New Perspectives On Why Teachers Teach

why teachers teach

Today we have a guest post from Nick Michelioudakis on the subject of ‘Why Teachers Teach’. Nick was very interested in my last article where I asked teachers all over the world what their reason and motivation was behind teaching. I got many wonderful responses and it certainly proved to be a popular topic.

Nick’s response to my article has become an article in it’s own right. We invited him to blog here in order to highlight different perspectives on the topic. He has written it from some interesting psychological perspectives which add new layers of insight to consider. For me, it is thought-provoking and I believe that it may also be controversial, so be prepared to comment below. I have a lot to say about these new developments but will save that for a future article.

Nick has a You Tube channel about ELT & Psychology and ELT comedy. It’s always interesting when a teacher can integrate humanistic interests into their own methodologies. This is also reflected in writing style, and this is what I think makes the ELT blogosphere so refreshing.


In the image above: Nick Michelioudakis with Luke Prodromou, Maria Arachi Sachpazian, and Natassa Manitsa at IATEFL, Liverpool 2013.

Over to you, Nick.

photo for blog

Sylvia’s blog post:

Why do we teach? Is it just so we can pay the bills, or is there something else that drives us? If so, what is this? Is it the pursuit of ‘self-actualisation’ perhaps as Maslow’s pyramid would suggest? And how do we know what it is that motivates us? Can we just ask teachers why they do what they do? Are we really aware of what goes on inside our brain? The stimulus for this article was a very interesting blog post by Sylvia Guinan (‘Why do Teachers Teach?’). The reason I thought it was interesting was that it went beyond the day-to-day events and thoughts that make up a teacher’s life and also because I felt it would certainly provide a much-needed boost in colleagues’ morale. In writing this, I would like to add an extra layer to the thoughts and reflections expressed by her and by others in the same piece.


Why do we do what we do?

I believe that any discussion of ultimate causation (the deep reasons why we do things) has to be linked to Evolutionary Psychology. In Dawkins’ words all living organisms, including humans, are ‘gene replicators’ and that means two things:

A) reproduction (by definition), and B) survival (so that we can reproduce). We can explain the behaviour of ‘simple’ life forms (e.g. worms) by reference to these two fundamental drives, yet when we look at more complex animals (e.g. wolves) we notice they have other ‘needs’ as well such as the need to belong to a group – but why? The answer has to be that being with the pack helps them to survive and reproduce.

It is the same with humans. We are of course far more ‘complex’ creatures than wolves and we have a whole range of deep drives / motives. Yet the reason we have them is that they ultimately help us survive and reproduce (or that they did so in the past). Indeed, humans have so many needs and desires that thinkers have proposed a number of classifications for them – and perhaps the best known one is Maslow’s famous pyramid.

Maslow’s hierarchy:


Maslow is one of the great names in Psychology and his reputation is well deserved. However, at the time he wrote, we did not know what we do now about the way biology informs Psychology. The first levels of the hierarchy are fine, but then we get the other layers – where do they come from? ‘Belonging’ is fine (what goes for wolves was also true of our ancestors, so it is natural that we should have inherited a gregarious nature). But what about ‘self-esteem’? And what about ‘self-actualisation’? In fact, Maslow was right about these drives, but they are a means to an end. Primatologists have shown that a monkey’s ‘self-esteem’ and the way it feels (as can be seen for instance by the levels of cortisol in their blood or serotonin in their brains) is clearly related to where they stand in the social hierarchy (see for instance the work of Sapolsky [2006] or Maestripieri [2012]). In humans too, status and self-image are very clearly correlated (De Waal 2005).


The ‘self-actualisation’ drive in humans may well be linked to both status and mating effort – even if it takes the form of art (cf Miller 2001). As Kenrick (2011 – ch. 7) points out, there are two problems with Maslow’s pyramid: It suggests a) that each level is somehow ‘higher’ than the others and b) that once you move up a level, the previous ones somehow fade into insignificance. Instead, Kenrick proposes a different pyramid (see picture above). Notice how all the main drives are clearly linked to the two evolutionary imperatives (A and B – reproduction and survival). Notice also that even if we have moved up a level, the other drives still operate in the background. Yet looking at this new list, one is immediately struck by the fact that these needs do not feature at all among the answers colleagues gave when asked to say why they taught! Why?

How do we know why we do things?

Reporter Kermit mic (1)

What is the simplest way of finding out why people act in certain ways? Why, you ask them of course! Unfortunately however it seems that our views of why we do things cannot be trusted. Time and again research has shown that people are not aware of the reasons behind their actions / choices / attitudes (e.g. Fine 2005). In some studies, subjects have been manipulated to act in certain ways, yet when asked they gave totally unrelated reasons for their behaviour. Which brings us to a most important psychological discovery: very often people act in certain ways for reasons they are unaware of and then construct post-hoc explanations to account for their actions, or (very often) to rationalize them / justify them to themselves and to others (e.g. Pagel 2013 – ch 9). R. Kurzban (2012) takes things further: subconscious modules in our brain actively repress, delete and distort information / memories in order to help us do better at A and B! In his view, the aim of the conscious part of the brain is to convince others that we are great guys, so it is in their interests to befriend us! However, to do this effectively, the subconscious modules of the brain have to persuade the conscious part of this first (as R. Trivers succinctly puts it ‘We deceive ourselves the better to deceive others’! – Trivers 2011) And this brings us to our ‘other’ side.

What about our ‘other’ side?


One of the problems with introspection is that because of all the ‘airbrushing’ we do to our image, the picture one gets if they ask people why they teach is of a group of colleagues who are all motivated by noble impulses and who use exclusively ethical means to achieve their objectives. Sure, we do admit that much of what we do we do for money but then (we tell ourselves and others) we also have other reasons and anyway we all have to make an honest crust. Yet we very rarely admit to any of the following:

a) that (some of us) teach because we strayed in this field by accident

b) that money means a lot more to us than we admit (that’s why many of us prefer examination work – which offers no scope for creativity whatsoever)

c) that we are obsessed with status (cf Maestripieri 2012 – ch. 2) and that a major reason behind the materials we prepare and the articles / blogposts we write is status-enhancement

d) that an important reason why we do voluntary work for organisations such as TESOL / IATEFL is to network and get ahead

e) that we closely monitor whether anyone gets ‘preferential treatment’ (e.g. invitations to speak / give webinars etc.) but this does not apply to us or our friends and we very rarely get worked up over brilliant colleagues who are nonetheless neglected

f) that we promote our friends (even above other, more deserving colleagues) in the hope they will reciprocate in the future

g) that we are often less than happy if our friends become more successful than we are, etc. etc.

Is that all there is about us?

mirror neuronsnow

True as all the above may be, it would be grossly unfair to all of us to conclude that the ELT world consists of a bunch of selfish Machiavellis. One of the greatest things about humans (and many primates – to varying degrees) is that we have evolved empathy. Those mirror neurons that Sylvia refers to (first identified in monkeys incidentally) allow us to place ourselves in the other person’s shoes (De Waal 2009). That is why we will often go out of our way to help a colleague in need and we derive genuine pleasure when we see our students managing tasks that were beyond them in the past. We have also evolved pro-social instincts; research has shown that we often get more pleasure from giving someone a gift than from spending the same amount on something for ourselves (Nettle 2005) and we very often help colleagues and students out of kindness. In addition we have evolved strong ‘hivish’ tendencies (Haidt 2012); Maslow was again right on that one; we need to belong but we also feel genuine satisfaction when our group (e.g. TESOL / IATEFL etc.) does well as a result of our collective effort.

The importance of awareness:


So this is the idea – we possess all of these traits. But is this knowledge important? Would we not be better off if we resolutely focused on the better aspects of our nature exclusively? Indeed, such a case can be made and I believe Sylvia was right to focus on the positive. Such posts can certainly foster a strong sense of identity and motivate colleagues. At the same time however I believe it is sensible for us to be aware of our ‘other side’ as well. After all, predisposition does not imply pre-determination; we would all like to be better people and the more we know about what we are really like, the easier this will be to achieve. Think about it; we stand a better chance of having a healthy diet if we know we have evolved to have a sweet tooth than if we argue that humans have always loved broccoli….

Many Thanks to Nick for sharing his Original Perspectives.
You can find the original article and references here.

For more context don’t forget to read the first article on “Why do Teachers Teach”.

photo for blog

Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) is an Academic Consultant with LEH (the representatives of the Pearson PTE G Exams in Greece). In his years of active involvement in the field of ELT he has worked as a teacher, examiner and trainer for both teachers and Oral Examiners. His love of comedy led him to start the ‘Comedy for ELT’ project on YouTube. He has written numerous articles on Methodology, while others from the ‘Psychology and ELT’ series have appeared in many countries. He likes to think of himself as a ‘front-line teacher’ and is interested in one-to-one teaching and student motivation as well as Social and Evolutionary Psychology. When he is not struggling with students, he likes to spend his time in a swimming pool or playing chess. For articles or handouts of his, you can visit his site at


is an online English teacher, writer and blogger who facilitates professional development online. She uses brain-friendly techniques to help students and teachers around the world. She designs educational materials, develops courses, writes resource papers and publishes ebooks. Her work is the result of much research into the psychology of learning, as well as hands-on experience with multi-media technology.


  1. Nick, you say “our views of why we do things cannot be trusted,” and that has to be true, but why then trust the views of the scientists? The science is incredibly reductionist. Those of us who aspire towards nobility are told that “really” we are just interested in reproduction and survival, and all the talk of nobility is nothing more than the verbal equivalent of the peacock’s tail.

    Science is very good at doing things like measuring serotonin levels and establishing a statistically significant correlation between the ingestion of cocoa solids and the levels of those neurotransmitters. It is not very good at interpreting what people are doing.

    What does “nobility” mean in the context of science? Could a scientist (speaking as a scientist) describe something in a scientific article as ignoble? He could not. All he could do is report the way his guinea pigs were using that strange word. Science is the nihilistic denial of all nobility. And because of that, those of us who have embarked on the search for nobility would do well to treat the reductive interpretations of the scientists with a massive dose of scepticism.

    (Of course your post is “amazingly well-written”, but I know you appreciate critical engagement more than a verbal pat.)

    • Sylvia Guinan Says: October 6, 2013 at 3:36 pm

      @ Torn, thank you for the critical engagement – indeed, the purpose of the article is to open up an exploration of this issue from multiple perspectives – see my comment below too:)

    • It’s always a pleasure for me to see a comment by Torn under one of my posts (even when he tells me off – and he is often right…)
      It means there is some quality there… The trouble is, you have to spend about 2 hrs trying to come up with some serious answers…

      OK – here are some comments in brief:

      a) Reductionism: yes, sometimes science is reductionist – but reductionism can be good (offering parsimonious explanations) or bad (sweeping generalisations which explain nothing). And of
      course you are right – scientists are guilty of much of the latter. So: can we trust scientists? Once in response to arguments by subjective idealists claiming that real world objects did not actually exist, Lenin made this comment: ‘Look – I know this stone exists, because I can kick it out of my way!’ Similarly, scientists observe reality and construct models on the basis of these observations. Can these models be trusted? In some cases, they are just
      rubbish (e.g. some of Freud’s theories about ‘catharsis’ or ‘penis envy’ etc. etc.) so I think we should all follow your advice and treat everything that ‘scientists’ or ‘experts’ try to sell us with a healthy dose of skepticism. However, it these theories yield predictions which can be put to the test and proven right, then we can say that the model can indeed be trusted (for the moment, at least).
      For instance: EP suggests that because our relatives carry some of our genes, we are more likely to favour them, treat them better etc. This generates the following hypothesis: we would expect that incidents of violence would be far more frequent towards step-children than towards our own, biological offspring. This hypothesis was tested (see research by Daly and Wilson 1998) and it was found that this is indeed the case: step children are 100 times more likely to be killed by step parents than by their biological mother or father (this has been dubbed ‘The Cinderella Effect’).

      b) Nobility: ‘Nobility’ is a value judgment of course and scientists are primarily concerned with what is or is not ‘true’ (as opposed to what is ‘good’). Having said that, there is nothing to say that scientists too cannot strive for ‘nobility’ or help the world move in that direction. In his book ‘The Selfish Gene’ Dawkins says ‘Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish’ – if we know what we are really like, we are better able to move towards that ideal of nobility [NB: ‘The Selfish Gene’ was first published in 1976; since then, there has been lots and lots of research showing that we are both selfish AND altruistic (though not indiscriminately so; there are ‘selfish’ reasons why we are ‘altruistic’ – but we are altruistic nevertheless!] Here is an example: Zak (2012) describes the following experiment: a researcher gives subject A $ 10 and tells him/her s/he can share some or all of it with another (subject B) in another room – or keep it all to him/herself. If they do (say they decide to give $ 5 to B) then this money is tripled ($ 5 x 3 = $ 15). Then B can, if they so choose, return some of this money to A. In hundreds of trials, about 75% of people (As) did share some of their money and about 90% of Bs reciprocated by returning some of it! [NB: We are talking about people who have never seen each other,
      nor would they ever have anything to do with each other again!] Not only that; Zak found that every time we are ‘trusted’ some oxytocin is released in the bloodstream – which makes us more trusting still! (Other studies have shown that every time we are being altruistic [without the promise of immediate returns] our brain ‘rewards’ us
      with dopamine). To me, such behaviour is noble behaviour – and I don’t care whether it has evolved in some distant past to help me propagate my selfish genes. If I can use this knowledge to set in motion some virtuous circle so that everybody becomes more trusting, shares more and gets this ‘high’, I feel I am moving closer to these noble ideals that you talk about…

      • Sylvia Guinan Says: October 6, 2013 at 6:38 pm

        There are three kinds of selfish – one is necessary for self-esteem and better relationships, the other is a twisted idea monopolised by capitalists, and the third is fear-based and occurs in children whose emotional needs are not being met or whose emotional intelligence is never developed.

        Otherwise, I suppose I’ll have to read “The selfish gene’ book, even though I feel as if I disagree before I open it.

        This is a valuable discussion Torn & Nick!!

      • “‘Nobility’ is a value judgment”- and there’s the problem.

        Wise people like William Golding would argue that our job as educators is to civilize, and the project of civilization is inevitably grounded in value judgments, e.g. that an open society is better than a closed one. To avoid slipping back into barbarism we have to believe that those value judgments contain more truth than the impersonal rationalisations of science.

        “if we know what we are really like” – so there is the Truth and then there is the stuff of Lennon-esque imaginations. What are we going to say to the children? “Children let’s study this research that proves that we are, in Truth, selfish. Now let’s listen to this nice song by John Lennon. Of course, it is not True, but doesn’t it sound nice?”

        We have managed to crawl out of the terrible cave not because we have learnt to see the world objectively (measuring the exact amount of poison needed to kill the quarry) but because we have believed in our dreams. The future will belong to the dreamers, not to the scientists, who are simply Neanderthals in white coats.

        So why do we teach? Because we believe in our dreams against all the evidence to the contrary.

        • Sylvia Guinan Says: October 9, 2013 at 12:10 am

          @ Torn,

          Science and imagination together take us beyond out own fuzzy limitations…..

          Paradoxically, science makes me more of a dreamer because it gives me the courage to do more than dream.

          Learning is through heart and mind – and through many diverse, yet integrated perspectives….

          There is no dichotomy between scientists and dreamers – it’s a fallacy!!

          Inventive scientists are the biggest dreamers are they not?

          The neanderthals must be the bureaucrats or keepers or the left-brain status quo – is that what you mean?

  2. Sylvia Guinan Says: October 5, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    I think that there is a lot to discuss regarding points (a to g)……….

    Some of these common experiences are undergoing change as the world changes from the days of closed, smoky staff rooms to the age of sharing and global networks.

    Traditional mindsets and the feelings or motivations they produce will not survive in the digital age – so we are now in the midst of some rapid evolution of social import ;)

    I’m sure I’ll publish a survive and thrive kit regarding this in the near future!!

    • I would really be interested in your comments re the list (a – g) as well as to why is it that hardly anybody ever talks about these things… :-)

  3. Thank you Nick Michelioudakis. This is an amazingly well written, well thought out and very insightful post. A very rare find.


  4. Great post and so well written, I really appreciate it Nick!

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