Those Whiny Teachers

If you’ve ever scrolled into the comments section of just about any education article, you have undoubtedly been greeted by the sentiment that teachers are, by and large, a bunch of whiny losers.

My article, Why Teachers Are So Tired, elicited a number of comments, most of which were verbal nods of the head. This wasn’t surprising. This is a blog written by a teacher for teachers, and I don’t know any teacher who wouldn’t like more energy at the end of the day. But there was one comment that ruffled a few feathers. Strider opined:

Come on. Draw such a high salary with the most number of protected time other jobs don’t offer. And still can complain. Then don’t be a teacher, become a cleaner then u will know what’s the real “tired.”

It got me thinking why there is such a chasm between what teachers say about their jobs and what non-teachers believe.

Our Faulty Imaginations

I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (which is excellent, by the way). Gilbert is a Harvard social psychologist who specializes in happiness. You’ve probably seen him on YouTube giving TED Talks and on TV standing in front of a large wall of blue dots.

Much of Gilbert’s book addresses how terrible people are at what he calls “affective forecasting.” It turns out humans really sort of suck at predicting how they will feel about future events because they fail to consider all of the details.

I had a dental appointment recently. First, I had a cleaning and then I was getting a crown on a chipped tooth. I figured it would last two hours. I was not looking forward to it. But when I got there I waited less than a minute before being called back. I had my favorite hygienist, and we enjoyed an excellent conversation about Caribbean cruises. When I told her my wife had been ill, she gave me an extra toothbrush so we could toss the old, possibly infected ones. The crown went on easily and my fake tooth looks better than the original. I was out of there thirty minutes earlier than I expected and left with a sore mouth, bloody gums, and a good mood.

Imagination is our brain’s greatest ability. No other animal can do it.  It constantly and automatically works as a prediction machine, adding our past experiences to our present in order to create a concept of the future. But like it did when I imagined my dental appointment, it gets things wrong a lot.

I think it’s our faulty imagination that leads non-teachers to conclude what it must be like to be a teacher.

Filling the Gaps

If you have ever wondered how the memory can store a lifetime’s worth of experiences, the truth, according to Gilbert, is that it doesn’t:

Our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating – not by actually retrieving – the bulk of the information that we experience as memory. This fabrication happens so quickly and effortlessly that we have the illusion that the entire thing was in our heads the entire time.”

In this way the brain operates like the blind spot of an eye, filling in gaps with material from around the area. Gilbert provides an example of being invited by your wife to accompany her to a party. Your brain may instantly create an image of a dull cocktail party in some anonymous hotel with bored waiters carrying trays of canapés past a bored harpist.  Gilbert writes:

We predict our reaction to the imagined event with a yawn that sets new records for duration and jaw extension.  What we generally fail to consider is how many different types of party there are – birthday celebrations, gallery openings, first nights, orgies, wakes – and how different our reactions would be to each.  So we tell our spouse that we’d rather skip the party, our spouse naturally drags us along and we have a marvelous time.  Why?  Because the party involved cheap beer rather than classical music and was precisely our style.  We liked what we predicted we’d hate because our prediction was based on a detailed image that reflected our brain’s best guess, which was in this case wrong.

Teachers Have It Easy

For most non-teachers, the only experience they have with teaching is their memories from their time as a student. As we just learned, these aren’t very reliable. Instead of remembering with perfect clarity, our brains fill in the gaps. Most student experiences are relatively benign.  People have some general memories of sitting a lot, listening to a teacher, doing some work, hanging out with friends. You might remember a particularly unique lesson or that time you got in trouble.

When you recall your elementary years, your memories are probably even pleasant: That art project your mom still has. The school musical. Listening to the librarian read James and the Giant Peach.

Unless you’re the child of a teacher (who tend not to leave whiny teacher comments on blogs), you don’t have memories of your teachers staying up late checking papers, attending boring meetings, dealing with unreasonable parents and administrators, or constantly being interrupted during lessons. From the perspective of a student and his faulty memories, a teacher’s job doesn’t seem very hard at all. So if teachers are complaining about it, it must be because they’re a bunch of whiners. Nothing in the non-teacher’s experience suggests it would be very difficult. Certainly not as hard as cleaning.

The Best Way to Predict

Gilbert’s research has shown that one of the very best ways to find out if you’re going to enjoy taking a job is simply to see how happy the people who work there are.  Gilbert says:

We found two things in our studies. One, using this method of making predictions can increase people’s accuracy dramatically. Two, absolutely nobody wants to do it. In our experiments when people are given a choice between using their own imaginations or using information given to them by other people who are actually having the experience that they would only be imagining, we find that virtually 100 percent of participants prefer to use their imagination. And they believe their imagination will lead them to be much more accurate. In fact, they’re wrong.

Of course, this advice works for teachers, too. When I imagine being a cleaner my memory creates a mosaic of having a lot of time on my own, working at a leisurely pace, joking with colleagues, and taking as long as I want on the toilet because I can just explain that I was in there cleaning the whole time. There are some disagreeable parts like unclogging the trash compactor and cleaning up puke, but overall, not that bad.

And that’s because for a time in college I worked as a cleaner in two dorms. Those are the things my memory has chosen to fill in the gaps between all the details I’ve forgotten. It’s almost assuredly as inaccurate as the vision Strider’s imagination conjured for him. If I really wanted to know what it’s like to be a cleaner, I should ask some cleaners.

And if people really want to know what it’s like to be a teacher, they should listen when teachers tell them.


When has an experience you predicted would turn out one way, actually been much better or worse? Tell us in the comments!


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2 Replies to “Those Whiny Teachers”

  1. I work as a special education teacher. I clock a combined average of 4 miles per day. I bend, stoop, squat throughout the day. I sit down about as long as it takes me to take attendance and to complete paperwork tasks. I went to an orthopedist once for treatment of a muscle pull. I also coach cross country and I am a runner. The doctor said to me, “So you basically sit all day.”

  2. Teaching vs cleaning is apples to oranges to start with. Compare teaching to an equally paid, equally educated profession.

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