Monday, September 14, 2015

Serenity: Dealing with Difficult People

It's a fact of life that teachers have to deal with difficult people. It comes with the territory: we aren't working with cars on the assembly line; we are dealing with human beings with their own thoughts, emotions, and plans.

Every group of students I have ever taught included two or three "knot-heads." You know, those difficult kids who--either by nature, or by design--seemed to conspire to make it difficult on me. Every once in a while, you get a group with eight or nine knot-heads...that's fun too! ("There aren't enough corners to spread them out!")

Sometimes it isn't the kids at all. Sometimes it's the parents. I've had a few classes in my time as a teacher where I've thought, "I wish this was a boarding school...then I would only have to work with the kids, and not deal with these parents!" We sometimes joke about helicopter parents, but this can be very dispiriting as a teacher.

Unfortunately, sometimes the difficulties aren't in the students or the parents, but the colleagues or administrators that make your life rough. Colleagues who seem to be out to thwart your innovative idea, administrators who give you just enough rope to hang about sucking the joy right out of the classroom!

And that doesn't begin to touch the pressures from society: people who decry teachers as lazybones, people who think unionized teachers are just out for more money, politicians who pass laws that put incredible burdens on teachers in the name of "raising standards" without really understanding what the job is like...all of these can make the already demanding profession all the more difficult.

There are days when I think all teachers need to pray the serenity prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Don't we all need a little more serenity, a little more peace in our lives?

But here's the thing...this sometimes just feels like a platitude. (Perhaps it is...) In all reality, teaching is hard work at its best, and can be devastatingly sorrow-inducing at its worst. Yes, we should have courage to work to change things for the better. Yes, we should have the serenity--and the wisdom--to accept the things we cannot change.

But on the rough days, that doesn't seem like enough.

My pastor shared an "updated version" of the serenity prayer in church yesterday. He recently found this version on a Jesuit blog he follows. (I'm not Roman Catholic, but I do appreciate so much of the Jesuits' work.) Here is the new version he shared with us:
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the people I cannot change,
which is pretty much everyone,
since I’m clearly not you, God.
At least not the last time I checked.

And while you’re at it, God,
please give me the courage
to change what I need to change about myself,
which is frankly a lot, since, once again,
I’m not you, which means I’m not perfect.
It’s better for me to focus on changing myself
than to worry about changing other people,
who, as you’ll no doubt remember me saying,
I can’t change anyway.

Finally, give me the wisdom to just shut up
whenever I think that I’m clearly smarter
than everyone else in the room,
that no one knows what they’re talking about except me,
or that I alone have all the answers.

Basically, God,
grant me the wisdom
to remember that I’m
not you.
(Here is the original source for this version of the Serenity Prayer.)

Today I'm thinking that this is good advice for dealing with difficult people. Much as I wish I could change them and fashion them more into who I wish they would be, I know that it's unlikely that I will be able to change them. So maybe I should instead focus on my own heart. Maybe I should pray for the superhuman ability to love difficult people with a self-sacrificing love.

Maybe then I wouldn't find them quite so difficult.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for the feedback, my friend! Glad you found it valuable. :-)

  2. This was a post I needed today. There are a few colleagues that I know their complaints before they speak them. Patience with them is the name of the game.

  3. Hey Pal,

    I needed this reminder this morning. Perfect timing to say the least. Thanks for sharing and know that it mattered.

    Rock right on,

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Bill! Glad that it hit the right spot for you.