Have you ever noticed the weird dichotomy in how teachers are portrayed in movies? In one view, we’re lazy, incompetent, overall terrible human beings a la Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher. In the other we’re Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers, sacrificing everything we hold dear to save the world one student at a time.
Now, the first portrayal is obvious ridiculous. I mean, I’m sure there are a few “bad teachers” out there, but, honestly, I think most of us at least care about our students. Therefore, I’m not going to spend a lot of time rebuffing that particular view of teachers. And just so we’re clear-teachers are some of the hardest working, most loving people I’ve ever met.
No, what I’m going to focus on is the much more positive-sounding, yet incredibly destructive, heroic teacher portrayal from Freedom Writers. Look, I’m not saying that teachers don’t make an incredibly positive impact on the their students. I’m not saying that teachers don’t sacrifice their time, money, and energy to serve their students in the best way they can. I’m not saying that teachers aren’t positive mentors, role-models, and friends to their students. In fact, teachers are all of those things. I’m talking about the “sacrifice all elements of your personal life and have no boundaries in order to literally save teenagers’ lives” mentality. Let’s call it the “superhero savior” complex.
In the movie, Swank plays a real life teacher who made an incredible impact on her students. Without question. Her classroom probably helped change the outcome of many young lives. However, she also sacrificed her time and energy so drastically that she lost a lot in the course of her (short) years as a teacher, including her personal life and her marriage.
Many new teachers come into the profession with the “superhero savior” complex. And yet, they already have so much to deal with in their first year of teaching: building rapport with students, developing classroom management skills, making lesson plans, figuring out how to grade, dealing with the school’s political climate, completing state requirements (like BTSA), etc. The list is never ending. Do we have to add “save all the kids from an unfortunate future” to the list as well?
Here’s the thing: saving all your students is not realistic. It’s just not. We must, absolutely, try our best to love our students, be vulnerable with our students, and inspire our students. But we should not expect ourselves or other teachers, especially newer teachers, to become superhero saviors. We should not guilt one another for not chaperoning all the dances or attending all the sporting events or staying late every single night.
Friends, that lifestyle is not sustainable. You can try. And you will not be able to save all of your students. And you will cry. And you will burn out. And you will likely quit.
Half of new teachers quit in the first 5 years of teaching. Half. Students need stability- not a constant rotating door of teachers who can only carry the burden for a year before permanently leaving the profession. To serve our students we must have compassion on the new teachers. We must let them know that it’s not just okay to have boundaries between your work and personal life-it’s healthy. In what other profession does society say it’s expected to work constantly? I mean, we don’t think that’s healthy when other professions do it. So why is there this expectation on teachers?
In my first year of teaching, I cried constantly. I had grandiose visions of myself saving poor, struggling students. I had visions of myself leading them on a new path and inspiring them to succeed-to do more with their lives. And yet teaching doesn’t feel like that much of the time. Teaching has small victories, gradual student improvement, and it takes a community of teachers, parents, and others to help a child reach for more with their lives. This burden cannot be on one person.
My third year of teaching, I was diagnosed with a rare illness that causes blood clots. I was 24. I needed 4 procedures, including a major surgery in one school year. I was out of class constantly. One day I was crying and talking to a teacher friend. I told her that I was failing my students and that there was nothing I could do about it. She looked surprised. Then she told me one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned so far in teaching. She said that teachers are expected to be superhero saviors, but the reality is we’re humans who are doing our best. And we need to take care of ourselves. Being a good role model means having a balanced, healthy life including real and successful relationships with our families and friends.
New teachers, let me be the one to tell you: it’s okay, you don’t have to save the world. And you can’t. Let it be a source of relief for us all.