Reflecting vs. complaining

I recently had the great opportunity to do a “remix” of my friend and colleague Josette LeBlanc’s great presentation on The Experiential Learning Cycle (The ELC). Click here for slides/materials and reflections and here for her pre-presentation thoughts. In the presentation that I did a few weeks later I mostly followed her format but I added in some personal stories and details. I’d like to share one of these stories below. This is sort of how I imagined saying it. 

I have been in this field for just about 12 years and more than 7 of these have been in Korea. I first started working in Jinju, which is a city in the south. It is a pretty small city and back then there weren’t many foreigners around. This was over 10 years ago, remember. Actually, for the first few weeks the only non-Koreans that I knew were the two guys that I worked with till one day I bumped into, actually literally bumped into, an American lady from California. She was nice enough. She was quite friendly and she told me that I should join her and her friends for a drink sometime. I was excited because I liked the occasional beverage.  I also thought it would be nice to meet some different people. I was excited and then she said something that I have remembered and thought about for a long time. She said, “Yeah you should come meet us at _____ bar, because we all get together and bitch about teaching every Friday night.”

Bitching or reflecting or neither?

I had only been teaching for a few weeks and this sounded just terrible to me. I mean, why would they bitch about teaching? What was there to bitch about? Why would I want to sit around and listen to people bitch? I thought I’d be happier just having drinks with happier people. This is what I thought after three weeks. Well, after three years and more it became easier and easier to bitch, but I don’t think it became any more productive. I think it is just too easy to complain but I really don’t think it helps much. Maybe we feel better for a moment but we don’t really get anywhere with it.

Though I taught for nearly 8 years till I got into reflection I don’t think I really developed much till then.  I always liked teaching. I enjoyed it. I liked seeing students’ progress. I liked interacting with students. My students seemed to like my class and they seemed to improve. I got rehired. I got better jobs. I got good evaluations. But again, I don’t think that I really improved much until I started reflecting and thinking about what was really going on in class and how the choices that I make might impact this. I’ve found using the ELC is one of the best ways for me to do this.

(End of story) 

To be honest, I can’t really say that I have totally quit bitching! I can say that when I get started on a solid roll of complaints I am much more aware of it. I can unload my feelings and I can push myself into the description zone and try to recall and think about what really happened. I find that going through the ELC and creating action plans pushes me behind simply complaining and being bothered. I find it to be much more productive and also easier to handle the real difficulties that might arise in teaching. 

I find myself wondering if teachers complain more than those in other jobs. I feel like it is all too easy to get caught in the circle of complaining. I find that the ELC is a good way for me to avoid this. I wonder what strategies other teachers employ. 


  1. Tony Gurr


    So glad you got this “out there” – many of us know all too well about “beer o’clock bitching sessions” we teachers have. We are all human – we all have gripes (many of them justified) – and it is necessary to “blow off a little steam” from time to time. However, the challenge for many institutions is that, if not done in a constructive manner, these sessions (or the coffee break versions at school) can impact the whole “culture” of the institution.

    For me, this is why schools really have to prioritise (actively) building an ethos of improvement, a culture of development and an attitude of caring and sharing – this needs meaningful professional development (CPD) that puts “reflection” at the heart of everything the school does. This not only strengthens the institution – but it brings people together to work for “what really matters”…and you know what that is…


    You know me so well…


  2. Rachael Roberts

    We definitely all do it..but you’re right that apart from letting off steam, it isn’t very productive. I think when we’re bitching about teaching, we’re often trying to avoid our own feelings that we’re not good enough, not doing a good job (deep eh?) by putting it out on someone else. So reflecting on what actually happened without beating ourselves up for it is probably more honest, and more productive.

  3. Alex Walsh (@AlexSWalsh)

    some very true words written their buddy, I’ve only taught in Korea, and I’ve not been in this industry for anywhere near the amount of time you have, but the amount of bitching that goes on is incredible (and I have been one of the main contributors) and although it’s nice to let off some steam with a cheeky soju if only 10% of that bitching was turned into reflecting………..

    Really nice blog mate!

  4. Ben Naismith

    Is it just me or to we both tend to blog about similar topics at the same time, just on different sides of the world? Very strange…

    Anyways, an enjoyable and relatable read! To be honest, I felt a bit of nostalgia – since becoming DoS a couple of years ago, despite my best efforts, I now get cut out of some of the juicy bitching that goes on in the staffroom. Luckily I have the ELT blogosphere to help with reflection!

  5. Alan Tait (@alanmtait)

    Nice post, Mike.

    I guess my work-moaning time over the years is a coefficient of how much time I’ve spend in bars. Having a kid and a mortgage has limited my bar time now, but since my partner is also in EFL, the bar comes to me!


    if I’m really honest with myself, I think we should either shut the f*ck up or change job. There’s a world of difference between thinking aloud about resolving problems and bitching as a bad habit. And IMHO, that’s all it is.

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