Teachers are often expected to pour themselves into their jobs—to work long hours, to put up with disrespect, and to meet all of students’ social-emotional needs, as well as their academic ones.
It’s too much, says Jherine Wilkerson, an 8th grade English/language arts teacher in Peachtree City, Ga., who recently wrote an essay for Education Week titled, “I Don’t Have to Love My Students to Be a Good Teacher.” In that opinion essay, she argued that teaching is a job like any other, and she shouldn’t have to forego professional boundaries to do good work.
The piece struck a nerve with readers. Many agreed with Wilkerson’s premise, saying that these expectations can lead to burnout. Others argued that students learn better when they know they’re loved, and that loving the job keeps teachers going through all the hard parts.
Wilkerson spoke to Education Week about the response to her essay, society’s perception of teaching, and why she hates the phrase, “teaching isn’t a job, it’s a calling.” The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your piece resonated with so many teachers, but there were also some comments from teachers who felt uncomfortable with your concept. What were your thoughts on the reaction to your essay?
What I said in it isn’t really something that I haven’t heard other teachers say, so it’s surprising to see how many people said that they’ve been wanting someone to say it. And I was really interested in the people who were offended, like it was so inconceivable that any teacher isn’t dreaming about going to work the next morning.
I’m very pleased [about the response], and I guess kind of hopeful that maybe more teachers will start actually speaking [for themselves] instead of just being talked about.
How does this mindset that teachers should love their students translate into expectations put on teachers?
First, there’s a push to pretend the pandemic did not take place, and you keep hearing, “We’re going to get back to normal.” But a part of what normal was never really worked. We have kids who do have a lot of needs that teachers aren’t equipped to meet. We have kids who have emotional needs, and the expectation is—a kid comes in your class, they have a lot of stuff going on, and they completely cuss you out. It’s like, “That’s just Johnny!” And you’re to move forward. You have a lot of parents whose expectation is that you are not only teaching their kids, but you’re raising their kids. We are not to ask questions, but more than that, we are not to have real expectations for the kids. The expectations are for us. For me, it feels more and more like a situation where I can’t win.
I’m not a naturally affable person. I’m very direct. When I’m in my classroom, I get along with my kids very well, but I’m their teacher. I consider that my profession, and it is not who I am. At school, I’m a teacher. At home, I’m myself, I’m Jherine. I think that it should be OK that those two don’t connect, but I find that more and more, a large part of teaching is, do my kids like me? Not whether or not I’m a good teacher, but do they like you? If they don’t like you, then there’s a problem.
You wrote in your essay that these expectations were even coming from your principal.
Yes. We have lots of conversations because I’m always asking questions about things that for me, on a personal level, are just very hard to get behind. We have kids who have a lot of needs, and we’re not necessarily meeting those needs, and they’re just being moved [along]. One of the questions that I’m asking is, why can’t we have clear expectations? And [the answer] is, “If you love the kids, you’ll do this.”
What I hear a lot is, “think about the why"—as if any of us have forgotten—and “love what you do.” I think that blurs the line because when you ask someone to love what they do, what you’re really asking, especially of teachers, is that you don’t question what you do.
Why should we have to take our work home? Why do we have to sit and have a parent cuss us out? Why are we the only ones responsible for this kid’s social and emotional well-being? It’s always, “Well, because teaching is a work of [the] heart.” Well, teaching is a profession that you go to school for. You don’t just wake up and say, “I’m going to be a teacher today.” There’s this intentional devaluation of education and real anti-intellectualism that has caused people to believe that what we do is something that they can also do, and what we do doesn’t matter.
And because what we do doesn’t matter, all you [need] to do [the job] well is heart. And if you don’t have the heart, you’re not going to do it well. But it’s a job. ... People say love [your students]. That’s not what they mean. You may care for your kids. I care for my kids, too, but it’s my job. When I go home, I love my kids. I love my home. I love my family. When I go back to work, I’m there because I get paid to do it. And if I weren’t paid to do it, I wouldn’t go.
Research shows that student-teacher relationships matter for student success. How do you balance building a caring, positive relationship with students without feeling obligated to love them?
I have a relationship with my doctor. She knows more about my physiology than anybody does. I think that she cares about me as a patient, in her role, but I don’t need her to do more than that. And I wouldn’t expect that. As a teacher, I care about my students as far as, are they learning? I think that the need for students to have their teachers love them has been overstated. Sometimes kids are not going to vibe with their teachers, but they can still learn from them because that’s the goal. The goal is not to make a friend. The goal is to learn and to learn how to learn.
You point out in your essay that teaching is a female-dominated profession, and that might be why we expect teachers to be so nurturing. Could you talk more about that?
Socially, the expectation is that you are a teacher because you’re a woman, and because this is your role. And if you chose to become a teacher, it’s because you have a nurturing instinct. That idea, I don’t know where it comes from. Perhaps it is because teaching has not necessarily grown as a profession in the way that other professions have. It has not gained the same type of respect. It’s seen as a very nurturing profession in a way that I would say is detrimental to the profession.
We have more male principals and more males at the top, than we probably should, statistically. But in the classrooms, we’re women. [Editor’s note: Federal data show that nearly 77 percent of teachers and a little over half of principals are female. Only about a quarter of superintendents are female.] I would say that if teaching were more male-dominated, we wouldn’t hear the same conversations. People wouldn’t talk about it as something that anyone can do. And they certainly wouldn’t talk about it as something that you shouldn’t get paid to do, something that you should do because you love it.
I was going to ask about phrases like, “teaching is not a job, it’s a calling,” which you hear so much, even from other teachers. What do you make of that?
I hate it, because teaching is not a calling for me. ... It was a choice. When you consider something a calling, I think it really diminishes the work that you put into it. Because when you hear a call, you answer that call whether or not you receive anything from it. ... It kind of creates this really weird relationship where if you’re a teacher, you answered that call, and you knew that you might have to sacrifice for it because you’ve been called for it. You might have to sacrifice your body, your time, the time of your loved ones.
The phrase, I think, should be removed because if you stop calling teaching a calling, then maybe you’ll stop thinking of it as a calling. It’s a real profession. You’re not called to do it. You choose to do it. You made a choice to go through school. For me, I made a choice to take out student loans, and calling had nothing to do with it.
What do you think school leaders or policymakers can do to make teaching a more respected and professionalized profession?
I think that if school leaders and policymakers truly cared about the voices of teachers, they’d step back. Teachers should be at the table, and the table should be comprised primarily of teachers. Teachers should not be an afterthought because we are the closest to the students.
You’re going to get students no matter what, they have to go [to school]. But if you lose your teachers, we’ll never be on top anywhere in education. What I like more than anything as a teacher is being respected and being asked my professional opinion. “What do you think?” That’s a conversation that would be great. I don’t see it taking place, but I think if you really want teachers to stay, you ask them, “What can I do to keep you?”