Teachers Aren't Heroes
It's okay for me to say that. I'm a teacher.
Teachers are not heroes.
Don’t worry. I’m a teacher. I can say that.
Sure, teachers deserve respect and appreciation, probably even much more than the majority of us currently receive. A lot of us are busting our butts and emptying our wallets and baring our souls every day. So thank us, and send us gifts, and teach your children to listen to us, and shoot us encouraging emails, and give us discounts on Teacher Appreciation Day, and please, please, PLEASE show up on Back To School night.
But stop calling us heroes.
I’m serious. Stop.
Because teachers aren’t the only ones listening. Our students are listening too.
Let me explain.
I spend 180 days a year telling my students that they are the ones responsible for their decisions, that their hard work can improve their present and shape their future. I tell my students to own their strengths and failures, to celebrate their victories and work on their weaknesses. Whatever my students’ situation or background, I want my students to understand what all adults must eventually realize: that their choices, good and bad, are their own and can’t be attributed to their parents or friends or teachers.
This message of agency and responsibility is crucial to personal development, but it is being overshadowed by another, contradictory narrative. When students internalize society’s idea of teacher-as-hero, they are no longer responsible for their academic success. In the teacher-as-hero narrative, it is the teacher who is responsible for the student’s success. Think about your favorite teaching movie. Students who fail do so because they have slacker teachers, not because the students themselves are slacking. Students who succeed do so because they have an inspiring teacher, not because they put in the hard work necessary to achieve. It’s almost as if the people who created these movies believe students aren’t even capable of success without the presence of an inspiring teacher.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for inspiring, passionate, and competent educators. Our schools have many such teachers, and we need many more. But I’m completely opposed to the idea that these teachers are more responsible for student success than the actual students are. We all want our adults to be responsible for our own actions, but in embracing the teacher-as-hero narrative, we are teaching our soon-to-be adults the exact opposite of responsibility. We are teaching them that they need to be saved by someone else, when we should be teaching them to save themselves.
But this concept of teacher-as-hero isn’t only corrupting our students. It’s corrupting our teachers as well. I’ve lost count of how many aspiring teachers have told me they are getting into the profession because they want to “have an impact” and “change lives” and “make a difference.” I’ve had dozens of friends and family members ask me for inspiring stories from my classroom. I’ve watched educators, both past and present, assume the role of white (and non-white) savior to students who aren’t actually in need of saving.
And here’s the ironic, tragic thing. I’ve heard these same teachers lament having classes filled with too many students of color, decry their classes as “ghetto,” and their students as “thugs.” I’ve heard these teachers disparage the culture and background of students, of parents, of other teachers. The superior attitude adopted by these teachers is beyond problematic, but it is rarely, if ever, acknowledged. Why? Because this superior attitude is being fostered and confirmed by the teacher-as-hero narrative.
Heroes, in the most basic sense, are good people trying to fix a bad world. As teachers embrace society’s perception of themselves as heroes, they begin to think of themselves as infallible and their students as inherently flawed. To put it another way, the students become the “bad” which the teacher/hero must seek to fix. In effect, the hero teacher often views their students as (at best) the damsel in distress or (at worst) the villain, rather than as an ally or sidekick.
This narrative of teacher-as-hero is a convenient, albeit terribly problematic, understanding of reality.
It’s convenient because, if all teachers are heroes, then it’s much harder to admit the bigotry or laziness of individual teachers. Everyone who has ever participated in the education process knows that there are good and bad teachers, but to publicly admit this is deemed an insult to teachers everywhere. If teachers are heroes, then it becomes almost impossible to critique them, whether individually or wholistically. Unless this too-heroic-to-be-critiqued nonsense is stopped, educators risk creating the same disconnection and mistrust that has plagued law enforcement’s relationship with marginalized communities in recent years.
This narrative is also convenient because it allows teachers to persist in the idea that their students need saving. Not respect. Not independence. Not freedom or self-expression or a voice. The students need to be saved from their own misaligned values and practices and forms of expression. The students need to assimilate, to quiet down and abide by the dress code and stop cussing. And if they can’t do that, then they need to be sent to detention — because detention is where we send students who challenge the hero narrative, the ones whose poor behavior might just be enough to shatter our heroic illusions.
Teacher friends, wouldn’t it just be easier if we dropped the facade? If we put down the cape and rejected the spandex suit that a well-intentioned but misinformed society keeps offering us? Wouldn’t it be better if we chose instead the construction helmet, or the combat uniform, or the body armor?
You’ll make mistakes; admit them, learn from them. Your students will make mistakes too; don’t let those mistakes blind you to their many strengths. Your students will learn from you, but don’t forget that it’s okay for you to learn from them, too.
And whether those students succeed or fail, make sure they know that they’re the ones in the driver’s seat. You were just the non-hero who was lucky enough to hand them the map.