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Dealing With Uncooperative Teachers

Judi Bailey

When it's time to confront.

What do you do, as a children's minister, when one of your suggestions goes ignored? How should you react when a volunteer says, "I've been a public school teacher for 13 years and I can tell you one thing-this proposed curriculum won't work!"

For starters, you can gulp. Then breathe. Like it or not, awkward situations are an unpleasant reality of most any job.

Or as Earl Radford, minister for children at The Peoples Church in Fresno, California, says, "Whether you're a children's minister or a business person, we will have to deal with difficult people...even work with them."

Go ahead, gulp again. You don't like conflict. You don't want someone mad at you. You don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.

In fact, sometimes you'd rather put your head behind a pew and hide. But as a children's minister your responsibility is to serve the needs of your kids...which just might involve rocking that pew a bit.

WHY TEACHERS MAY BE UNCOOPERATIVE

It's normal-even healthy-to have some resistance to change. It's a self-protective action; the familiar is predictable, probably comfortable. And when you're presenting a shift in the curriculum, you're asking someone to invest time in developing new techniques or presentations.

A lack of cooperation can also be a symptom of other problems. Perhaps the disgruntled teacher is unhappy with his position and needs to be reassigned to a different class, a different age group.
Or resistance might result from a problem outside the church environment, such as mid-life crisis, depression, menopause, low self-worth, a career demotion or a family problem.

"It's important to get at why they're being uncooperative," says Barbara Bolton of Cincinnati, a former children's minister. "What might look like a lack of cooperation might be a simple misunderstanding." For instance, your volunteer might not realize that what you're requesting her to do is part of her job description.

STEPS TO CONFRONTATION

Keep in mind that the word "confront" doesn't mean "open fire!" The first definition in Webster's New World Dictionary is "to face." Didn't Jesus confront sickness? Our Lord faced directly the difficulties of the day. Part of your ministry is to deal honestly with the circumstances around you. This can be done quite well with kindness and courtesy.

Here are six steps to help you move from confrontation to conclusion.

1. Give positive feedback. We all like to be appreciated, stroked, complimented.

"With one gal," says Radford, "we spent two years just loving her, telling her how special and vital she is to the ministry here. Her attitude and her outlook on life has changed tremendously. Before, she had no self-esteem. Now she's on a road to a positive Christian growth experience."

Give compliments. Inform a teacher when you've heard kids talking positively about her class. Let a teacher know when you've noticed a room full of attentive pupils.

Because some Sundays are so hectic, Bolton makes it a habit to mail notes of praise throughout the week. These she often writes in those odd moments; for example, when she's waiting for an appointment or tied up in traffic.

2. Share your experience, ideas and feelings. Explain how your proposed innovation fits into the overall plan or goal. Describe any encounters you've had with this particular curriculum.

Talk with commitment and enthusiasm. Spill your hopes freely. Don't present with hesitation or act as if you expect resistance. Be forthright.

3. Be specific. Beware of offering vague feedback such as, "This doesn't seem to be working out." State why. Coming to the point alleviates confusion, misinterpretation and the temptation to play games.

Sales people are trained to utilize a definite technique: Ask for the sale. This approach works in all communications. Don't just hope and hint-ask for what you want. For instance, if a teacher is habitually late, explain how this hurts the class. Then tell her exactly when you need her to show up.

If you want a teacher to try a new curriculum, tell him. Don't suggest; expect. For example: "I appreciate that you don't think this can work, but I want you to implement it anyway. Let's evaluate your experience with it after two sessions."

4. Listen. Make sure you let your volunteers know you value their input. (That doesn't mean you have to use it.) In fact, elicit feedback.

"You need to listen to your critics," Radford says. "Are they a friend? Or are they just being difficult?"

And why not put their experience to use? One of your volunteers might have a valuable point.

5. Use writing to clarify communications. Radford suggests putting job descriptions and goals in black and white. Bolton gives praise on paper.

Radford also uses writing in another way. When he needs to give feedback he often takes a teacher out for coffee or yogurt (to some neutral location) and he carries along a blank piece of paper. As the discussion progresses, Radford draws a line down the center of the paper, titling one side "positives" and the other column "negatives." Then he asks the volunteer to inventory his or her skills and characteristics. Given half a chance, many people confront their own miscues or bad attitudes.

6. Introduce new ideas in small steps. "Don't approach them with a fruit-basket upset," Bolton suggests. "Present change one step at a time. It really helps if that teacher has been part of the curriculum selection. They at least need to know why that particular course of study was chosen."

So gulp again, then pick up the gentle staff of Christian love. And beware: The person you challenge might become a good friend.


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