Education Teacher Leaders Network

The Myth of the Great Teacher

March 12, 2007 4 min read
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As part of a new partnership, teachermagazine.org is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

Edited by John Norton

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times titled “Classroom Distinctions,” Bronx history teacher Tom Moore discussed the portrayal of teachers in cinema and what he perceives as the disconnect between movie classrooms like those portrayed in the recent film Freedom Writers and real school life.

Moore wrote, in part:

“The great misconception of these films is not that actual schools are more chaotic and decrepit. ... No, the most dangerous message such films promote is that what schools really need are heroes. This is the Myth of the Great Teacher.”

On the Sunday it appeared, Moore’s short essay was the Times’ second most e-mailed article. When a link to Moore’s article was posted in the Teacher Leaders Network e-mail discussion group, we had some lively conversation about “Great Teacher” myths. Here are some excerpts from the discussion:

Cossondra, a middle grades teacher in Michigan, wrote that Moore’s article “really got my blood stirring this early Sunday morning.”

I think movies like Freedom Writers and The Ron Clark Story do a disservice to most teachers by setting them up to be these perfect role models whose entire lives are about teaching.

Tom Moore has one line which really rang true for me: “I do hope that these movies will be kept in perspective.”

In today’s world of test scores and high-stakes accountability, when students seem to come to us with less and less respect for themselves, each other, authority and the physical school itself, it is important for the public to see representations of our work as positive and even challenging. However, the classrooms in these movies are filled with students reading a script. Moore points out how relatively easy it is for the teacher portrayed by Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers to gain control of her classroom and “solve” many of the students’ problems, when in reality, life in a classroom does not work quite so perfectly.

How do we find a way to portray what life in a real classroom does look like? How do we find a way to be everything to our students without sacrificing our own lives?

Gail, a high school English teacher in suburban Atlanta, wrote:

I am frustrated with the mythology of the “great teacher” who sacrifices his or her entire life for the kids. I tell new teachers all the time: Your job is not your life. Your job is your job. Your life is the God of your understanding, your family, your friends, your pets, your hobbies, your passions. Healthy, well-adjusted teachers fit teaching into their lives, not life into their teaching. How do you think the kids of these “super-teachers” feel when their parent says, “I can’t do something with you because I’m doing something with my students?” I can’t respect that.

Great teachers are teachers who show up every day when they are well. And stay home and nurture themselves when they’re not well. Great teachers are those who do their best for their students every day by trying new things, keeping up with trends, teaching old materials in new ways, getting and giving feedback, and staying relentlessly positive. Great teachers let their kids be who they are but also push them to be better. Great teachers know their kids’ names and know them well enough to pick up the fact that something might be wrong in a kid’s life. And they act on that.

Great teachers are unbowed in the face of entrenched bureaucracy. Although they become weary, they do not give in to the cynicism that infects the mediocre teachers around them. They see the true sacredness of their job—making a difference in the life of a child. And that difference is different for every kid.

Sarah, a media specialist in Washington State, wrote:

Thank you for bringing these topics up. I know when I started, I thought my entire life not only would be but should be about my work and my teaching (endless weekends grading, planning, worrying about the next week, leaving late, coming early). My best new-teacher friend and I were terrified of taking a day off. I am not entirely sure why—perhaps for fear the students wouldn’t return to such “bad” teachers who dared to be sick? Fear of being fired?

An experienced teacher gave us a wonderful essay by Margaret Metzger called “Maintaining a Life.” The essay is written in the form of letters from a master teacher to a student teacher, in which she encourages the young teacher to go out to dinner, see movies, read books for fun, get tickets to plays, go on trips—essentially, to have a life beyond school. I needed that permission to do something beyond work. This essay truly helped me put my life back in order.

I constantly remind new teachers to have lives. It is tough, though, because they, like me, admired those teacher workhorses who graded late into the night, came in at the crack of dawn, and appeared to be completely fulfilled by teaching. Those teachers, I thought, must really love their students to give so much of their lives to them. My master teacher wrote all her lessons and comments in beautiful calligraphy! How on earth could I match that beauty and love for the craft with my typed lessons and printed comments?

I agree that we must watch our message—and the messages others in the media are sending on our behalf. Are the “great teachers” the ones who only live for their job? The ones who sacrifice family, friends and personal needs (like sleep) for their students? Are the wonderful teachers only the ones who get huge grants to buy cool technology, bring their students on fantastic field trips and are so dynamic that they could engage huge conferences of thousands of people with their wit, brilliance, and humor? I hope not. We must be able to find better balance. We can’t all be superhuman. But many of us can be great teachers.

John Norton is moderator of the Teacher Leaders Network daily discussion group. Read more of this conversation here.

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