Teacher as Martyr

I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading this summer. Two books I have read have really made me think. And, to be quite honest, they’ve also made me a little upset. First I read, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire by Rafe Esquith. Then I read Work Hard. Be Nice. by Jay Mathews, a book about the KIPP schools. Both books provide a look at education that is exciting and promising.

If you haven’t read the books, Mr. Esquith has taught at the same school in Los Angeles for many more years than I have been teaching. He has developed an absolutely amazing program and you can find his class website here. Mr. Esquith arrives at about 6:30am and works late into the day. The KIPP schools were started by two young educators who ended up being mentored by Mr. Esquith, among many other great mentors. The KIPP schools start at 7:30 and go until 5pm. What started with two young, energetic teachers has blossomed into a network of schools across the U.S. You can find out more about their program at their website http://www.kipp.org/.

Both of these books show what kids from “disadvantaged” backgrounds can accomplish. This is the reason I picked up the books because I teach kids with similar backgrounds. Both books exemplify what I already soundly believe, that if you set high expectations for kids, hold them accountable and support them, they can and will achieve.

So, why would these books upset me? Because I thought about my own 4 boys (ages 6-13) and I wondered where they would be if their mom left at 6am and arrived back home at 6pm? Is that really what I have to do to be a good teacher? Is that they only way that I will ever be able to make a difference in the lives of the students I teach? If I can’t put in these hours, does that mean that I should leave the profession?

This isn’t to say that I am not willing to work hard. I am a teacher at heart. I find myself connecting daily experiences I have back to the classroom and each day, I take my students home with me, at least in my head and heart. There really is no other job I would rather have.

So, if I am not afraid of hard work, what is it about this issue that upsets me? I think it is that it ties to the Hollywood image of teacher as martyr. The Escalante/Gruwell syndrome that in order to teach and be successful, one must sacrifice themselves at all costs. Society loves to celebrate this martyrdom. But this gives such a skewed sense of teaching. If I commit that much time to other people’s children, what happens to my own? In “saving” other kids, will I lose my own children? Perhaps it is my own insecurities that cause me to think this way. My goal is always to be the best mom I can be and the best teacher I can be. But I know in both areas, I often fall short. To read about educators who work 12 hour days, weekends and most of summer makes me think that maybe I’m not doing enough. And then I start to reprioritize and reconfigure the hours in my day. Maybe I could just do one more thing….

And then there is Jay Mathews’ article where he calls Mr. Esquith “The Best Classroom Teacher in America” and I wonder how many classrooms Mr. Mathews has spent time in and for how long? Is it really fair to make this the standard by which teachers are defined as great or even good? Is it truly the expectation that teachers sacrifice all time with their own families in order to serve the needs of other people’s children? Perhaps this is why in the early days of public education women were not allowed to be married and be school teachers. Maybe then there was the recognition of what is asked of teachers.

As I read this, I know this sounds a little whiny. Maybe it’s because a new school year is approaching and I’m not quite as prepared as I would like to be. Maybe it’s because it’s time to register my boys for their fall sports and I’m looking at a calendar that is filling up quickly! Maybe it’s because secretly I harbor a desire to be “the best” and when examining definitions like these, I fall far short in my estimation. Or maybe it’s just my desire for our society to recognize the amazing educators I know who do sacrifice daily, but will never be “teacher of the year” because there is only one of those titles each year and far too many of them to ever all be granted that chance. So, I guess I’ll just continue to surround myself with these amazing folks and hope that someday my own children will look back and say “we had the best mom” and hope a student will look back and think “Mrs. B was the best teacher ever.”

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One thought on “Teacher as Martyr

  1. I’m with you– I find the martyr thing a bit distasteful. Maybe people really think that if they praise us enough for our devotion, then they won’t have to pay us.

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