Muzzling False Praise

Type: Article
Topics: Ethics, School Administrator Magazine

October 01, 2019

Ethical Educator

Cartoon depicting a bad bookWhenever her friends in education self-publish a book, the superintendent typically purchases copies to be supportive.

When an old colleague asks her for a five-star review on Amazon and praise on social media, the superintendent reads a pre-press version of the first chapter and finds it self-indulgent drivel.

Not wanting to hurt feelings or post undeserved praise, how should the superintendent proceed?

Maggie Lopez:

I wonder if the superintendent can fairly make a determination of “self-indulgent drivel” after reading only one chapter? He needs to read the entire book and then determine if the book is worthy of his promotion. If after he reads the book, he still feels the same way, then he needs to have a conversation with his colleague and tell him he can’t endorse the book and its message.

The superintendent would be smart to have two or three key reasons and factual examples for his decision to not endorse the book. This doesn’t mean there aren’t parts in the book that may be worthwhile, but the book’s message is just not one he can get behind. An honest yet professional discussion ultimately may help his colleague not only get honest feedback from a respected colleague, but also will prepare him for the likelihood his book may never be a top seller. Better for the superintendent to be honest than have to answer to the same colleague when he can’t support purchasing copies either.

Shelley Berman:

Although we want to assist friends and colleagues in their efforts to grow professionally, it is presumptuous of the old colleague to request a five-star review and praise before knowing what the superintendent actually thinks of the work. The colleague is also unrealistic in expecting the superintendent to base a review on the draft of a single chapter. 

Situations like this are often delicate in that we don’t want to disappoint someone who clearly is making the effort to write a book relevant to the field. However, any feedback or quotations provided on social media will ultimately reflect on the superintendent. Bestowing undeserved praise could eventually harm the superintendent’s own credibility and professional reputation. 

The superintendent may be able to diplomatically decline if the content isn’t an area in which the superintendent believes he has sufficient expertise. If that is not the case, the superintendent should simply offer honest feedback to his old colleague and indicate that he wouldn’t feel comfortable praising the book in its current and incomplete state. While not needing to label the work “drivel,” he can candidly share the concerns he has with the first chapter. Those concerns may, in fact, be helpful to his colleague in revising the chapter and perhaps the book to be more meaningful and useful.

Meira Levinson:

Assuming he has not posted reviews of friends’ books on Amazon in the past, the superintendent can say (with seeming regret) that he does not post reviews of books that friends or colleagues have published, precisely so he never risks having to turn people down. He also can offer to post something on Facebook or Twitter that reads, “Proud of my friend Harriet for publishing her recent book!” This announcement is positive about the fact of the publication without saying anything about the quality of the work.

In general, school district leaders have to walk a fine line in supporting colleagues’ and employees’ out-of-district accomplishments without showing favoritism or engaging in viewpoint discrimination. It can be easy and appropriate to celebrate a colleague’s successful completion of a marathon, their selection as volunteer of the year with a local civic group or inclusion in a competitive art show.

In this case, the superintendent is celebrating an accomplishment that has been defined and vetted by others.  It can be harder when the achievement is something that the superintendent himself has to judge, such as the quality of a self-published book. In this instance, the superintendent may save himself some squirming by having a blanket policy against such endorsements.

Max McGee:

“Dear Old Colleague, Five stars are reserved for Dewey and Rousseau so rather than rating your recent book, I will be glad to write a review after I read the entire book and not just the first chapter. Sorry to say that I will not be able to finish reading your latest work for a few weeks as I have several pressing projects stacked up, but I am looking forward to diving into it.

“If you have the time, please send me some ‘pithy’ quotes from your book that you think will be particularly meaningful and insightful for readers because when I write a review I like to include specific quotations so the book speaks for itself even more than I speak for it. I have to admit I struggled with the first chapter and hope to find some valuable gems in later chapters.

“Finally, I have to ask if you have ever considered submitting a manuscript to a publishing house?  Having published two books (and having one rejected), I have to say that the editorial process was exceptionally helpful – brutal at times – but valuable in making my attempts at deathless prose much more fluid, concise, audience focused and just plain better. Hope to hear back from you soon, and I will be sure to let you know when I am ready to post a review.

“Warm regards, Max"

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of

  • Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; 
  • Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and 
  • Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of ECRA Group in Schaumburg, Ill.