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Why Do Teachers Complain So Much?

Why do teachers complain so much, and why are their complaints often so theatrically overwrought?

“Dear Administrators, Superintendent, et al.:” began a recent Huffington Post article, “This is my official resignation letter from my English teaching position.”

One wishes the resigning teacher, Mrs. Pauline Hawkins, the best of luck in her next endeavor, but it’s worth wondering why on Earth she is publishing her “official resignation letter” on Huffington Post. Was the post office in Colorado Springs closed that day? Did she attempt to send the letter to her superiors and accidentally sent it to the editor of the website instead?

It’s tempting to believe in these possibilities, if only because it seems so quaintly bizarre to publicly announce your resignation on HuffPost, a website whose classier headlines run along the lines of “36 Stoner-Approved Songs for Your 4/20 Smoke Sessions.” Mrs. Hawkins’s letter, however, is increasingly becoming not the exception but the rule among many teachers.

To be fair, teaching itself is a profession that has long been given to a certain amount of bombast; parents and students in Chicago were dismayed to find this out a couple of years ago when Chicago teachers engaged in an eight-day strike in order to protest “their evaluations being tied to performance” (can you imagine?). And yet the public, media-supported teacher resignation seems to be gaining ground as a kind of new literary art form. In the Wake County Public School System this month, a teacher “gave her employers a month’s notice and copied her letter of resignation to the local media.” The Washington Post appears to run such letters on a semi-regular basis; early this Spring they published a resignation letter from a kindergarten teacher, last year one from a high school social studies instructor, a few Octobers ago one from a “disgusted teacher” who was quitting “in order to preserve [his] sanity, [his] family, and the forward movement of [their] lives.”

Of course, these teachers may indeed have perfectly legitimate and understandable reasons for leaving their profession; there are a fair number of excellent criticisms of modern American education, many of which are often cited in these types of letters. And yet it’s puzzling why so many teachers feel the need to be so grandiose in their professional departure: like the ending of a Siegfried and Roy performance or a Barnum & Bailey finale, a great many teachers seem to feel the need to go out in a blaze of glory, dazzling the world with a grandiloquent performance of egomaniacal proportions: I am disgusted, my sanity must be preserved, and I’m going to tell you why.

Whether or not you’re impressed by the public departure of your friendly neighborhood disgruntled educator, it’s hard to deny that the literary tradition of which they’ve become a part is indicative of a wider trend of full-fledged teacher unhappiness. Assuredly, many teachers have difficult jobs, and any difficult job will lend itself to a certain amount of complaining; and yet among the legions of Americans that have difficult jobs, teachers often seem to be the least happy among them, and moreover seem to be the most prone to complaining and lamenting about their work. “I experience more failure every five minutes of teaching,” one teacher wrote recently in Slate, “than I experienced in an entire week as an engineer.” (It sounds like our correspondent made a far better engineer than he makes a teacher, and it’s probably wise of him to consider switching back.) Many of the teachers from the Wake County Public School Systems are leaving because of a “flat pay scale” (which starts at just over $35,000 per year) and the denial of higher pay for “teachers with graduate degrees” (as if a graduate degree automatically confers upon a teacher a greater ability to teach). One ex-teacher claimed that she quit because teachers “are held up to a really high standard for everything” (the horror). Another granted that “if you love something you should do it regardless of pay,” but that “What is expected of great teachers and the amount they are paid is shameful.” (Actually, we should expect the same thing from both “great” and average teachers, namely the education of their students.)

So why do teachers complain so much, and why are their complaints often so theatrically overwrought? As a non-teacher, a sometime-homeschooler for ten years, and someone who has politely called for the elimination of compulsory education in the United States, I do confess a certain bias towards exasperation with teachers who simply can’t seem to stop complaining, and who do it with such bluster. That being said, it does quite often seem to be a question of mettle, or rather the lack thereof in today’s teachers, many of who, it bears noting, have been reared in the same rotten educational environments about which they end up complaining. Recently, my grandmother, who taught elementary school a discreet number of years ago, remarked on one memorable class she had: “The principal would not stop sending me students, and eventually I had fifty-four of them in one room,” she told me.

“It was the best year of teaching I ever had,” she concluded.

It is hard to imagine many teachers today dealing with fifty-four students in so graceful and dignified a manner: the Chicago Teachers’ Union, which as noted above shut down schools for over a week in the Windy City, demands maximum class sizes of twenty-five, or less than half of the students in my grandmother’s “best year of teaching.” For this and other disappointing reasons, teachers are prone to strike, they get valuable press time, many of their demands are met—and Chicago’s children go uneducated for eight days.

If teachers from days past were made of tougher stuff, perhaps it is merely indicative of the changing times: a generation of educators reared in the Depression, for instance, probably had more fortitude than those who have been reared in the days in which everyone gets a trophy, say. Whatever the cause, many teachers are possessed with a belief that theirs is a special lot worthy of extra-special praise, high pay and excellent benefits—and many seem to believe that when they are dissatisfied with their profession for whatever reason, they have a moral obligation to go to the press with their complaints. It all seems a bit overblown—but then again, perhaps that is holding them to too high a standard.

Daniel Payne blogs at Trial of the Century. You can follow him on Twitter.

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