Saints or Scapegoats

Over winter break, I saw a couple of local news segments about a teacher who had won an award for her great teaching. The phrases used to describe her:

  • “tirelessly giving of herself”
  • “works late nights and weekends to do whatever it takes”
  • “selfless and saint-like”

My first impression was that she must be a really great teacher… but then, I  became aware that I was also slightly annoyed. I couldn’t put my finger on it right away.
Why was I annoyed? Was I jealous? Not really. After a little thought, I realized it was the fact that this woman’s entire life was dedicated to the education of students… and nothing else. There was no mention of her own family, or if she even had one. There wasn’t a single word about any of her non-school related activities.

So, I looked around at some other teacher award articles. Did you know that a search for “award,” “teacher,” and “tirelessly” results in 465,000,000 returns on Google? I found many of the same types of descriptions of teachers, and that word “tireless” is found over and over and over.

On the bright side, many awards given recently also feature the words “innovative,” “creative,” and “inspiring.” Now, those are words I can get behind! Some of the these descriptions also mention the families of those teachers, as well as their community and leisure activities. To me, this signals a balance in the lives of these teachers, and I think they are more likely to be successful with students than those who dedicate every minute of their day to teaching.

As I reflect back on 2011, the Teacher-as-Superman/Wonder Woman (or Saint) conundrum, and the backlash on the teaching profession in general, I wonder if our expectations of what a teacher should be gets in the way of helping kids to be the very best they can be. If we perpetuate that myth of a saint-like teacher, there will definitely be those who suffer by comparison and then become the scapegoats for everything that’s wrong with education. Regardless, none of that helps the kids who struggle day to day, either due to home environment, lack of proper nutrition, learning difficulties, or just plain boredom in school.

Looking forward to your thoughts…

(note: I didn’t link to any of the articles or videos of news segments, because I did not want to put any one specific teacher on the spot. It’s not about those particular people… more the idea of what a teacher is or isn’t.)

6 thoughts on “Saints or Scapegoats

  1. Michelle,

    Thank you for writing this post. In full disclosure, I am one of these so-called award winning teachers. I was recently named the Illinois Teacher of the Year and have seen/read lots of good things about myself. Some of those nice things are even true! 🙂

    Your point is right on though. I pride myself on my teaching and what I do every single day in my classroom. However, I am more proud of my two sons I raise with my amazing wife. I am far from “saint-like” and am not different than many teachers out there. If I have a choice between grading papers and going for a run, I will be out running. Rather than spending hours trying to raise my student’s test scores, I would rather be reading blogs or even catching a reality TV show. I am human and detest the thought of being put on a pedestal and portrayed as if teaching is the only thing I do. I tirelessly give of myself to my life…and teaching is a part of that and yet not all of it.

    However, with all of that being said, these awards and recognitions have place in a society that values such things. I am not saying I agree with it, just acknowledging their place. It is through these awards that many hear about the good work teachers are doing. Without them, many would never know of good teachers and only hear the negativity that media outlets typically spread about educators. It would be nice to see teachers in the news more regularly just for being teachers…that alone is worthy of note.

    And I don’t work tirelessly…when I get tired I take a nap. (if my boys will let me)

    Josh Stumpenhorst

  2. Michelle,
    Wonderful post that I have also given a lot of thought to. I remember reading the book “Teach Like Your Hair is On Fire” and was so overwhelmed by guilt that I didn’t work from 5 AM to 8 PM every night but I don’t and I still feel like I am a good teacher. And yet, there seems to be such a pressure on us to not have an outside life to do whatever it takes for the kids. As if you cannot be a great teacher and also have an outside life. I also think we get caught up in what our teacher lives should be to be called a great teacher and often it seems to be full of unattainable things.
    Thanks again for writing this.


  3. This is an great post. I think you’re on the right track when you talk about how educators are perceived today. I don’t think it has gotten any better over the last 20 years in terms of what is expected, but only the pile gets larger and larger. The snag there is that we are humans and we need that balanced lifestyle that involves things like family, friends, time for ‘you’, etc. I have noticed that the word ‘tireless’ comes up many times in awards for teaching and it is true that we work crazy hours, crazy hard and crazy intense but we do get ‘tired’ if that school work is all we do!
    Thanks for the post!

  4. Dude,

    I’ve been railing against the notion of uber-teachers for a long time now for the same reasons that you point out!

    The tireless, dedicated wonder woman approach to school reform and improvement is unfair to teachers. It suggests that if ONLY we’d work a LITTLE harder — or at least as hard as the super kin that are spotlighted in the local paper — kids could be saved.

    That’s a setup.

    Glad you called ’em on it.

    Good meeting you last week,

  5. I was also intriqued with this post. I believe that an outstanding teacher works hard when theiy are at school, but they also need their own life too. There has to be a balance between school, family, and other activities. If we do not have that balance then I believe we are not the best teacher we can be.

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