How Teachers Should Respond to Guilt Trips

I’m currently writing a book about teacher exhaustion. Before I started, I emailed readers of this blog and asked if they’d share their stories. I wondered what they thought contributed to their exhaustion. One teacher wrote back:

Another factor is the ‘guilt trip’ administration lays on teachers about how ‘if you care for your kids you will do this.’

Principals sometimes resort to using guilt to persuade teachers to do things they would otherwise be disinclined to do. Principals need teachers to attend after-school events, join committees, do additional work after hours, and take on other tasks that are “part of the job” but not really the job. For a parent night, they’ll say, “Parents will expect to see teachers here.” They’ll stress the importance of the committee work. They’ll claim it’s a sign of “professionalism” to take on extra duties. They’ll remind you that “teaching isn’t like other jobs.”

Why They Do It

They don’t do it because they’re jerks. Most of them are in a tough spot. State and district mandates require certain work get done, and they need manpower but lack the funds to pay for it. The school improvement plan calls for more parent involvement, so they schedule two parent nights. As the date approaches, they start begging teachers to attend. The school needs a PBIS team, but the district won’t pay for subs for teachers to meet during the day, meaning they must meet before or after school. The cabinets in the science lab are a holy mess and need to be reorganized, but who’s going to do the work, and when will they do it? You know the answer.

Most of the time, principals use guilt because they don’t have money. If they do have money, they don’t want to set a precedent of paying for everything teachers do outside the school day. That’s understandable, but it’s not really teachers’ problem.

And guilt works. People who go into teaching tend to be selfless. They’ve chosen a career that puts others’ needs ahead of their own. They have a moral code and a self-image as someone who always goes the extra mile for other people. It’s hard for them to stand up to a guilt trip that implies they might be doing anything less than they can for their students, their parents, or their colleagues. Guilt works, so it gets used.

But it’s also manipulative, and teachers shouldn’t reward it. Administrators have other options. The best of them is to foster an environment where teachers want to do more (or at least don’t mind). Principals who trust their teachers, who show them appreciation, who understand the challenges of the job, and who support them and respect their personal time will need to use guilt far less often. Teachers who work for bosses like this won’t have to be begged. And if you’re a principal who finds himself pleading, prodding, and laying on guilt trips to get teachers to do more, then you should first question your school’s culture. If you think you’ve got a pretty good one but teachers aren’t willing take on extra responsibilities, find out why. Ask them.

What Buddha Can Teach Us About Guilt Trips

If you’re a teacher on the receiving end of the guilt trip, you might consider the story of Buddha and the angry man:

It is said that one day the Buddha was walking through a village. A very angry and rude young man came up and began insulting him, saying all kind of rude words.

The Buddha was not upset by these insults. Instead he asked the young man, “Tell me, if you buy a gift for someone, and that person does not take it, to whom does the gift belong?”

The young man was surprised to be asked such a strange question and answered, “It would belong to me, because I bought the gift.”

The Buddha smiled and said, “That is correct. And it is exactly the same with your anger. If you become angry with me and I do not get insulted, then the anger falls back on you. You are then the only one who becomes unhappy, not me. All you have done is hurt yourself.”

It’s true of guilt, too. When you refuse to accept the guilt someone is trying to make you feel, then you will not feel guilty.

How Teachers Should Respond to Guilt Trips

If you can’t, if you find yourself giving in again and again, then you need to reframe your thinking. Try these:

  • It is not my job to solve problems created by other people.
  • It is not “professional” to work for free.
  • It is only “part of the job” because teachers have allowed it to be.
  • My primary job is being an effective teacher to the kids in my class. If doing extras in any way hinders my effectiveness in that regard, then I should not do those things.
  • Allowing myself to be persuaded by a guilt trip makes it more likely I will be subjected to the same manipulative tactic in the future.
  • Choosing something means not choosing something else. Instead of thinking, “I should really help out at the after-school event,” think, “By choosing the after-school event, I’m choosing not to spend time with my family.”
  • Nothing will change if teachers keep volunteering their time. If I think teachers should be paid for their work, then I need to stop being part of the problem.

Guilt trips only work when you let them.

Stop taking the ride.

3 Replies to “How Teachers Should Respond to Guilt Trips”

  1. A colleague and I resigned from an unpaid assignment after 5 years and 3 admins trying to get pay for it. We realized that if we kept doing it, it would never be a paid position. By resigning, higher admin was forced to make the decision to make the position paid bc no one else would take it. Sometimes that’s what it takes.

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