Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Problem with Making Teachers into Heroes

I would be lying if I said that I don't get chills (the good kind) every time I watch the scene in Dead Poets Society where the students stand up in defiance of their institution's rigid rules and recognize their instructor's unique greatness. The testament to the immense impact he's had on their lives in such a short period of time is moving. "That's the kind of teacher I want to be," I tell myself. And I mean it.

Teachers are, by and large, a group of people who care deeply about their work, and it is incredibly rewarding work. The societal portrayal of teaching as a "super power" is partly an attempt to recognize the difficulty of the task, partly a recognition of the passion with which it is usually pursued, and partly a concession prize for a job that can be thankless and financially undervalued.

The problem is that the narrative of teaching as a super hero's task undermines collaborative practices and efforts to make systemic change. We are fed the notion of the "good" teacher standing up to the "bad" system over and over and over again until it becomes ingrained within us.

Consider some of the most popular movies about the art of teaching.

The aforementioned Dead Poets Society sees an unconventional and passionate young instructor  instilling in his students the lessons of non-conformity, critical thinking, and questioning authority. He is fired for his efforts because the uptight private school will not tolerate the threat to their power that he represents, but that final scene tells us that it was worth it. He may have only touched a few minds, but he touched them deeply and permanently. Their lives are forever changed because he was there, and that is the point of it all.

It's a message that we get again and again.

In Stand and Deliver, Jaime Escalante gets a much-deserved biopic cataloguing his amazing ability to reach troubled high schoolers in a flailing district by completely overhauling the district's philosophy toward math. Instead of teaching a bunch of remedial math classes, Escalante insisted on holding students to rigorous standards, and it worked.

As the above clip demonstrates, he was met with intense structural barriers. His colleagues did not support him. He was alone in his fight, and the real-life Escalante faced disciplinary measures and threats of job loss for his passion and efforts. Once again we have a super hero fighting against a flawed system.

Freedom Writers is another one that fits the super hero bill. Hillary Swank plays the young, passionate Erin Gruwell. As this clip shows, a major part of the film is demonstrating the systemic racism of the education system and the racially-charged tensions permeating between teachers and students and among the students themselves.

Her teaching method was one based on respect for her students' experiences and distrust of the system and creating assignments that tackled those issues head-on. She, like the other teachers on this list, had to fight against administrative forces that saw her efforts as non-conformist and dangerous. The movie also depicts the added pressure as her countless hours of dedication to her job begin to conflict with her family life. Once again, all the pain and turmoil and loss is worth it because she is able to see real change in her students' performances and attitudes.

Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me, 187, School of Rock . . . again and again and again the narrative is reinforced. The be a good teacher, you have to be willing to withstand the forces against you on every side: the dangerous and apathetic students, the clueless and angry parents, the jaded and doubting colleagues, the money-hungry and autocratic administration, the doubting and mob-like public, and even your own family.

A good teacher does it alone. A good teacher does it in the face of adversity. A good teacher is a super hero.

The real-life Gruwell, though, only taught a few more years before leaving to found The Freedom Writers Foundation and attempt to make systemic changes to the educational landscape by leading workshops for faculty members and entering conversations about policy and administration. The lone super hero standing in front of the classroom was a temporary role because it is not a good place to make real, lasting change.

From a purely mathematical standpoint, no single teacher is going to make that big of a dent in the educational system through teaching alone. Even a prolific teacher only reaches a few thousand students during his or her tenure. When we are talking about millions of students matriculating through educational pipelines each year, that is barely a drop in the bucket.

We comfort ourselves through parables like the Starfish Story and watching movies like the ones above. We can make a real, measurable, sustainable difference in the lives of the students we teach, and so we can be a success.

It's not even that I don't believe that notion. I do, and I tell myself that story every day. I know that I make a difference in my students' lives, and if I didn't believe that, I would quit teaching. Just like the man throwing the single starfish back into the ocean, I know that it does matter to that one, and I will keep doing it because it is rewarding, powerful, meaningful work.


But what does the super hero narrative of teaching do to our collective ethos? If we are trained to see our students, our colleagues, and even our own family as adversaries in a noble fight, how long can we possibly expect to last?

Teacher attrition is a major (and costly) problem, and there are a barrage of articles from teachers who say they just can't do it anymore, many citing workload, administrators, and policy. Even those who stay within the profession write to lament the difficulties they face because of the students and the parents.

The more that I think about it, the more damaging I think the super hero narrative of teaching really is. I know that I would not be the teacher I am today without the collaboration and mentorship from my colleagues. Good teaching is often friendly theft. You won't possibly have enough time to try everything that could happen in a classroom for yourself, so you borrow from your colleagues and you make it your own. The super hero narrative doesn't leave much room for that practice, one that is absolutely necessary to creating quality instruction without running yourself ragged.

And what if the sense of adversity is validly earned but wrongly placed?

In my own field (composition studies), several scholars have posited that educational systems are largely designed to reinforce hegemonic power structures. Scholars like Ira Shor, Geneva Smitherman, Mina Shaughnessy, and Peter Elbow have all voiced concern about the gatekeeping function of composition classrooms and the way that power structures are maintained through educational institutions.

If it is true that education is used as a mechanism to reinforce and perpetuate hegemonic power structures, then the super hero narrative is a clever tool indeed. Teachers represent a tremendous force of empowered, passionate, highly educated individuals who are--for the most part--determined not to let that be the case. But if we are trained to see ourselves as an army of one fighting a war on multiple fronts, we will never realize the power and potential we have to bring a serious threat to that hegemony.

In short, the super hero narrative uses our real super power against us.


  1. Exactly. :) This is why our departments need to make collective, collaborative decisions instead of one or two people being in the know. The strength is in the collaboration, as is good teaching, where the student is involved and helps create his/her space for learning.

  2. I agree. I would go further, and say that while it's hard not to admire some of the dynamic "performer" type of teachers, I tend to suspect them of more than a little narcissism. If students often perfect skills only by doing, how much time should they really have to spend in each class enthralled by the genius of the guy in front of the classroom, assuming he is a genius? Is he really teaching, or is he being a cult leader? I remember taking an American poetry class with a poet who was like this. He was brilliant, but it was the most passive learning experience of my life. I'm not sure I had to open my mouth even once. I don't remember ever writing a paper. And, in fact, all these years later, the only thing I remember about it is that he pretty much constantly used the term "homoerotic." (It may not surprise you to hear that poetry by women didn't get much attention in that class, either.) Later I had a seminar with a writer who literally told us the same stories every week. God save students from the teacher who's in love with the sound of his own voice.