How to Stop the Culture of Complaining in Schools

Wherever we look in our schools, we can find complaining: in classrooms, hallways, offices, and teachers’ lounges. Participating in such talk is easy because there is a lot “wrong” in our schools, but this kind of dialogue is destructive and often spreads quickly.

Why do people complain so much in the first place? An honest answer is that it feels good to complain and blame someone or something else when things are not going our way. Complaining takes the responsibility off of us and, according to researchers, often engenders the comforting response we crave when we fail or are disappointed.

This is not to say that there isn’t a time for complaining. Quite often we might be dealing with injustice or unfairness in our schools that give us good reason to complain. But complaining should not be the end goal; rather, it should serve as an impetus to rally others to help us change an unfair situation.

However, there are times when no matter our circumstances, we get into a funk or always look to the dark side of life—and this gets telegraphed to others through our complaints. Stuck in a rut of complaining, we often hold the belief that we don’t need to change anything about ourselves. Worse, we remain stuck and spread our toxic attitude to others, sapping our motivation to change and making the problems seem even more difficult than they are.

Gratitude is an antidote to complaining as it enables us to change and reframe the way we look at and interact with the world. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of education, we replace this destructive viewpoint with gratitude and find the positive things about teaching. When we flip our own attitudes, we can also change the culture of our classrooms, which elevates students’ attitudes and increases learning and engagement. Fueling our teaching, gratitude can propel us into a positive flow in the classroom and spark our passion about education.

If your school has been invaded by the pernicious virus of complaining, here are three simple gratitude practices to encourage staff members and students to spread the antidote of positivity.

1. Create a no-complaint zone

To promote a positive culture among teachers, make the faculty lounge an area of “No Negativity.” If a teacher starts complaining or talking negatively about someone who isn’t in the room, gently remind him or her in a neutral tone, “It is not fair to speak about that person when they cannot defend themselves.”

This ground rule for the teachers’ lounge creates a safe and supportive environment. Teachers may comment that they feel they’ve become more aware of how much they were complaining about others and they may start to change their behavior. With this ground rule in place, gossiping, as well as complaining, can be greatly curtailed.

To further counter the negativity in the faculty lounge, one interesting idea is to put up a gratitude board where staff can write messages of gratitude to each other. Teachers can utilize this creative tool by taking the time to write a quick gratitude note about a colleague on the board. When educators actually see their gratitude posted on the board, positive changes in attitude and behavior are more likely to follow. In fact, this gratitude can be contagious and start to spread throughout the school.

In classrooms, we can dialogue with students about complaining and how it contributes to negative attitudes. We can also ask them for ideas about keeping complaints out of the classroom. One powerful rule that has emerged in our classroom is that no one (including the teacher) is allowed to complain. If someone does complain, they are asked to say three things they are grateful for. 

At this point, we can even delve a little deeper into “why” we are grateful for these things. For example, instead of saying, “Thank you for my friends,” we could say, “Thank you for my friend Mike who helped me through a rough time last week.” With this activity, gratitude may again replace the pessimism generated by complaining as we are “re-programming” our negative bias.

2. Break the habit with a “Complaint Bracelet”

Unfortunately, some days it is easy to slip back into old habits and complain. One helpful tool to try to get back on track is to wear a complaint bracelet on our right wrist. If we notice we are complaining, we have to take it off and put it on our left wrist for the rest of the day and restart the process the next day. If we go three weeks without complaining, we can be freer of this harmful habit just by bringing complaining into our conscious awareness.

In reality, it may take more than three weeks to successfully learn a new habit. Nevertheless, it is a novel way to redirect our behavior. Don’t be afraid to ask students to create an exercise to try to curtail complaints.

In addition, we can “recalibrate” our perspective with gratitude daily. In our routine, like when we drive into the school parking lot or every time we walk into the classroom, we can simply take a few moments to reflect on our outlook, attempting to recalibrate our attitude about our students and the teaching profession, looking for gratitude.

For students, we can start each class with a few deep breaths and ask them to mindfully ponder a few things they are grateful for as it pertains to their learning. This will help establish a positive perspective to take through the day’s events and keep us from slipping back into the habit of complaining.

3. Challenge students with “The Complaint Challenge”

Start by asking students: “Can you go all day without complaining?” Have them carry around a 3 x 5-inch card and write down any instance when they complain or even feel like complaining. Then, instruct them to write a gratitude statement or something positive on the other side of the index card. For many students, this action develops a new awareness they may utilize their entire lives as they cultivate the ability to choose a positive attitude in any situation.

For example, one student noted that he complained every night and never really thought about how often he said, “I hate doing my homework!” But then, as this experiment progressed, he turned this statement into a gratitude statement and wrote, “I am grateful I get to learn by doing my homework. It will help me get a good job someday.”

Another student wrote that she did not like setting the table every night at dinner. When she flipped that to a gratitude statement, she started saying, “I get to eat dinner with a loving family and I am thankful for that.”

As this experiment moves forward, if students feel the complaints coming back, have them pull out the index card and read the gratitude.

Whenever possible, students and staff alike should try to turn our complaints into statements of gratitude. When we string together a few days without complaining and instead focus on what we’re grateful for, we might notice other positive things going on, like our relationships improving and feeling more energy to put into teaching. We may even find we are enjoying life—and school—a little more.