Early in my teaching career, I dealt with a boy who was a chronic complainer. He was smart, but he complained about everything: The homework was too long. I expected him to do too much classwork. His mom yelled at him that morning. The kids in the hall were picking on him.
This kid was driving me and the other kids nuts! Since I was a rookie, I went to my Dad. His optimism attracted people in his business, the neighborhood, and at church. He told me a little story.
Dad had a woman working for him named Charlene. Every morning Dad would greet her with a "good morning!" Charlene would grumble something in return.
After a few days of this, Dad had a little talk with her. He told Charlene that she was a fine worker, but other people would not know this from her morning greetings. So Dad wanted her to say, "Good morning, Mr. Goedeker!" with a smile every morning for two weeks. Charlene reluctantly agreed.
After the first week, Charlene would start to smile as soon as she saw Dad. She knew he would praise her smile, and soon others in the plant noticed.
So I had a little talk with David. I let him know that I would listen to his complaints on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I wanted him to start telling me his complaints as soon as he hit my classroom door. On Tuesday and Thursday, I said, he had to greet me and ask how I was doing. He laughed and thought I was kidding.
The first day David complained about school, his brother, the guys in his gym class, and my homework. At the end of his litany, I asked if he was sure that was all. Toward the end of class, he raised his hand and added a forgotten complaint about the lack of pepperoni pizza at lunch.
The next day was Tuesday. David started complaining. I reminded him about the greeting.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Wieland. How are you?" David said sarcastically. "Hi, David. I'm just fine. Thanks for asking."
He wanted time for one complaint. I promised I would listen the next day. David wasn't happy, but he complied. The next day he arrived with a list in his hand.
This Monday, Wednesday, and Friday agreement lasted for a month. Then David and I had a little conference. I told him that his list of complaints was getting shorter, and he was actually smiling and greeting me most afternoons. "You and your attitude are changing, David. I'm really beginning to like you and look forward to seeing you," I said.
"But now you're going to ask me not to complain anymore, aren't you?" he asked.
I told him I'd still listen, but only on Mondays and Fridays. He could save weekend problems for Mondays and make a list during the week for Fridays.
David thought I was neglecting him. Actually, I was developing a nurturing relationship with him.
The first Monday was easy. Only a few complaints. But Wednesday he burst in red-faced and angry.
"I know that this is Wednesday, but I have had a rotten day. I need to complain really badly," he said. I told him to write every detail in his notebook and I'd listen carefully on Friday.
During the next semester I listened to David and eventually weaned him from his complaining. David realized that some complaints were trivial when he wrote them down. I gave him a sounding board and helped him see that life wasn't so bad.
Toward the end of the year he would occasionally stick his head in my door. "Hey, Mrs. Wieland, what day is it," he'd say, and go laughing down the hall.
My Dad was right - an optimistic attitude is just a matter of developing the habit.
- Kathlyn E. Wieland
* Kathlyn E. Wieland, an educator for 24 years, teaches at Oakville Junior High School in St. Louis.