As teachers, we tend to buckle down, do the tough work, and ask for little recognition in return. This quiet dedication is often overlooked in lieu of flashier (and sadly negative) narratives that blame teachers for low test scores and call for hunting down and firing those who are deemed “ineffective.”
But unfortunately, the narrative that sometimes hurts the most is one that seems positive at first glance: the notion of the superhero or “martyr” teacher who single-handedly, tirelessly, and miraculously transforms an entire group of students—to the detriment of his or her health, personal life, and well-being.
Many of us have seen and even idolized the teachers in biographical movies like “Stand and Deliver,” “Freedom Writers,” and “The Ron Clark Story.” Too often, however, martyr teachers like these are heralded as the community standard of what all teachers should be. While I greatly admire the work and dedication of these teachers—Jaime Escalante, Erin Gruwell, and Ron Clark—it’s time for the unhealthy narrative of the martyr teacher to die. This expectation does a disservice to the entire profession.
The notion of the martyr teacher often suggests that great teachers must live a life of imbalance, poverty, and continual self-sacrifice. In “Freedom Writers,” Gruwell’s character’s singular dedication to her students puts stress on her marriage, and she gets divorced. The teachers in “Stand and Deliver” and “The Ron Clark Story” are both hospitalized due to overwork.
But teachers need not be martyrs to transform the lives of their students. Valuing ourselves doesn’t mean we love kids any less. As professionals, it’s time for us to shift unrealistic perceptions and demand more respect and compensation for the life-changing work that we do.
As a 16-year public school educator, I have personally struggled with teacher martyrdom, but I’m ready for change—and I hope you are, too. Here are five ways educators can make the teaching profession better and shake off the expectations of martyrdom:
1. Say “no” and set stronger boundaries. We need to ditch the “do it for the kids” mentality that so often overrides our natural and reasonable boundaries. Our inability to say “no” not only burdens our coworkers (who feel compelled to say “yes” because they don’t want to be seen as the one teacher who does not care about the kids), but it creates a massive imbalance in our homes and personal lives when we prioritize our “work” in the name of helping children. One of the most important things that we can do is to set aside non-negotiable blocks of time to spend with loved ones, pursue passion projects, or work on our physical health.
2. Lay down our superhero capes. We need to give ourselves room for flaws so that our students can see realistic models of successful but imperfect adults. A wise woman once told me, “The definition of excellence is doing the best you can with what you have at the time.” Ever since, I have made it my mission to bring that definition of excellence to my classroom each day.
I suffer from the chronic condition of being human (and I bet you do, too). I mess up. Sometimes, I’m less patient, less understanding, and less prepared than I would like to be ... and sometimes I just feel like less, in the classroom and out. However, I am learning to forgive myself, like I forgive my students, and start each day brand new. The same way in which we believe in our students, we need to believe in ourselves. We deserve forgiveness, too.
3. Ask for fair compensation. Yes, teaching is a calling, but I wish we would collectively stop giving praise to harmful, but well-intentioned rhetoric that says our financial compensation is not important—i.e., “Teachers don’t teach for the income. Teachers teach for the outcome.” Although many of us enter the teaching profession for philanthropic reasons, being a great teacher does not mean taking a vow of poverty. It does not diminish our altruism to ask for fair compensation for our time, effort, and skills.
Given how little teaching pays, is it any wonder so many students aspire to become pop stars and athletes instead of honing their intellect? Recently, I have been exhilarated to see so many educators challenging this detrimental paradigm through protests and demands for reform.
4. Invest in ourselves. While it is so easy to spend our “wealth” in our classrooms, are we planning for the future? Are we taking care of our health (mental and physical)? Are we financially preparing for retirement? I don’t know about you, but I’m terrible at investing in myself. This school year, I’m planning to improve my physical health and spend a little less money on the classroom so that I can fund my retirement properly.
5. Play politics. One of the most common teacher complaints is that while we tend to the business of teaching, those who are ill-equipped and less-informed become the regulators of our profession. While I know it’s scary to leave our traditional classrooms, let’s branch out and educate our community in the name of self-advocacy.
I’m proud that more teachers are inserting themselves in the national fray of politics, because it means we are finally rejecting the false paradigm that our work is apolitical. Let’s step out of our of comfort zones by running for political office, serving on policy boards, and becoming education lobbyists. By redefining the role of “teacher” to make it include teaching those in our community and across the nation the value of what educators bring to the table, we can begin to leverage our expertise for the greater good of both teachers and students.