I want to push back against this notion of teaching I’ve seen in society and Hollywood’s perception of teachers: teachers are not martyrs who give every piece of themselves to the job. The profession should not be a gateway into martyrdom, and immense suffering should not be the life of every teacher across the country.
According to Natashia Hill on Edweek, teachers are blamed for a lot, from low test scores and student misbehaviors. But Hill attributes the “superhero” or “martyr” teacher as the one that hurts the profession the most. It’s this teacher that single-handedly transforms and recharts the future of every student. It’s this teacher who shows up to work at 6 a.m. and leaves work at 7 p.m. and is all things to all students at all times. It’s this teacher who sacrifices their relationship, personal life, hobbies, and everything else in their lives for the profession.
Freedom Writers was a movie I like and still believe had the best of intentions. And the real-life Erin Gruwell was a terrific teacher who did really well for a lot of students. But Hill echoes that the expectation of the martyr teacher needs to die, and I agree. Teachers should have personal lives. Teachers should have hobbies, and teachers shouldn’t only be teachers. Teaching is a calling, but let’s remember what else it is: a job. And any job being your identity is asking for trouble.
A friend asked me whether I devote my whole life to teaching and got a divorce like the storyline of Freedom Writers. It was a joke, but some people do have the perception that a teacher should have a saint-like level of self-sacrifice, all while having to work other jobs to make needs meet. Hill also cites Stand and Deliver and The Ron Clark Story — two films where teachers are hospitalized from working so hard. And while the teachers of Stand and Deliver and The Ron Clark Story are terrific, dedicated teachers, Hollywood’s romanticizing of immense suffering to the point of going to the hospital is dangerous.
I don’t mean to sound callous by saying this, but a prerequisite to good teaching and being a positive figure for kids is being able to come to work every day. If we expect teachers to be so stressed they go to the hospital (which has happened to some of my friends), that’s telling America’s teachers that how much you can virtue signal about your suffering and overwork is more important than actually being someone who takes care of yourself.
One of my running partners is also a teacher. After 4 p.m. on a given day, I do a very limited amount of teaching-related activities. I do my job and give it everything I have. Some days I’m a good teacher. Some days I’m terribly average. Some days no one is paying attention and none of my students are very engaged. But after 4 p.m., I’m not a teacher anymore — I’m just a regular human being.
And we also need to start recognizing teachers as human beings instead of attributing otherworldly levels of effort and expectations. I remember the first time I saw a teacher outside of a school building. It was my eighth grade math teacher at a building store, and he was with his kids and wife. I remember exactly what I thought at the time, before hiding behind my mom’s car so he wouldn’t see me: Mr. B has kids? Mr. B has a wife? Mr. B goes to the store? I thought he just lived in the school building!
I think as a newer teacher, the risk is in seeing yourself as the martyr teacher when you just enter the profession. You think will be the one to singlehandedly rechart students’ lives and heal every bad experience a student has had with the school system. You will be the one to singlehandedly turn around a struggling school and get every student reading and doing math on grade level.
You’re the first one to show up to work. You’re the last person to leave. You start to get sick and call out. Once the realities of teaching set in and you realize why things are the way they are, you start to wake up in the morning thinking I didn’t want to wake up this morning and I don’t want to go to work today. Once November or Shocktober of your first year comes and every day is a struggle to get through, that ambivalence can transform into I really hate my life right now.
Believe me, a lot more people are there or have been there than they’d like to admit. Instead of being the idealistic new teacher martyr who’s in it for the kids, you start to look at the clock, begging for the end of the day to come sooner, looking at the calendar begging for Friday to come sooner.
You realize the problem is a lot more than just teachers, that one sole individual is not going to fix a problem that only a whole community and village can solve. You realize, above all, there’s only so much you can do.
Good teachers manage their stress, sleep, and take care of themselves. School districts across the country have started embracing social-emotional learning (SEL) as a more culturally responsive, restorative, and less punitive way to manage emotions and conflict. It is likely the most common buzzword in the world of education right now. But according to McGraw-Hill, schools work better when teachers have strong social-emotional learning competencies too. Classrooms start to have more positive outcomes and positive behaviors.
But back to the whole concept of teacher martyrdom — Hill recommends setting stronger boundaries and saying “no” when we’re asked to do more and more. Not being able to say no to yet another meeting, yet another class coverage places a burden on our co-workers, students, families, and above all ourselves. When we continually sacrifice more and more for the kids, we’re actually hurting them once we become more short-fused, impatient, and stressed. The only biggest reason I’m going so strong in my second year is because I learned to prioritize everything other than my job and learned to take a step back.
A second solution is to accept we’re human. Accepting our flaws and that we can only do so much, only grade so much, and forgive ourselves is another solution way to do what’s best for the students. And Hill urges we, as teachers, ask for fair compensation too because “being a great teacher does not mean taking a vow of poverty.” Is it any wonder so many leave the profession when it pays so little, when you can be less stressed and paid more if you have the option?
For a while, not a single one of my students wanted to be a teacher. When you ask the traditional question of what do you want to do when you grow up, the most common answers were athlete or doctor. I joked with my kids about why they didn’t want to be teachers. The answer often manifested itself in students not wanting to be stressed out like me or wanting to be paid more.
Teachers who don’t subscribe to this martyrdom model are not lesser teachers. Teachers are not lesser teachers if they refuse to work 80 hour weeks. Teachers are human beings before they’re teachers — it is more a job than it is an identity. There’s no honor in being so overworked you go to the hospital or don’t have a personal life.
A martyr teacher eventually becomes burnt out. Burnt out teachers leave the profession, and we need more, not less of our teachers to stay.
Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash
Originally published on Invisible Illness on April 21, 2021.