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Difficult Teachers and the Fear of Belonging

By Kassi Cowles
Difficult Teachers and the Fear of Belonging

International teaching attracts adventurous people: the forward thinking, curious idealists who want to lead an interesting life. It also attracts fearful, damaged, needy, on-the-fringe-types who make difficult teachers.
I know this because I was one.
If you’re a well-adjusted, securely attached, and generally happy teacher, this article may not be for you. But if you find yourself consistently disgruntled and unsatisfied, moving from school to school, you may just be (gasp!) a difficult teacher too.
In my years abroad, I’ve found that difficult teachers fall into one of three general categories: they are inexplicably and perpetually angry, or obsessively anxious, or vigilantly challenging policies and procedures in way that inhibits workflow. Difficult teachers are complicated people who, I argue, share the same unexamined secret: they are all afraid to belong.
Every school, international or not, has challenging people on staff. But what makes difficult teachers specific to expat life is, I believe, a fear of belonging that comes from being inherently unanchored.
Maybe this sounds counterintuitive. Belonging is a beautiful thing, after all. We all want it and need it. But for some of us, a sense of true belonging is more foreign than any country we will ever live in—and this is terrifying. The very trauma, rejection, or alienation that led us abroad means we don’t always understand the mechanism of belonging, and thus are fearful or suspicious of how it asks us to participate.
One of the ways the fear of belonging expresses itself is through the Angry Teacher. Angry Teacher establishes himself at his new school by criticizing his last one. For every upbeat, hyper-positive, joiner on staff, there’s an Angry Teacher who thinks he can do it better. And by it, I mean run the school.
He can’t, of course, but that doesn’t stop him from monologuing about how everyone else is incompetent and under-qualified. Don’t expect him to speak up at a staff meeting, though. He rarely takes his anger to the principal, but he’ll brag to his colleagues about how he could be a leader if he wanted to (he just doesn’t want to).
Angry Teacher is difficult because he contributes so little to the community and yet he is so angry about what he’s not getting in return. He doesn’t seem to like kids or teaching, and if you ask him how often he goes home to see his family, he’ll say never. (Those fools were incompetent too—don’t get him started). He’s much better off living abroad, making lots of money, and waiting for the school day to end. Angry Teacher will tell anyone who will listen how he can’t wait to leave this sh*thole and go to a real school. (Spoiler: he never makes it there. No school is his Velveteen Rabbit, loved enough to become real).
Every Angry Teacher is offset by another type of difficult teacher: the pathological doer. The compulsive planner. The teacher whose practice is driven by untreated, operatic anxiety and obsessive control. She’s so afraid of solitude and not belonging that she makes sure you feel her presence everywhere. Anxious Teacher is the first to arrive and last to leave, and you know this because she’ll tell you her working hours when she itemizes all the things she’s so busy with, and how she just can’t understand how other teachers have time for fun on weekends when she’s so swamped with marking and planning and baking cookies for her homeroom. God help you if you are team-teaching with Anxious Teacher. Because she will want everything meticulously planned and decided upon to ensure that there’s absolutely no space for something spontaneous to occur—her nerves can’t handle uncertainty.
Anxious Teacher wins all the accolades from her administrators because, despite the suction of neediness that you can feel when you walk by her, no one can deny how committed she is to the school. She’s committed night and day, evenings and weekends, holidays, and in-between. Her administrators exploit her anxiety disorder because it makes her so productive.
Eventually, the principal will pull Angry Teacher aside and rebuke him for poisoning the positive well; but Anxious Teacher is enabled to get tentacularly involved in all committees, activities, and decision making, despite the way her fear and anxiety affects other people.
Angry and Anxious are matched by the last difficult (and perhaps most formidable) type: the Activist Teacher. The constant challenger, the mirror, the whistleblower. Don’t be fooled by her demonstrations of virtue, the Activist Teacher is just as afraid of belonging as any angry and anxious teacher. She may not be seen as difficult at first because she looks so great on paper. She’s experienced and qualified and the school feels lucky to have her; or so they think.
Activist Teacher’s articulate recognition of the school’s weaknesses seem to come from a place of concern. She says she just wants the school to be the best it can be. She talks publicly about community, but really, she’s pre-occupied with excavating all the reasons why she should not belong to this school. (And if you dig, you will inevitably find.)
Activist Teacher blows her whistle over important things that need to be addressed, and she also blows her whistle over things she may not know enough about but that feel headliney and relevant. She’s a truth-seeking missile in faculty meetings, ready to question and expose any contradictions and incoherencies that administrators may utter. She says what everyone is thinking with a bareness that makes everyone uncomfortable: like rubbing a dog’s nose in its own mess.
The Activist Teacher’s tendency to expose the school’s shadows and inadequacies can make it difficult for her colleagues to pretend not to know about them. Because her observations are, quite often, right; but most would prefer she stay quiet so they’re not implicated in whatever it is she’s calling to the whole community’s attention.
Like Angry Teacher, Activist Teacher may not stay longer than one contract because soon after she’s hired, she starts cataloguing all the ways the school does not align with her highest values. When she decides to walk away, (after unearthing whatever skeletons the school has buried) she’ll say it’s because the school doesn’t care enough about Climate Change, or Wellness, or meaningful professional development—all justifiable reasons, right? But all of this is to cover up the fact that she is afraid to stay and belong to an imperfect school that may mirror what she is trying not to know about herself.
Parker Palmer says it best: we teach who we are. And sometimes who we are is a mess.
Angry, Anxious, and Activist teachers are all afraid of the same thing: the intimacy of belonging, and of being known well enough to possibly be rejected by their community. As a recovering difficult teacher, I can tell you, no school or country or favorite principal will cure you of this fear if it has deep roots. You have to do the difficult personal work if you no longer want to be a difficult teacher. And for everyone’s sake, I hope you do.
Kassi Cowles is an IB English and TOK teacher currently based in Shanghai. She has worked in international education for the last 8 years in Canada, Togo and China.

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05/23/2020 - John L. Lyons
Dear Ms D. Block

And you miss the entire point of my reflection on Ms Cowles' piece:

To point out the all too common and very real stifling of open communication regarding legitimate challenges, and the shutting down of sincere attempts at democratic process, that takes place in international schools by "blaming the messenger" when anything less than supportive, accommodating posturing takes place regarding what are often oppressive labor, teaching, and learning conditions, particularly in the global south.

Again, the typology and reasoning used by Ms Cowles places "complainers" in international schools into manageable, somewhat contrite psychological boxes and, tacitly or otherwise, can and does easily play into a kind of psychologizing, minimizing, or denying of very legitimate concerns in these schools. As such, the persuasive framework of her essay can run the risk of further marginalizing and disempowering good people at challenged places with good ideas and the best of intentions. Not sure why this is so difficult to see or accept. It is very much a reality for many, many international educators at numerous schools. I speak from extensive personal experience, decades of conversations with fellow educators, and years of research.

Deficient and unsavory labor and teaching / learning conditions in many international schools are the veritable "elephant in the room" of international education, one that poses real liabilities for educators who gather enough courage to speak out openly. Equally, these are conditions in need of a thorough examination by all quarters in education, especially by those in our profession who set standards of operation and seek to make a coherent, ethical system of what is at present a rather hodge-podge collection of schools spanning the globe and claiming to be "international".

You, of course, are entitled to your reading of my response to Ms Cowles' piece as "condescending", "lacking humility" or bereft of "self-examination", if you like. You also mentioned that I sounded "defensive", although the credibility of my own writing or point of view was not at that time in question. Perhaps you meant to say "offensive".

Nevertheless, your views are your own right, and my taking a little heat is just part of an honest, open exchange. Although, with due respect, as far as I can see, your stated reservations regarding my concerns have done little to address them, indeed next to nothing. If I understand you correctly, the power dynamics of international schools is an area of education about which you have "little familiarity". Not the best position from which to objectively evaluate a commentary regarding a shoptalk article.

If you found my tone offensive, please bear in mind I was not addressing immediate personal issues or difficulties, as I have been away from international schools, involved in writing and consulting, for some time. Rather, I was attempting to point out very real, urgent conditions that remain common knowledge among the rank and file (although often kept under wraps for fear of censure) at many international schools. As such, perhaps at this late hour it would be best for all parties to such a conversation to engage little more unsweetened directness and candor, although always with the agreed precondition of never being personally insulting. One I certainly did not mean to be in any way "offensive" in my response to Ms Cowles' article, yet maybe we are a bit past the phase of "nice chat" regarding such real and pressing challenges in our profession. One person's offense is another person's passion.

Finally, by saying that the Ms Cowles' article was not intended to look at the larger power relations in schools (for which I give it some responsibility, at least in the way her perspective tacitly or explicitly supports them), does not in any way cancel or lessen the validity of my views about the article. Indeed, your rebuttal of my very social and political response on the personal grounds that I "don't understand" the article's "intended message" only underscores my case regarding how such reasoning can and is used to discredit legitimate concerns in many international schools. When, as is the case of the article, one attempts to hold personal psychohistorical motivations responsible for "complaining" and "fearing to belong" in dysfunctional schools, extra consideration needs to be given to the context in which those complaints takes place. Otherwise, victims are blamed, and messengers are punished. That, in a phrase, is exactly what I was trying to point out regarding the article. You have skillfully done a bit of the same personalizing to me the Ms Cowles' does in her explanatory schema, by implying that I "just don't get it" and perhaps am a malcontent in sheep's clothing, or some such. Your view is almost perfectly illustrative of what I think we as educators need to reflect about more,. much more. Perhaps I should be grateful to you for that.

In sum, I only wish to add that not all or even most of the concerns, frustrations, discouragements, disappointment given voice in our profession are at root matters of pop culture psychological "complexes" or personality deficits. I don't deny that psychological complexes exist, nor do I claim that I am more immune to them than the next person. I only wish to say, whether we choose to engage in international school discourse at the broader social, cultural, economic, historical levels of understanding regarding the many challenges of schools, these problems will remain no less pressing, urgent, or detrimental. And the involved distortions they will still often require broader, more inclusive approaches and solutions. Personal psychologizing, unfortunately, more often misses the mark than not, and lends next to nothing toward broader change and progress. Many of the problems in international education are far beyond the psychosocial dynamics of individuals. This is not a view I personally made-up. Otherwise, trust me, I would gladly "unmake" it. Not continuing to point out the merits of a larger systems view in international education would generously save me tremendous amounts of time and energy.

In closing, Ms D Block let me say that I've had several stimulating, honest exchanges with Ms Cowles since my original posting, as she was gracious enough to contact me personally. We by no means agree seamlessly with each other on the questions at hand, nor should we. But, if my reading is correct, we certainly accept and respect each other's right to disagree. In the flurry of things needed saying in my earlier commentary, I was remiss in not pointing out that I personally found Ms Cowles' article well-written, insightful, thoughtful, persuasive, and polished. She is a competent writer and a skilled essayist. I apologize for that oversight of praise, but did provide exactly that additional needed feedback to her in our recent exchanges. I also failed to point out that I have had an ongoing love affair with international schools, international learners, and international education for more than three decades, so much so that I recently published a book, four years in the writing and 25 years in the making, related to the impact of global conditions on local systems of education.

As you must know, the things and the people we love most often cause us the most dismay and worry. Similarly those we believe in most are often the very same for which our discouragements and fears run the deepest. With those strong feelings in mind, for better or for worse, we can often be wrongly interpreted in our related discussions with others as lacking humility, flushed with condescension, short of self reflection, or worse, in the throes of some psychological complex.

I do wish you all the best, Ms D Block. It would have been more pleasant and cordial to know your real name. We are among friends here, and, as you might gather, as friends we (should) have little to hide and all the confidence in mutually civil and professional, if honest, exchange.

Thank you very much for our communication. I am quite happy to continue this conversation in this or another distance venue, if that meets your interests.

All the best,

John Lyons
05/10/2020 - D. Block
My reply to this article will be two-fold: first a reply to Ms. Cowles and second a reply to the critique by Mr. Lyons.

Ms. Cowles, this is a beautifully written article that asks us to face our internal conflicts, which impede our potential for doing our best work in the classroom. I love that you reference Parker Palmer, and because I appreciate his perspective so much, I will quote him at length here: “Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together. The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less than the convolutions of my inner life. Viewed from this angle, teaching holds a mirror to the soul. If I am willing to look in that mirror, and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge - and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject” (Palmer, The Heart of a Teacher, 2010). So good, so true. It may not surprise you, Ms. Cowles, that I identify, in part, as a recovering “Anxious Teacher”. I shared much of those characteristics in my early teaching career; however, I don’t believe that a search for belonging was at the root of it (worthy of a lengthy discussion over strong coffee, probably). Gradually shedding my anxiety and developing self knowledge and acceptance has allowed me to be more fully present for my students, ready to empathize, adapt, and teach.

Mr. Lyons, I believe that you have missed the entire point of Cowles’ article. It seems that you think her article was meant as a critique of the system of international schools or a critique of those in the system who dissent and demand change. As a result, your tone comes across as defensive. Cowles simply explains the type of people international teaching often attracts: “International teaching attracts adventurous people: the forward thinking, curious idealists who want to lead an interesting life. It also attracts fearful, damaged, needy, on-the-fringe-types who make difficult teachers”. Having never taught in an international school, I can neither confirm nor deny this claim, but her point seems to have merit. Cowles is not asking for a change to international teaching as a system and she is not arguing that there is never room to “expose the school’s shadows and inadequacies”; rather, she is, like Palmer, asking us as teachers to examine ourselves so we become more self aware, and thus, more ready to respond to student and school needs, better able to work with colleagues, and more fully committed to the schools in which we work. When Cowles postulates that the Activist Teacher, one who regularly critiques the nuances of a school, might be seeking a belonging, she is not condemning all system analysis, or as you call it, “dismiss[ing]...dissent”. Discussing the “very real and excessive cultural, social, economic, political, and moral shortcomings and abuses committed in and by international schools as workplaces” might be an important topic, but that would be a different article. It appears the “casebook error” is yours.

My Lyons, to echo your condescending language, with all due respect, you would benefit immeasurably from an introductory course in humility or self examination. I suspect that, after completing said courses, you, too, might identify as a difficult teacher.

D. Block
Alberta, Canada
05/04/2020 - john
Dear Ms. Cowles,

The primary political economic purpose of the global system of international schools, particularly in the developing south, is to sustain, protect and reproduce local conditions of power, inequality, and privilege, often feeding Into and risking complicity with local and worldwide oppressive political and economic relations and conditions.

This is a difficult pill for most international educators to swallow, especially the "newly arrived", more often than not idealistic, caring, well-meaning professionals such as yourself, the sort we all hope to be. It is not only difficult to swallow, but even harder to muster the spirit and courage needed to attempt to share and address some of the more immediate concerns of these dynamics with our peers and our school community as a whole.

Yet, these distortions, and the abuses and wrongs they often engender within international schools, demand open discussion, exploration, community building, and some semblance of educator/ administrative/ board/ student /parent accountability and involvement. And, yes, they often generate heated discussion of the sort not particularly comfortable to folks like yourself that would apparently prefer to not look too closely at the warts of international education, a preference you seem to pursue admirably by attempting to reduce pointed dissent and earnest activism in international schools to some diagnostic-tinged dismissal by way of a pseudo psychological or social pathology; in effect shooting the messenger potentially blaming /shaming the victim, definitely allowing for the punishment of dissent.

Your article in my view commits the casebook error of reducing what are often very real and excessive cultural, social, economic, political, and moral shortcomings and abuses committed in and by international schools as workplaces, and as integral "feeders" to local and dominant global systems of power and privilege, to little more than troublesome and unnecessary complaining by a handful of disgruntled, resentful, unhappy malcontents who are trying to hide their true fears, insecurities, and emotional challenges. Absolutely no margin of fairness is given in your piece to individuals who, like yourself, are committed and devoted educators, yet with the rare chutzpah to speak truth to power, and often with the even rarer moral conscience to tread into very, very unfriendly and risky waters. (We both know the social scapegoating and ostracism, and the potential professional damage, likely to occur as a result flushing out too many elephants in the room at international schools.) In these instances, which in my experience is MOST of the time, we are talking about creative outliers and progressive generative change makers of the sort direly needed and and in dire need of respect and honor by our profession.

Can you see how superficial, shaming, reactionary, complicit, and self-promoting (of course, you are far more sensible and "healthy" than those "types") this sort of approach is, and the negative impact it has on open, quality professional discourse, needed perhaps more in international education than any other of the "helping professions".

Your whole narrative is premised on a very tenuous, (although admittedly clever), psychological and sociological dismissal of dissent that never for an instance allows for the very real issues of class, race, gender, and culture, often involving abusive labor conditions and workplace tensions, that plague many international schools, In nearly four decades of international school teaching, I can attest from years of personal experience that these issues are very real and deserve very real amounts of attention, discussion, and remediation, no matter how uncomfortable some of our less systems-thinking colleagues are made to feel, or how threatening they may be perceived by some less than democratic administrators.

Ms Cowles, with all due respect, you would benefit immeasurably from an introductory course in systems analysis and critical theory in education. These represent very legitimate "ways of seeing" in international ed that are not meant to replace conventional conversations in education, but are intended to provide vital and needed enrichments of education conversations at all levels, particularly with regard to the often unseen unspoken, yet ubiquitous influences of power, privilege, and oppression.

Or, o course, we can just continue with "business as usual" in international education, and pretend we have little or no responsibility for or impact on the entrenched local and planetary systems of unearned power, privilege, inequality, and oppression that have made such havoc with our planet and its inhabitants. I mean, it is pretty clear what an amazing job business-as-usual in international education has done so far to help make the world a more just, equitable, sustainable home for us all!

My most earnest hopes, honest!

John L. Lyons
International Educator, Author, Consultant
03/28/2020 - Erika
Thank you for this well written article. You spoke of so many things here that I have often thought about but never quite got to the heart of.
This article was also an eye opener for me because it made me come to face 2 truths,
1. I am a teacher
2. I am the Activist
It is amazing how you hit the nail on my head with your description of all of these difficult teacher models, I’ve worked with them All both in and out of the States, but particularly the activist... who is me.
My last teaching role in West Africa really pointed this out... I meant well but ended badly. I walked away feeling disappointed even wanted to leave on a positive note, the damage had already been done.
Thank you for this article.. it has given me much food for thought and ways I can now dig deeper to explore my own antidote.
Schools are amazing communities, and as a teacher, I do Long to fit in, to belong... with the clarity of your article I can now forge my own way forward.
With much respect,
Erika Santiago
Special Education Specialist
New York

03/27/2020 - Stephen
Bold article and very difficult to describe these personnas but you did it exceptionally well. And I've worked with all three of these people!!



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