How Society Reacts When Teachers Complain

Wednesday, December 28, 2016 / 5 comments

A teacher discusses how people outside (and inside) the world of education react when a teacher complains about being a teacher. |

I'll admit I'm a bit nervous about this post. I'm going to talk about what happens when teachers complain about their jobs...and from what I've seen and experienced, in many cases - it' ain't pretty.

But we teachers need to talk about what happens any time we dare to complain about an aspect of our profession. 

While grading papers the Tuesday before Winter Break, I was settled into my "grading station" on the couch watching National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.

merry christmas christmas vacation national lampoons christmas vacation happy hanukkah kiss my ass

While laughing at my favorite lines, I couldn't help but notice that much of the plot centers around the main character, Clark Griswold, waiting excitedly for his Christmas Bonus. A bonus which, if previous years were any indication, would be large enough to allow the family to put in an in-ground pool in the backyard. Sounds nice, doesn't it? A holiday bonus large enough to facilitate the purchase of a swimming pool. And with that in mind, I playfully posted the following status update on my Facebook page. 

Well, just like Clark Griswold's Christmas Bonus didn't work out as he had planned, my silly little post got some unexpected responses as well.

national lampoons christmas vacation 

In fairness, the post did receive a fair number of "likes," from teachers who, just like me, love their job but also have occasionally been known to wistfully wonder if the grass is greener in someone else's workspace. But almost immediately, I received the two responses that inspired this post. Here they are:

The second message is from one of the kindest, most talented teachers I've ever had the privilege of working with. She teaches middle school ELA and loves what she does. But her response brings me to my first point:

As teachers, we need to agree - Are we allowed to complain, even good-naturedly, or are we not?

I've seen this sort of response from a lot of educators anytime a fellow teacher dares to grumble about salaries, health care costs, class sizes, behavior management problems, administration issues, professional development concerns, curriculum disputes, you name it. The moment a teacher voices a complaint - even one that is raised in the name of improving education - there seems to be another teacher waiting in the wings to remind them about "the perks" of our profession. 

Image result for happy
"I understand your frustration...but remember, you get a perk that really doesn't address 
what you are concerned about, so really, you shouldn't be complaining at all!"

My friend did go on to say that she would love a bonus too, but her point was clear. We get about a week off over the holidays, so we shouldn't ask for anything more

Are we allowed to talk about the things that are wrong with education, even jokingly, or aren't we? Study after study shows just how much work teachers do, how much of it is done after our "cushy" 8AM-3PM job is over, and how our salaries are not commensurate with our educations or the hours we put in. 

And yet, when a teacher jokingly mentions that a Christmas bonus would be nice (after being sure to first mention how much she loves her job and her students - because God forbid a teacher ever express displeasure over being a teacher or about the students he/she teaches) immediately, that teacher is reminded - often by other teachers - that she really should remember how lucky she is to be a teacher.

I know I'm lucky to be a teacher. That's why I became a damned teacher! What I didn't know, or agree to, is that by becoming a teacher, I gave up any right I might have to voice a complaint about my own profession.

Did you? Are we ok with this? Or - should we maybe start supporting each other when we use our voices, jokingly or in earnest, to shed light on some of the problems facing education...because lord knows there are plenty of people outside of education who are more than willing to tell us to shut up. 

Case in point, the next message I received, which basically said:

Feel free to join those of us with "real jobs" in the "real world." You might make better pay, but you'll actually have to WORK. You're probably better off where you are.

britney spears confused britney huh crickets
That's not...even close....
to what I was all....

If you go back and read the message, there are a few things that should jump out - common responses teachers receive when they have the audacity to complain about their jobs (or, apparently, jokingly dream of a Christmas bonus).

1. You should try a new job if you don't like yours.  
I don't want a new job. I like my job. A lot, actually. Why does imagining that a bonus would be nice mean I should quit my job? 

2. You could make more money, but you'd have to work harder, like me. I work way harder than you do.
I don't know of any other profession that has to have a pissing match like this every time they talk about the challenges of their work. When doctors complain that their patients don't follow their instructions are they immediately told to shut up because they make a lot of money and get a lot of respect? When a contractor complains that their clients keep making changes to their home no one says, "If you don't like it, why don't you leave and become a teacher? Then you'll never have to build a house ever again!" We don't say these things because we acknowledge that everyone's jobs have pluses and minuses and that sometimes, people want to complain about those minuses - but it doesn't mean they don't acknowledge the pluses!

3. You only work for 9 months out of the year plus vacations. I work ALL the time.
This is the big one. The BIG argument teachers are up against. SO big, in fact, that I think I'm going to devote an entire blog post to how teachers need to address Summer Vacation. But for now, I'll say - that as professionals, we need to start combating the notion that because we have one very nice perk, we have somehow signed over our right to voice concerns about other aspects of our job.

So back to my original questions:

Do we have the right to complain about aspects of our profession that we want to improve? What about just griping good-naturedly about the parts that we know we can't change but still need to gripe about?

How can we better support each other when this happens and should we be making more of an effort to stop telling each other to be happy with what we've got?

How can we better engage our non-teacher friends, family, and community members when they respond to our complaints dismissively or even angrily? 

Until we start standing up for ourselves, our profession, and our right to voice complaints/concerns about our jobs without being told to shut up because of the "perks," we will never be treated with the respect and professionalism we deserve. 


  1. Great teachers make teaching look easy - that is a problem. These people have no idea what it is too teach. They would not make it a day. Many people do not know how different our jibs are than "real jobs." I only get paid for the days I work so during that winter break or in the summer i am not getting paid. I can not file for unemployment in the summer when i am not working for weeks because teachers are not eligible. I do not get paid holidays or paid vacation. When I am absent from work, learning still takes lace so I have to prepare. Do they leave sub notes for the person who takes their place when absent. I dont think so. My level of education parallels many hugher level admin jobs but i get half the pay. My benefits are not that great - my LTC and life insurance have been taken away, I have a high deductible health plan which I pay 20% for, I contribute 7% (changes every year) into my retirement account by law, i am allowed 10days for any type of leave which i must take in 1/2 days even if i need one hour, I must nit only teach kids the way that I am told, but I must also disciplne them and teach their parents too. I have yearly evaluations which are tied to student's achievement, i purchase large quantities of supplies and fulfill children's needs our of my own pocket, and if I say or do the wrong thing that an administrator doesnt like, my judge and jury are the same people that are disciplining me with no i partial third party to hear my plea. I was told recently that as a teacher, i have no 1st amendment rights, so i better sit down and shut up. Yes, teachers better stick together and raise their voices for themselves and their profession or it will all be gone. Morale is low and the fear high so unfortunately, i do not see this happening. The experienced are being forced our and the new teaching generation has no idea and is not interested in the past - the long hard fight to gain rights and decent working conditions. The agenda is to privatize. They are coming for us. Do not stay silent. Silence is consent and there will be no one left to save us and the children.

    1. I agree with a lot of your comments, Allison. I feel that there are far too many people who feel that they know what being a teacher is because they once sat in a classroom as a student. In what other situation do we feel that way? I once watched a football game, I don't think I could quarterback. I was awake for a minor orthopaedic procedure, I harbor no illusions that I can not perform foot surgery. When we watch a ballerina perform we know that hours upon hours of practice and preparation went into that performance...but so many people don't seem to realize that when you see a teacher in their classroom you are seeing the performance, NOT the hours and hours of practice and preparation that went into it!

  2. As a high school teacher, I think it’s essential to vent on a regular basis, but I’ve found it best to do so over a glass of wine with a colleague in private! Complaining to or in the presence of other people who have their own work place struggles to contend with only causes dissension. People who don’t teach (or aren’t married to a teacher, as the joke goes) really don’t “get it” – they don’t know the walking on water and the constant ball juggling that most teachers do all day every day, and I don’t expect them to because they have their own work-related difficulties to worry about. Every career or job has its perks (like a week off at Christmas) and its downsides (like spending most of that week grading research papers.) Since nothing in life is ever even, teachers have to deal with the negatives that come with the job and enjoy the benefits, just like everyone else does with theirs. Complain to your fellow teachers or your SO to save your sanity, but know that if you complain within earshot of the outside world, you might have some heat coming your way.

    1. I think that the idea that we should only vent to fellow teachers is a good one. No one wants to hear other people complain about their jobs unless they're good friends and there are drinks involved. :)

      That being said, I think that a lot of people have confused teachers expressing displeasure at things that are wrong with our profession with us griping about our jobs - which is NOT the same thing. Worse yet, I think that many of US (teachers) have confused this as well - not voicing legitimate concerns about our profesion because we don't want to be viewed as uncaring teachers who aren't "in it for the kids."

      There ARE problems facing education. Teachers are some of the BEST people to speak on these issues. And as long as we remain afraid to do so because of people who think that summer vacation is too big a perk, things are unlikely to change.

      I agree that we should complain to our fellow teachers, but I disagree that we shouldn't speak out about problems in our profession to those outside the world of education. :)

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