Doing (No) Favors

“Could you do me a favor?” In the course of a day, depending on your circumstances, you might say and hear that request a dozen times or more, especially if you work with a lot of different people.  In a school, students ask for letters of recommendation and for permission to go do That One Thing for a few minutes.  Colleagues ask for help with That Other Thing, and parents might send an email asking for help or clarification.  Even Powers That Be sometimes introduce a request by asking for a favor.

The process of doing favors (and receiving the favors you’ve asked for) is important.  It’s part of the glue that holds any organization together, whether it’s as simple as a family helping each other with household chores or as complicated as the chains of favors that informally hold a large, bureaucratic organization together.  But favors aren’t always as simple or clear-cut as we might like.

Ms. H, one of the subjects of yesterday’s post, felt strongly that she was doing favors to the students she met with, slowly and laboriously, to go over their schedules for the Upcoming School Year class by class and line by line.  Ms. D, who’s currently responsible for registration and scheduling, disagrees.  “We’re not doing them any favors,” she said yesterday, “when we do stuff for them that they need to be able to do for themselves!”  Ms. D and I had been talking about a number of things, and we went on to talk about several more … but the idea of doing no favors, especially when you think you’re doing a big favor, stuck with me.

Ms. H was usually tired and angry by the end of her lengthy registration and scheduling process.  She felt unappreciated, even disrespected, by students, colleagues, parents, and Powers That Be.  “They just don’t understand how hard it is,” she’d say sometimes.  And that’s probably true … but it’s also true that what Ms. H perceived as a favor wasn’t perceived as such by the recipients of her intended favors.  Students and parents, knowing no other approach, assumed that Ms. H was just doing what she was supposed to do or what she’d been told to do by Powers That Be, or else they resented her claim that a particular course combination would be “impossible” or “too hard.”  Colleagues, overwhelmed by “too much to cover,” resented her arrival, the knocks on the door, the disappearance of That One Student, the one who “really needed to be in class today,” for fifteen minutes or more.  And Powers That Be, looking at Ms. H’s many other responsibilities piling up over a period of weeks?  Ms. H frequently complained about how unappreciated she felt when she was asked about those other responsibilities.

When you stop and think about it, a favor is something that a person with a particular resource gives to someone without that resource.  In the Roman world, patrons gave baskets of food and money to their poorest clients, who responded with various forms of (technically unpaid) work, with applause for the patron’s public speeches, or with a vote for the patron or his preferred candidate for some office.  The system persisted because of the balance, because (at least in theory) each side was able to provide something (a favor) that the other side needed or lacked.  When there’s asymmetry or imbalance, though, it’s easy for favors to breed the kinds of resentment that Ms. H felt … and to breed that resentment in both the giver and the receiver of the favors.

“Those bad, lazy kids and teachers don’t appreciate all I do for them!” She never said that out loud, and she probably didn’t consciously think it, either.  But when you saw her at the end of a long, tiring day of favors, you could feel it in the line of her tired shoulders, the look of sadness and exhaustion on her face.  Lots of us worried about Ms. H’s health, and we were glad she decided to go ahead and retire while she was still able to enjoy her retirement.  But when I talked with Latin Family members and their parents during the weeks of registration, I heard resentment of Ms. H’s approach in return.  “She acts like she’s doing us a favor or something!”  Nobody said that out loud, either, and they may not have consciously thought it.  But you could feel it when people asked why she was “making it so hard” or when they asked me to intervene and fix a problem with a language-course placement.

The Monday Evening Book Group has been working through this remarkable book by Dwight Zscheile, who has a lot to say to religious organizations that once had pride of place but now find themselves displaced in an increasingly diverse, rapidly changing world.  But there are also lessons for other organizations and people who are yielding pride of place as the world changes.  Factory-model schools and their teachers?  I can’t count how many times I’ve heard, seen, and read complaints from colleagues (usually my age and a bit older) about how “teachers used to be revered” but that’s no longer the case.  The typical “solution,” of course, is to somehow turn back the clock, to return to a fervently-believed world where teachers were revered, to recapture the glorious (and partly imaginary) days when teachers and schools dispensed favors to a grateful population.

But if they ever existed, those days are gone … and I don’t mourn them.  Consistently dispensing favors without ever needing to receive one?  It’s a recipe for arrogance, for contempt for those who do receive.  And arrogance and contempt don’t do much to build or sustain a community, or even a group of supporters.

When you’re building and sustaining joyful learning communities, what’s the role of favors? I think there’s a lot more mutuality, a lot more giving and receiving by everybody, and there’s a much greater sense of mutual need and mutual support.  That’s important for me to remember on this busy day, and I hope it helps you on your journey as well.

I wonder what other new insights the day will hold!

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Published in: on February 27, 2014 at 11:41 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] you do me a favor?” That was the question that inspired yesterday’s post here.  But as the day went by, I realized there’s a connection between that post and the one […]


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