On Being Difficult

Jose Vilson Jose 2 Comments

A few weeks ago, my good friend John Holland and I were discussing some really good conversation ranging from music to education. Every time we have a conversation, whether it’s by ourselves or in a group context, the back-and-forth reminds me of a never-ending ladder. One time, as we got into this type of discussion, I remember being thoroughly exhausted from work and him being on the opposite side of the spectrum. Thus, I thought he was talking too much and he probably thought I was saying too little. In the midst of the conversation, he shared that he had too much coffee and chocolate in a really short span.

I remarked, “Explains a lot.”

It was comically terse and grumpy. Of course, John laughed it off but said in a subsequent and reflective conversation, “Sorry for being difficult.” I thought about it for a second, and replied, “It’s OK.” What I should have said, and which is why I appreciate many of the people in my circle, is “It’s OK if you’re being difficult because at least you’re being difficult in order to make true progress.” People don’t get that being overly critical can work against you if you’re almost always difficult and for no real purpose. People don’t respect that, and while they might acknowledge you in person, they’re thinking less and less of you every time something critical comes out of your mouth.

Rather than list the ways in which one can tell the difference between someone who wants to make progress and someone who’s self-interested, I’ll give you a few situations. How about the person who jumps into a conversation to negate whatever you and your friends say but, only after, asks what the conversation was about? How about the person who can astutely point out a problem with a situation but doesn’t see the irony in how they too contribute to that situation? How about the person who gets mad that you did something or said something first, so they prefer to not support you even if it’s a great idea?

You get the gist. Those that I find most helpful to my work push my buttons, but know when to turn that off. They critique carefully and don’t mix the personal with the professional. They only give you criticism in regular doses. They’re not as consumed with who got the “good” done so long as the good got done. They ask questions not because they know there’s no answer to it but because it’s important and relevant to the thought processes necessary to get to the next step. They offer another point of view for the sake of the whole, not for the individual.

Too often, in number-driven clusters, the push towards the former sort of criticism takes places, and too often. If you ever get the chance, find friends like the latter. Just be careful when they’re hopped up on too much sugar and caffeine. You’re in for a ride.

Jose, who wants to know whether you’re coming with me …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 2

  1. msladydeborah

    I can fully appreciate your thoughts on the subject of being difficult. I think that you hit the essence of how it should work between people. There should be a balance to help avoid just being seen as negative all of the time.

    I have some good friends who know how to poke and prob during conversations very skillfully. To people outside of our friendship circle, we often seem to be having it over different topics. In reality it is not the case. We are all pretty plain spoken and have opinions on a lot of different subjects. We have a sense of when it is time to give it rest. Because the purpose of being difficult in our case is to help motivate each other to think on different levels about life and work.

    I enjoyed reading this post.

  2. Kristi Bishop

    No excuses. The buck stops here. It is what it is. Deal with it. This is what I want to say when I hear teachers despairingly talk of how it is impossible to do our jobs nowadays. “Students should be respectful”, “They should be equipped with grade-level skills”, “They should be this way and that way”. As Lee Canter puts it, we all need to stop leading “shouldy lives” and recognize the reality of the situation. Teachers must accept responsibility for the here and now and not defeat themselves by blaming “the system” and making excuses.

    We cannot dismiss our students’ low assessment scores by saying that they are out of our hands. It is all in our hands. We need to own it, warts and all. We need to look at the assessment data and use it to define our weaknesses. We need to find others who are succeeding on the assessments and learn from them. Collaborating with others on test scores, admitting our weaknesses and asking for help can be a risky business. Schools need to develop a sense of trust and security so that teachers do not feel threatened with judgment and non-renewal because we have exposed ourselves and our teaching methods to others. But we have got to start somewhere.

    I want to bring all of this up to other teachers in the lunchroom or during PD, but I don’t want to be considered “difficult” or high and mighty or not on the teachers’ side. It is an unpopular viewpoint that people really don’t want to hear. How can I break it to them?

Leave a Reply