Why “don’t take it personally” is bad advice

When I was a teacher, I always heard the words, “don’t take it personally.” That was the last thing I needed to hear.

waking up to self-delusion can be tough but liberating

Originally published in collaboration with Zeal Learning on blog.zeal.com

“These kids have crazy stuff going on at home…”

“It’s not your responsibility…”

“You’re only a teacher…”

All different forms of, “don’t take it personally.”

We’re taught that there should be a well-defined border between the things we do to serve our students and the things we do (or don’t do) to preserve our own human sanity. In support of this border, we learn that things happen to our students that are outside the realm of our control, and we shouldn’t try to control them. Don’t take it personally, we’re taught.

But it was precisely that — taking it personally — that drove my biggest classroom breakthroughs and made me an effective teacher for my students.

I’d like to share that journey with you.

“Don’t take it personally” in theory.

It’s a persuasive idea — don’t take it personally.

And the core of the idea is valid. There are many variables and people contributing to the achievement of a child, and not all of them are the child’s teachers.

So don’t take it personally can be helpful in a lot of cases.

It doesn’t make sense, after all, for our nation’s teachers to spend any more time than is absolutely necessary crying in their cars after work (I’ve been there). Sometimes, we have to be able to pick ourselves up from tough times in order to give it another shot, and don’t take it personally can help us do that.

It can be a strong self-preservation tool that keeps us going in the face of grave challenges. So naturally, we latch onto it.

“Don’t take it personally” in practice.

But there’s a difference between the core value of an idea and the many bastardizations of it.

We must be careful with self-preservation. When used too liberally, it can become a different beast altogether, a three-headed Greg Marmalard.

The Marmalard Trifecta: incompetent, daft and condescending

We can, and often do, use don’t take it personally to condone harmful practices that don’t benefit our students.

It’s a path for us to excuse under-performance, all under the harmless guise of personal balance and boundaries.

It’s a convenient way to delude ourselves of our actual responsibilities.

“My poor students aren’t advancing enough to catch up to their rich peers. Oh well, I don’t take it personally. They’ve got stuff going on at home.”

“My school’s math and science scores consistently undershoot their ELA growth. I don’t take it personally. Must be something to do with the test.”

“My students came in not knowing how to add single-digit numbers. I don’t take it personally, but I guess they won’t be doing much this year other than review.”

Do you see the difference between that and a quick pat on the back to try again?

When we use don’t take it personally to excuse lackluster performance and low expectations, we fail our students. We conveniently — because it’s out of our control of course — chalk up any resulting shortcoming as another uncontrollable part of an uncontrollable system, all spiraling down to an uncontrollable end.

Students are watching this.

They see us capitulate to self-delusion.

And they follow us.

Research on Self-delusion

Self-delusion is rampant in our society today. We’re more likely to seek news articles that reflect our own worldview than objective truth. We buy fancy cars and expensive jewelry in the name of “status.” We write medium blogs to get people to think we’re smart. Self delusion is everywhere, at least anecdotally.

As for research, one particularly fascinating study on the topic of self-delusion is Paul Piff’s investigation of rigged Monopoly games. Have you heard his TED talk?

If you’re short twenty minutes, here’s a summary: when people play intentionally rigged games of Monopoly — where some participants play with more money, extra privileges and less stringent rules — the participants with the unfair privileges always win.

Nothing surprising there.

But when Piff interviews the privileged winners about how they’re able to win, 100% of the winners cite something laughable: their superior skill in the game. Conveniently, none mention that the game was tilted in their favor.

Piff uses the study to suggest that privileged people often fail to recognize their privileges when they describe how they got to their heightened status in society.

Instead of citing external privileges that are out of their control — the zipcode they were born in, the color of their skin, the income of their parents — they most often cite factors that are in their control, such as work ethic or communication skills.

And while Piff’s conclusions predominantly deal with self-delusion in the realm of societal hierarchies at large, I argue that the same self-delusion is at play when we tell ourselves, “don’t take it personally.”

I think of it this way: when we succeed, we tell ourselves we earned it. When we falter, we tell ourselves it couldn’t be earned. Same delusion, different outcome.

When we give ourselves the liberty of self-delusion, we allow ourselves to rewrite history, reframe reality and ignore any failures. Just like the monopoly players who ignored that they were playing on a rigged board.

But there’s another way.

I was lucky to have talented mentors when I was teaching (you know who you are…) who showed me that it was almost always better to take it personally when things weren’t going well in my classroom.

I will carry that lesson with me for my entire life. Take it personally, even if it hurts.

When our students are underperforming, I think we should take it personally. Instead of chalking up failures to “the system,” we should make it our responsibility to find where, when and how students stumbled — and how our own actions may have led them to those missteps — so we can help them avoid the same pitfalls in the future.

When our students aren’t focused because of something happening at home or down the hall, we should take it personally, even if it’s not personally our fault. We should make it our responsibility to be there for them, to listen to them and to offer our support.

Here’s why taking things personally — an uncommon approach — works: pain is a powerful deterrent.

When I take things personally, when I genuinely believe that each misfortune that befalls my students is my responsibility to help resolve, I care so much more about resolving that misfortune.

Because it hurts me. And I have a big, easily bruised ego.

All of a sudden, things that were previously out of my control are now, by necessity, in my control. Because I take them personally.

Thank you from my heart for reading this post — it was a vulnerable one to write, and to read. If you’d like to discuss this idea with me, I’m always open to heart-to-hearts with teachers, principals and friends. Find me at my other home, blog.zeal.com or the Zeal homepage.

With care,