Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Teacher as Super Hero

Over the summer I read a wonderful book by Thomas Newkirk: Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones - Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For. In Chapter 8, "Finding A Language for Difficulty: Silencing Our Teacher Stories," Newkirk raises an interesting issue regarding how teachers are portrayed in popular culture.

Think about the following educators:

Jaime Escalante (Stand and Deliver.... Garfield High School)
Erin Gruwell (Freedom Writers)
Rafe Esquith (Author of There Are No Shortcuts and Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire)
Joe Clark (Lean on Me)

What do these educators have in common? While their stories are inspiring, what is the message they send not only to the public, but to teachers? Newkirk puts it this way, "In any situation, no matter how difficult, teachers can prevail through the purity of effort, through 'teaching harder.' Even when they are operating alone, in conditions of urban poverty." The teacher is portrayed as heroic, selfless, and larger than life.

I don't know about you, but I am torn by this issue. On the one hand, the stories are inspiring. But at the same time, I often feel like I don't measure up - I don't give enough of myself. Am I selfish if I do not give 110% to my students, neglect my family, and run myself ragged (Esquith and Escalante did this to the point of serious illness)? I must admit, I do feel inadequate when I compare myself to these superheroes.

Think back to what you read during your credential program. Did those texts prepare you for what you experience every day in your teaching? I know I wasn't prepared - not even close! Everything I read was about classrooms and lessons that worked, not what happens or what to do when things fall apart. Newkirk asks, "I wonder if we are not creating the role of 'superteacher,' one more ideal, one without cracks, that can create a sense of inadequacy. Are there silences in the narratives of our teaching? Are we telling everything? Do these consistently upbeat success stories capture the emotional underlife of teaching? I think not." These narratives leave out what Newkirk calls "the dark side of teaching." You know that side; the side that leaves the life sucked out of you at the end of some days, the side that makes you question why you chose teaching, the side that makes you worry if you are doing enough for your students, the side that makes you wonder if you are doing enough for your family - the dark side.

What are the answers to this? Newkirk has some suggestions:
1. Begin with the premise that difficulty, disappointment, resistance, and failures are inevitable in the profession of teaching. Success is dependent on not avoiding difficulty but finding a way to process it.
2. Break down the walls that create professional isolation. Teaching is one of the most isolating jobs out there. Interaction with our colleagues is essential - something Professional Learning Communities attempts to address.
3. Find ways to translate emotionally felt difficulties into something less personal, less emotional, less undermining.
4. Teachers need more opportunities to visit and learn from peers in order to demystify teaching and view someone other than themselves.
5. In order to achieve long term goals, we must focus on the small and immediate. (Al Pacino put it this way: "Forget the career and focus on the work.") As a culture, the large transformative stories are celebrated thanks to Hollywood. But "our pleasure in teaching must come from something smaller."

So what do you think about the portrayal of teachers in popular culture? How do these portrayals affect you and your work? Do you think we adequately prepare teachers for the "dark side" of teaching? If not, how can this be addressed? How can we come together as colleagues and tackle the issues raised by Newkirk?


  1. i agree with newkirk's analysis of the disproportionate expectations placed on teachers. on the other hand, i don't experience the pressure of it personally. professionally, i do sense the need to perform, but i try to keep a grounded perspective, realizing my utter uselessness to my students if i fall into the rut of burning the candle on both ends.

  2. School (whether it was grad or undergrad/cred program) has certainly not prepare me for the real world. I often felt the things I was reading about in my MAT program were very idealistic to what I see in the schools with all the political and financial turmoil. Yet, when I see those movies listed above. I get motivated and inspired to go and be a hero for the kids. In fact, when I feel disenchanted with the field, I think "oh, I'll watch those movies to get back the perspective of why I went into this field."

    By the way, Stand and Deliver is one of my all time favorite movies. I saw Erin Gruwell on Ellen Degeneres show (think it was)....made me feel inspired indeed...

  3. I started teaching in 1983. I read a book at the time, called A Bite Out of the Apple by Paul E. Robertson. He said that 25% of new teachers never go on to teach a second year. The lack of support and the lack of authentic training leads to many failures. I don't know what the percentage is now, but I also know that some people who came to teaching in later life quit when they found out that all the years they were in the social security system doesn't count for them if they take STRS. My first "year" teaching was devastating. I left after 2 months, having lost more than 30% of my body weight, hoping I would get hit by a train on my way to work. It took 2 years of clerical temp work for me to be willing to face teaching again, which was in alternative education. It took another ten years for me to be willing to face a traditional teaching job. I shared a classroom of first graders, in a supposedly 20:1 setting with another class and teacher (39 kids total). It was very difficult in some ways, because our teaching styles were very different, as were our philosophies. We managed to make it work, and I learned so much from this young woman. She got her credential in Idaho, where you get your B.A. in education, and go into the classroom for student teaching after only a few weeks as a freshman. You are truly student teaching for 4 years. I feel that our system in California is sadly inadequate, and that by focusing on other areas (such as history, etc.), and then doing a few weeks of student teaching, is setting teachers and students up for failure. I am one of the rare 25% who came back and know in my heart that this is where I belong. I also feel that Erin Gruwell (Freedom Writers) and Jaime Escalante (Stand and Deliver) are very inspiring people. I don't remember about Jaime, but Erin certainly showed how the teaching field, as all consuming, contributed to the end of her marriage. I also know that Jaime came from the public sector rather than the teaching field, and did a tremendous job, but I still feel that we, as teachers, need meaningful training, and that we should do what other states do, and train our teachers over the four years leading to a B.A.

  4. I truly beieve that there needs to be a balance between your professional life and your personal one. While I admire The Esquiths and Gruwells amongst us, there is cause for concern. When I was a new teacher, I felt like I could be one of those people. Now in my sixth year, I am beginning to establish my parameters. I recognize that having a healthy personal life not only refills my energy to be a better teacher, but by sharing these experiences, I model stability and let them into my personal space. Personally, I believe that students need to know me as a real person. I work with middle schoolers, so maybe this is not so true for primary grade students. We talk about all kinds of issues in class (we had a very interesting discussion about adoption last week).

    At this point in my teaching, I am more realistic to my abilities, but still feel the need to connect with both the head and the heart of my students. While I would love to be a Rafe Esquith, I also want to be a good husband, father, neighbor, and live well into my senior years. So for me, it is all about balance.

  5. I don't know Jaime Escalante or Rafe Esquith, but I taught in LB at the same time Ms. Gruwell was at Wilson. Wilson HIgh, by the way, is NOT in the 'hood, and many of Ms. Gruwell's students were transferees from Poly or some other school in the district. Was she given accolades for extraordinary teaching? Yes. Have I witnessed dozens of dedicated, inspiring, creative teachers do the extraordinary with their students? Absolutely! And for 20, even 30 years.
    At the same time Erin was at Wilson, we teachers at L.B. Jordan High took our kids to Hawaii, Catalina Island (both firsts for our REAL inner city student, many of whom were foster wards). We took city buses to museums, to see films. We didn't take them to see Schindler's List, we had it SCREENED at our school, thanks to the relentless bird-dogging of a dear colleague. (You are my shero, DG.) We had to fundraise for every penny. We and our students also picked up cans around campus, then to them to a recycler for cash. We drove them home, bought them warm jackets, even confronted the prostitutes who harassed students who lived down near PCH. We ate, drank, and lived for our students at Jordan in Long Beach. What we didn't do was write a book and get a publicist.
    We teachers must always seek to be better, but we need to disabuse ourselves of the idea that the teaching roles models we see in the media are real, or even worthy of emulation. Erin Gruwell taught for just three or four years. Give yourselves a break--she gave herself one.