Scholastic Administrator


Stop The Blame Game
Before questioning the motives of others, start by asking yourself the question behind the question.

By John G. Miller

James Williams is settling in to his role as the leader of Buffalo (NY) Public Schools.

Have you seen this e-mail forward that’s going around in education circles? It’s a voice-mail greeting supposedly installed by a high school’s staff. It goes like this:

>Hello! You have reached the automated answering service for your school. Please listen to all your options before making a selection:

>To lie about why your child is absent, press 1.

>To make excuses for why your child did not do his work, press 2.

>To complain about how we do things, press 3.

>To swear at staff members, press 4.

>To ask why you didn’t get information that was actually enclosed in our newsletter and sent home with the student, press 5.

>If you want us to raise your child, press 6.

>If you want to reach out and slap someone, press 7.

>To request another teacher for the third time this year, press 8.

>To gripe about bus transportation, press 9.

>To complain about school lunches, press 0.

>But if you realize that your child is accountable and responsible for his or her own behavior, class work, and homework—and that your child’s lack of effort and achievement is not the teacher’s fault—please hang up now and have a nice day!

Pretty funny. From what I can gather, it’s an anonymous piece of fiction that spread like wildfire across the Internet. But it’s still a sad commentary on education in our country.

It’s also a powerful illustration of the futility of blame. Blaming others for the inadequacy of our kids’ education is never going to solve the problem at hand.

Often we hear the phrase, “There’s plenty of blame to go around!” Really? Is that true? Must we blame? Do I have to ask questions like, “Who caused the delay?” “When will others care more?” “Why is everything taking so long to get finished?” “When will people do their jobs right?” “Why is this happening to me?” All those questions do is encourage finger-pointing and thinking like a victim.

I recently met with Bill Harrison, superintendent of Cumberland County Schools in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He and his senior team talked with me about education and the complexity of issues, communication problems, and changes pressuring them all. We explored a chapter in my book QBQ! The Question Behind the Question (which staff members throughout Harrison’s district had read) titled “Beat the Ref.” It’s a concept my dad, Jimmy Miller, who served as Cornell University’s wrestling coach for 26 years, taught me back in the 1970s. He said that great athletes never blame the officials for their loss. They always look in the mirror, asking, “What could I have done today to be more effective?”

He taught me, “Johnny, you must be good enough to beat the ref!” That means don’t blame what is beyond your control.

As they lead a district of more than 6,000 staffers, Harrison and his team know there is much that is beyond their control. They also know that personal accountability is critical to their success, and that questions like these are costly and unproductive in a sophisticated and complex world:

  • Why won’t the board give us more budget dollars?
  • Who dropped the ball?
  • When will teachers do their job better?
  • Why can’t parents do a good job at home?
  • When will our principals coach their staff more effectively?
  • Why am I overworked and underpaid?
  • Who’s going to solve the problem?
  • Why do we have to go through all this change?

These questions are nothing more than blame and finger-pointing. What a waste.

Have you seen this? The school board blames the superintendent who blames the principals who blame the teachers who blame the parents who blame the schools who blame the politicians who blame one another, and on it goes. This “circle of blame” serves only to build walls between stakeholders in our children’s education—and future—while demoralizing all involved. It wastes time, energy, resources, and creativity.

Certainly real problems exist in education today. There are underperforming schools and ineffective teachers. On the other hand, teachers are frequently overwhelmed and undervalued. Perhaps most important, many parents aren’t as involved as they could be. But these observations miss the point. Blaming others for our students’ education is never going to solve the problem.

Let’s instead practice personal accountability by asking questions like, “What can I do to help this child succeed?” “How can I contribute to my school?” and “What can I do to make a difference?” Those questions eliminate blame, which has just about become our national pastime.

Fast food is blamed for obesity. Youth violence is blamed on computer games. Politicians blame one another for our country’s problems. Hollywood is blamed for our culture of “moral decay.” Some days it seems the blame game is the only game in town. Everybody is pointing fingers at everybody else. But wait! Before we get too focused on all the blame out there, consider these questions:

  • When I was late to work, did I blame the morning traffic?
  • When my child’s grades fell, did I blame the teachers?
  • When I was in a bad mood, did I blame my family and coworkersfor my feelings?
  • When my portfolio crashed, did I blame my broker?
  • When my drive put the ball into the rough, did I blame the wind?
  • When I forgot to follow through on a promise, did I say, “Life is too hectic”?

Blame never solves any problem, because we can’t play the blame game and practice personal accountability at the same time. And without personal accountability, nothing gets done, nothing is fixed, and nothing improves. But everything improves when we practice the art of personal accountability.

A high school teacher—out on the front lines of the education issue—said it best when he sent this e-mail to me.

John, I am a high school business teacher who asked my students to present case studies about solving problems in a small business. But when the teams did their presentations, I was disappointed. My first reaction was that they hadn’t listened or cared. But it became clear to me I had not done an adequate job communicating to them. So I asked, “What could I have done to make the presentations better?” As I talked with them, I realized I had not prepared them well, so I invested a whole class re-coaching them on the assignment. The next time around they did an excellent job. The more I apply the principle of personal accountability the better teacher I become—and I have been teaching for 28 years!

Personal accountability: It’s an idea that is timeless, timely, and effective. Great things happen when we put it into practice and ask questions like, “What can I do to contribute?” and “How can I make a difference?” And the next time that proverbial irritable parent calls, we will answer the phone.

John G. Miller is author of QBQ! The Question Behind the Questionand Flipping the Switch … Unleashing the Power of Personal Accountability, both published by Penguin. Miller lives in Denver with his wife, Karen, and seven children. He can be reached at Visit for more information.