teachers will be happy we made the change. It is a more powerful system that is more reliable and easier to use.

Changing computer programs is akin to moving to a new house. For the first few weeks, when you can’t find the light switches or where you put the screwdriver, you wonder, “What was I thinking moving to this new house?” But in short order, the new house becomes familiar and you appreciate the reasons for moving - bigger garage, nicer yard, more bedrooms, etc. The light switch location isn’t a big deal anymore.

But last fall I needed a pretty tough hide since the criticism flowed freely.

In situations where changes I’ve instituted are not immediately appreciated, I joke that I need to wear my “iron underwear” since everyone wants to take a bite out of my butt. But when it comes to criticism, a thick skin is much better than armor. Not all criticism ought to be deflected - some should sink in if one is to become a more effective and just plain better person.

I see the following “flavors” of criticism directed toward me regularly:

  • Venting. I am too busy. I already have too much work to do. This means learning something new and I am about to retire. I am frustrated with my finances, my marriage, my own kids, or my health (but you are convenient.) This is venting. I tolerate little of it from anyone but my wife. If I feel another person is just venting, I will interrupt and simply say, “What exactly are you asking me to do?” If the person can’t articulate any solution other than inventing a time machine or changing human nature, I try to kindly say that it’s not my job to listen to problems I can’t do anything about.
  • Criticisms about a policy or product. When we switched our web hosting from a regular web server to a content management system, 98% of our staff was happy and empowered. But for a few teachers who had learned HTML and had used it to create some extensive, useful and often beautiful webpages, the new system looked like a step backward. I found dealing with these criticisms difficult because I could appreciate the disruptive nature of the change for these few people. About all one can do is offer a cogent rationale for why the change was made. Oh, and NOT pass the buck and blame others for the choices made.
  • Constructive criticism. I admit that I’ve done plenty of boneheaded things for which I deserve criticism. The first year we installed projectors in the district, I didn’t think to include our custodial staff in the planning. These building-proud people let me know just exactly what a stupid oversight I had made. It was justifiable criticism and I learned from it. The person who can set aside defensiveness and actually use complaints to design better ways to do things has turned a criticism into a benefit. But it is harder than it seems.

This last kind of criticism is why a “thick skin” through which some jabs can absorbed is better than “iron underwear” off which every complaint, valid or not, is simply deflected.

All of us are sensitive to criticism. What helps deflect the arrows is faith that what you are doing is in the best interest of others. Or as the Blues Brothers put it: “… a mission from God.” Without this faith in yourself and what you do, it won’t take much to turn you back.

You can’t let criticism stop you from doing what you know is right for your students and your school. Reflect, refocus and keep moving ahead.

Posted on Sunday, June 21, 2009 at 04:42PM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | Comments2 Comments

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Reader Comments (2)

This is a fantastic post, Doug, that deserves a positive comment.

Thanks for being such a shining example out there.

November 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDarren Draper

Hi Darren,

Thanks for comment. I am not half so good in person as I am in print however. But I am taller.


November 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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