Opinion
Education Teacher Leaders Network

The Myth of the Great Teacher

March 12, 2007 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP