How Teachers Can Avoid the “Compare and Despair” Trap

Compare and Despair for Teachers

There are some logically intuitive reasons why we’ve evolved to judge ourselves in comparison to others. Our ancestors were hunters and gatherers. It was an important survival skill to scan for status symbols such as an Instagram feed filled with wild boar brunch photos, or a cave-hubby with an especially prominent and intimidating brow bone. Competitiveness, self-criticism, and envy are universal human tendencies. They can be motivating in the right amounts. Other times, comparing ourselves to others makes us feel so unlikely to catch up that we might as well just shut down entirely. A modern term for this feeling is “compare and despair syndrome.” Much of the advice on avoiding compare-and-despair centers on selfless acts like volunteering. Helping others, the thinking goes, fills us with gratitude and offers a fresh perspective. But teaching is all about doing things for others. And teachers are supposed to care about all kids, no matter whose class roster they’re on. So why aren’t teachers immune to the toxic side of competitiveness? Why do other teachers’ chicken-soup-style success stories sometimes feel more like a sucker punch to your soul?

Why compare and despair syndrome is different for teachers

Teaching may seem selfless, but that doesn’t mean it’s not competitive.

We hear so often that teaching is a calling, or a mission, or a work of heart. But, on some level, teachers are just people doing a job. Most people who enter the profession do so out of a genuine desire to help others learn, but no one is capable of bringing their very best self to their workplace every single day. And they’ve got all the same character flaws you’d find in a typical workplace: pettiness, gossip, and the occasional theft from the teachers’ lounge fridge. Productive conversations can sometimes cross the line into one-upmanship. You may not even realize this until you find yourself overthinking a comment that sent you into an emotional tailspin.

Educators spend tremendous amounts of time comparing their unedited footage to other people’s highlight reels.

The why-can’t-every-teacher-be-more-like-this refrain has long been popular. Media stories about the Next Big Edu-Thing begin by presenting the educator who embodies the new trend, whose rapt students lean forward in their seats; or chatter with purpose in self-directed, project-based learning groups; or interact glitchlessly with their school’s new blended-lesson tech tools. The most popular edu-memoirs—and the movies based on such memoirs—invariably depict teachers who take on second jobs to buy poetry books for their classrooms or offer violin lessons during their lunch period. There is tremendous emphasis on learning from the best members of the profession and the best moments from our colleagues’ classrooms.

All of this makes sense, of course. There are kids involved. Nobody is looking for role models who might not be so great at this whole teaching thing.

But a side effect of this is that it can be hard to get someone to break the “stay positive!” code—even when that would help you stay sane.

People will share bad days they’ve had as teachers, but very few people share the days they were bad teachers.

Even stories about teacher mistakes have a predictable plot arc they are supposed to follow. Any mistake must lead to a valuable learning experience. There must be a happy ending. Most importantly, there must be some built-in reassurance that no children were harmed in the making of this anecdote.

When pressed to share classroom regrets, educators might confide something like, “I relied too much on the textbook earlier in my career,” or, “I wasn’t student-centered enough in my questioning.” Even then, they’re quick to reassure us that they’ve since learned to incorporate the unique perspective each student is bringing to the table as an asset rather than a deficit and understand that students in this generation are digital natives, so . . .

Buried somewhere deep in that confession, perhaps, is an actual, specific memory of a cell-phone incident handled badly. We’ll never really know.

This can be overwhelming even if you didn’t have a bad day in your own classroom.

Unfortunately, the worst moments as a teacher don’t fit into that neat storyline. And, as a result, your worst moments as a teacher can make you feel ashamed and alone.

How to avoid falling into the compare-and-despair trap as a teacher

This is where I should probably run down the typical advice about trying to find joy in your teaching. There should be some vague references to self-care and self-compassion, and setting personal goals that encourage you to do your best, not someone else’s. And, sure. You should probably do all those things.

But sometimes you need to take things a step further.

Sometimes you have to curate the content that goes into your brain.

There are times to learn from other people whose cups seem to runneth over with great ideas. But a moment when your own cup feels cracked, leaky, or half-empty is probably not that time. Maybe right now, you’d rather hear a story that begins with the sentence, “Nobody warned me this kid in my kindergarten class was a ‘runner.’” Sometimes, protecting your emotional energy as a teacher means gently extracting yourself from a conversation or a social-media binge that’s sending you into an emotional tailspin.

Choose your board of teaching advisors carefully.

As a teacher, you don’t need just one person to turn to for advice. You need a whole “board of teaching advisors.” Most of these will be people you select yourself, and you’ll check in with different advisors in different situations. Here’s who should be on your board of teaching advisors.

Be realistic about what makes a “great teacher.”

Feeling like you need to be great at everything can be paralyzing. A better way to think of it is that teachers need to be adequate at everything—especially administrative, non-instructional aspects of our job. (Hello, mandatory written reflections after professional development sessions!) The things you put the most effort into being good at should be those that affect your students, like grading and classroom management. Then, strive to be great at just a few characteristics that give you an extra spark as a teacher. This might include a genuine interest in the subject you teach, good one-on-one listening ability, sense of humor, or ace organizing skills. But remember: no one has all of these characteristics, and some of them even contradict one another. It’s possible that some of the people you think of as great teachers may in fact just be good teachers who have budgeted their time and energy to allow for moments of greatness.

All that self-care stuff? Sure, that, too.

Maybe your productive time is over for today and you need to go home and focus on something that is not teaching related at all. Maybe, more than trying to squeeze out another hour of whatever it takes for the kids, you need a meal or a full night’s sleep.

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