The Five Temptations of Teachers, Temptation Two: Blaming over Learning
Written by Jim Knight.

There is a simple way to keep from learning.  Just blame someone else for the problems we encounter.  If we blame the principal, the students, their parents, the media, the president, video games, or some other popular scapegoat, we can easily avoid learning by accepting no personal responsibility when reality falls way short of our goals. No need to learn anything here. I had nothing to do with it.

The temptation to blame is hard to resist.  When students do not respond as we had hoped. When a class falls flat.  When students don’t care about content that we love. When they don’t get what we are teaching. When they don’t understand. When they fail. If we believe that we are the reason why they fail, the emotional pain can be intense.

As human beings we are wired to avoid pain. In this context, one way we do this, often unconsciously, is to look elsewhere for reasons why a problem exists. Kegan and Lahey call this a language of blaming. I think this is a natural reaction to pain. The trouble is that when we identify the source of the problem as being outside of us, and therefore not our responsibility, we lose an important opportunity to learn.

An alternative is the language of personal responsibility, whereby we recognize that we are at least a part of the problem.  Kegan and Lahey write: “There are very few situations in our adult lives where we do not have at least some hand in things being as they are.”

In their book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, the authors include a simple table, which I’ve recreated below, that illustrates the differences between a language of blame and a language of personal responsibility.

What To Do


Resisting the temptation to blame and recognizing that we are at least a part of a problem opens us to learning.   “Some problems,” Kegan and Lahey explain, “are actually lessons, stories to learn from.”  How we solve our problems can be a complex and nuanced process, but by resisting the temptation to blame, we stay open to stories that can teach us a lot, and the more we learn, the better we are able to help our students learn.


  1. Jean Clark

    I am glad you are taking this up. We are looking right now at the blame triangle that first appeared and is discussed in addictions therapy. As long as one is blaming, one does not have to take personal responsibility, and thus is “on the triangle.” I think Robert Kegan’s earlier work in In Over Our Heads is interesting as well, particularly the discussion of Heifetz and Sinder on how to take down a leader by questioning what kind of leader one is, when that leader does not have a clearly articulated, “cut-and-dried-plan.” This could also be what may subvert second order change. I guess one must be profoundly mature to take on this kind of responsibility for self.

  2. Jen Thoma

    Unfortunately, the people who seek out the information shared above are not the people who need to hear the message. How do we help others (i.e. teachers, administrators) to realize that blame will not help our students? Through coaching, we can ask questions that get to the heart of their attitudes, dispositions and beliefs. But at the end of the day, they are the ones who have the potential to change their own thinking.

    Despite the attempts made by politicians, I do not think that pushing test scores on teachers will solve this problem (putting blame on the teachers). Until we put actual student names and faces with the data, we can’t work together to move forward.

  3. Helen Barrier

    Oh my, do we have some teacher leadership teams that we will engage in conversation around this post! This is a great “non-example of a radical learner! In the past two weeks we have been directing our teams to connect with this blog and start their days with inspiration, not negative talk.
    Thank-you for putting into words what is pulling our schools and culture down at an alarming rate.

  4. Kevin Schlomer

    There is a lot to think about here. When I think through my own career of teachers who move forward versus those who, no matter how hard they try, remain at the status quo, the act of blaming is often a common factor.

    I think one of the best ways to counter this kind of a culture is to be very strategic about the types of teachers who are on a teacher leadership team (such as a building leadership team), encouraging those who push ahead the most into these roles. In Student Achievement Through Staff Development, 2nd edition (Joyce and Showers), the authors share that about 70% of teachers could be considered “passive consumers,” that is, they are people who rely upon their immediate social context in determining what they will do or how they will respond. If we really develop those at the top–what Joyce and Showers refer to as “gourmet omnivores” and “active consumers”–we can begin to pull the others along. But it takes a lot of work together!!

  5. Brandon

    Great, timely post Jim. I love the chart.

  6. Sue Land

    I find when teachers blame, they often feel powerless to make change. They’ve been beaten down from being told that they are not meeting the standards.The entire school plays the blame game! How can schools change from this negativity? Appreciative Inquiry is a strengths-based approach to change that enables individuals and organizations to quickly generate the energy, ideas, strategies, and mometum for transformational change. ( This approach helps school teams re-focus their efforts and remember a time when they felt they were making a difference through their work. Through discovery (appreciating what is), dreaming (imagine what will be), designing (determine what should be), and destiny (create what will be) teams can move forward. This is an awsome process!

  7. Barb Millikan

    This weekend at the California SIM conference Keith Lenz shared some significant data for us to think about: teachers’ belief about student ability to learn, and students’ level of hope about their lives. With high quality instruction teachers were asked to rate their level of confidence in students’ ability to learn. 11% were very confident 23% moderately confident and 66% were not confident One set of data revealed that general ed teachers were satisfied if 50% of the students got 50% of the content. Another set of data revealed teacher opinions about why students with disabilities fail–attitude is poor, work is neglected, ability is low and parents are unsupportive. Here’s the striking comparison. Struggling readers and proficient readers have the same level of hope about their lives. This includes their ability to get where they want to go as well as knowing their pathway (Snyder, et al, 1991 Hope Scale) In 2006 Guthrie found that poor and good readers scored the same on the Motivation for Reading Scale. So much to think about. (Much of the data I shared are from my notes, so for specific information you’ll need to contact Keith Lenz.) Thanks for sharing all these great ideas, everyone!

  8. Denise Lambert

    You know, I have been teaching a long time and I have heard (and sometimes used) the blame game.
    None of it matters. There will always exist problems in homes, in administrations, etc. The only thing we have control of is what we are doing in our classrooms. That is the only thing that really matters.
    I am just finishing reading “The Book Whisperer” by Donalyn Miller. This is an example of a real radical learner. She changed her practices – radically! – and did away with old, tired, ineffective practices. She learned from her students and continues to tweak her instruction to meet student needs. She didn’t blame or make excuses. She took the problem by the horns and changed what was happening in her classroom.
    So many times during the reading of this book I have felt validated – but only in my beliefs. She was like my alter-ego who not only recognized the problems, she had the courage to buck the system and step out of her comfort zone. Her experiences have given me the courage to step up and away.
    Ms. Miller has been added to my list of super-heros of education.

  9. Kendra Wagner, Literacy Specialist

    You mention Margaret Wheatley and make reference to NVC (Non Violent Communication) all in the same week! Wheatley is a heavy hitter, and I am wading through her book on organizational change: Leadership and the New Science. A few years ago, in a PLC, a principal had us all read a book about how the words we use alter the entire classroom environment. We had to really “come clean” about how we refer to our jobs and our kids. We made a huge chart in the staff room and the column that had the most negative talk was the one titled, “District”. In other words, our blaming fell heaviest on the district, then parents, then kids, then the culture, then ourselves.


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