SCME Series Individual 002: The Cognitive Restructuring of “Blame”

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Too often, teachers use the phrase “parent involvement” as a way to communicate dissatisfaction with the role and contribution of parents. Teachers are careful not to “blame” parents because that would perceivably create a blame game between parents and teachers. Truth is, both are to “blame.”

What I want to emphasize is that our insistence on barring “blame” from the discussion causes us cognitively to overlook the needs and deficiencies in the system—both the educational system and the family system. We only use blame when we are overwrought, overwhelmed, and frustrated. This misses the opportunity to cognitively process ideas and opportunities we can intentionally create to structurally support alternatives. The list of “blame” you can construct when you are frustrated CAN be used to organize interventions for the family and sustain your motivation.

“No Blame” Supports Burnout
It was Jerry Edelwich (1981) who interviewed human services professionals including teachers and described burnout as disillusionment. The literature presented in books since the early 1980’s has become more targeted exploring social workers, accounting, compassion fatigue, specific techniques for women, and more. Edelwich’s model remains a simple 5-stage process highlighting the opportunity for intervention and resisting the mistake to equate burnout with “stress.” As another 80’s author (Gold, 1984) explains, many research studies of the day had muddled the definitions of burnout and stress.

More recent work supports my assertion that burnout is not just individual, but institutionally situated (Rakovec, 2011). Barring the “blame” is one way schools shape the ways that people interact. Refusing this release valve not only stifles coping, but it stifles creativity as well. To understand this, let us explore Edelwich’s model and the reasoning behind disillusionment.

Edelwich's Stages of Burnout

Edelwich’s Stages of Burnout

Disillusionment is the progressive loss of idealism. Stated another way, disillusionment is the erosion of an insistence on accountability. Yet another way to state it: disillusionment is when you cease to blame anyone for the failure to reach the ideal. Consider Edelwich’s model. The first stage is characterized by enthusiasm for the goal. The second stage brings stagnation as the system churns in repetition. The third stage offers frustration as the systems seem to resist effort toward the goal. The fourth stage is apathy—when the system has forced resignation of hope in achieving the goal. The fifth stage signals intervention—an opportunity to reignite enthusiasm and begin the cycle anew.

The problem is, the system may cycle easily as a matter of course through these stages, but individuals within the system remain disillusioned, jaded, or resigned. When the system (the school) cycles back to enthusiasm through new leadership, a new school year, or vacation breaks, the teachers are not impressed. Barring blaming is the key feature cementing apathy, transferring it from the institutional level into the psyche of the individual teachers. Phrases like, “It’s not your fault,” or “That’s just the way it is,” or “The policy is the problem” obscure the reality that INDIVIDUALS make the policies of the institution. The system runs because we power it through our initiative and creativity.

By Excusing Others, I Excuse Myself
As Andrew Carnegie is credited with stating, “People who are unable to motivate themselves must be content with mediocrity, no matter how impressive their other talents.”

BLAME allows you, as the individual within the system, to take your power back, to motivate yourself, to be the solution that you want to be. It is true, if you are going to blame parents, you have to be prepared to blame yourself. But, what you may miss in the frustration and apathy stages is that you have creativity and resources coming in the intervention stage. A common idea in stage theories is that the stages WILL BE experienced. The goal is to endure toward the triumph expressed in the latter stages of the theory. This is no different. Experience the enthusiasm, stagnation, frustration, and apathy authentically without excuses. Then, engage the intervention stage with honesty and clarity.

Creating a System of Support: Creativity in Classroom
For the individual teacher, INTERVENTION, means self-care and self-efficacy. Self-care reminds you to rehearse what you love about the profession and your daily routine. Daily include your favorite activity or experience into the lesson plan.

Self-efficacy reminds you that blame is power. Challenge your students and the family system toward self-management. Bandura (2001) provides a useful model in his “agentic perspective.” It centers around the understanding of a specific social role. If you can communicate a role for student, the parent, or other you want to inspire self-efficacy within, you then want to promote a practice of forethought, intentionality, self-awareness, and self-correction.

200174057-007My favorite example of this is Billy, a kid who could not sit still, line up straight, or otherwise follow the order instructions of the teacher. The teacher implemented a social interaction technique credited to Vygotsky. She engaged the class asking, “Does anyone know what happens when a person is badly hurt? Who comes to help them?”

The students shouted out human services helpers, “Doctors, Nurses, Paramedics, fire fighters, social workers!”

“What is the person who is hurt doing while they wait to be helped?” the teacher continued.

“They are bleeding and lying on the ground,” the students chimed. The teacher then assigned these roles, which the students obviously understood. To Billy, she assigned the role of patient, the person who is hurt. Billy was able, armed with an understanding of that role, to sit still for the 5-minute lesson. Your task as a teacher is to create these role assigning techniques intentionally to enable self-management on the part of students…and parents. Similar interventions can work with them.

Accessing Your Resources in Community
With parents, you must address the family system and gain a sense of the social role the members feel they play. Blaming in this instance is your consideration that families choose ignorance. They are not interested in doing your job as a teacher. Your requests for them to check homework or review with the child are requests for them to do YOUR job. They, unlike you, are not specifically educated in the process of learning, the importance of parental and environmental factors and reinforcements. They often engage differently with information than you are trained to engage as a professional educator.

dv1535069You must utilize the resources that are available to you in the context of the social role desired by the individuals (the parents or guardians) within the family system. My favorite example of this is a training launched by a frustrated teacher. The teacher found that she was not getting the participation from parents either in parent-teacher conferences, homework help, or responses from notes going home. She noticed, upon leaving messages on the phones of many of her parents that their greetings ended with “…and have a blessed day.”

She did a bit of research among her students and found that many of the most concerning parents were members of a local church. The teacher established a relationship with the pastor of the church and asked if the pastor would help her. The pastor agreed.

The teacher and the pastor discussed parallel concepts and narrative that could integrate a commitment to public education, teacher communication, and parental involvement with concepts, doctrine, and practice of a responsible congregation member. The pastor started a sermon series on education. The teacher also volunteered to deliver a monthly 15-minute education talk and question session to the Wednesday night meeting of the church. She was able to reach a number of her parents who understood and valued the role of “good church member.” The teacher’s relationships with parents, and her ability to influence the family systems, improved.

[ Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW is a leadership coach and organization consultant based in Nashville, Tennessee. With over 16 years of experience guiding individuals to their goals, Michael has the techniques and patience to help you succeed. Follow @MAWMedia on Twitter or connect for a consultation at ]