Not long ago I read a blog post in Edutopia by Jason Deehan about whether venting about students should be banned. What motivated the author to write the post was the fact that he had come across a comment about a school that discouraged teachers from venting about their students because they felt that it was a matter of respect, of not talking about students behind their back. At first, he was shocked about the idea, for venting is a teacher staple just like drinking too much coffee. But after giving it more thought and doing some research, he found that the downside of venting might outweigh its positive aspects. Venting gives the “venter” a false sense of achievement, and when the “venter” gets better and better at it, it may lead to more anger in similar situations in the future. Jason is not completely against venting, though. He just suggests that venting should be coupled with problem-solving strategies so that we get off the treadmill of simply complaining.
Doing a little more research on this topic, I came across a post by Kevin Currie-Knight about why teachers vent. Kevin is totally in favor of venting, for a number of reasons. He mentions that teaching is one of the most complex professions in the world, if not the most complex. We do our job in isolation from any other peers, and when something goes wrong in our class, we have no one to talk to immediately to help us solve our problem. Since we can’t lose our cool in front of our students, we need to have someone to talk to at the end of the day, someone who will truly understand our problems. We feel better when we realize that we are not the only ones who are having difficulties motivating the unmotivated student or getting teenagers to behave in class.
Further research on the topic led me to Michael Linsin’s post about three ways we should never vent about our students. Though he acknowledges that venting is natural because it relieves stress and reminds us that other teachers have similar problems and frustrations, venting can damage our students’ chances of success. The first way he thinks we should never vent about our students is by name because our comment can be repeated to others and can spread in ways that we cannot control. The second way is personally, showing hate or dislike for students, because this can solidify the idea in our mind and we will end up revealing this to the student in one way or another. We should talk about our frustrations regarding the situation, not the person, without demonstrating personal dislike. Finally, we should never vent about our students freely, in the hallways, offices, or staff lounges, for we never know who is listening to us.
Michael Linsin also differentiates venting from complaining. He believes that teachers who openly complain about their students are not respected by their peers, never take responsibility for solving the problems they are always complaining about and, thus, never improve as teachers. Venting privately, on the other hand, is a way of expressing our feelings and frustrations, as long as we respect the dignity of our students.
While I do agree that teachers need to vent once in a while, especially when having faced a particularly difficult situation, I also think that there is a fine line between venting and complaining. It is one thing to vent to a peer we trust and who can give us a helping hand, but venting in the teachers’ lounge, for everyone to hear, is a whole different story. The major problem I see in venting about students – especially in my English-language-teaching-institute context in which students change teachers every semester – is that we may end up labeling our students and perpetuating a fixed mindset about them. When the next semester comes, the new teacher who has heard us in the teachers’ lounge will already see the students from a preconceived perspective. Then we take away these students’ chances of having a fresh start.
I also believe that when we vent too much about a particular student or group, we also end up treating them differently, even when they are not giving us trouble. This leads them to behave differently, too, starting a vicious cycle. We all know about the self-fulfilling prophecy: students may become what we expect them to become. When you treat students like they are incapable of learning and/or behaving, they might end up becoming incapable of learning and/or behaving. Finally, just like Peter Greene, I am completely against any type of venting that involves “othering” students, such as referring to them as “dumb” or “jerks”. Being unkind is always a bad thing, says Greene. And honestly, making jokes about the mistakes students make in the process of learning a second language doesn’t seem appropriate to me, though I know that some see it as just a way of having some fun.
Some things are better said than done, though, and all of us have probably said things about our students in the heat of the moment that we regretted minutes later. As Greene points out, if we have never found teaching frustrating, we are either not doing it right or we just don’t care about what we do. The problem is when venting becomes a habit or when it disrespects the dignity of those we are in charge of looking after.