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Teaching Is Not Martyrdom

A martyr teacher eventually becomes burnt out.

Key points

  • The concept of the "superhero" or "martyr" teacher hurts the profession.
  • Teachers should have personal lives—making any job your whole identity is asking for trouble.
  • Teachers may leave the profession when extreme self-sacrifice leads to burnout.
Adam Winger/Unsplash
Source: Adam Winger/Unsplash

I want to push back against this notion of teaching I’ve seen in society and Hollywood’s perception of teachers: Teachers are not martyrs who give every piece of themselves to the job. The profession should not be a gateway into martyrdom, and immense suffering should not be the life of every teacher across the country.

According to Natashia Hill at Edweek, teachers are blamed for a lot, from low test scores to student misbehavior. But Hill claims the “superhero” or “martyr” teacher is the one who hurts the profession the most. It’s the teacher who single-handedly transforms and recharts the future of every student. It’s the teacher who shows up to work at 6 a.m. and leaves work at 7 p.m. and is all things to all students at all times. It’s the teacher who sacrifices relationships, personal life, hobbies, and everything else for the profession.

Freedom Writers is a movie I like and still believe had the best of intentions. And the real-life Erin Gruwell was a terrific teacher who did really well for a lot of students. But Hill points out that the expectation of the martyr teacher needs to die, and I agree. Teachers should have personal lives. Teachers should have hobbies, and teachers shouldn’t only be teachers. Teaching is a calling, but let’s remember what else it is: a job. And having any job be your identity is asking for trouble.

A friend asked me whether I devote my whole life to teaching and got a divorce like the story line of Freedom Writers. It was a joke, but some people do have the perception that a teacher should have a saint-like level of self-sacrifice, all while having to work other jobs to make needs meet. Hill also cites Stand and Deliver and The Ron Clark Story — two films where teachers are hospitalized from working so hard. And while the teachers in these movies are terrific and dedicated, Hollywood’s romanticizing of their immense suffering to the point of becoming ill is dangerous.

I don’t mean to sound callous by saying this, but a prerequisite to good teaching and being a positive figure for kids is being able to come to work every day. If we expect teachers to be so stressed they end up in the hospital (which has happened to some of my friends), that’s telling America’s teachers that virtue-signaling about your suffering and overwork is more important than actually being someone who takes care of yourself.

After 4 p.m. on a given day, I do a very limited amount of teaching-related activities. I do my job and give it everything I have. Some days I’m a good teacher. Some days I’m terribly average. Some days no one is paying attention and none of my students are very engaged. But after 4 p.m., I’m not a teacher anymore — I’m just a regular human being.

We need to start recognizing teachers as human beings instead of attributing to them otherworldly levels of effort and unrealistic expectations. I remember the first time I saw a teacher outside of a school building. It was my eighth grade math teacher at a building-supplies store, and he was with his kids and wife. I remember exactly what I thought at the time, before hiding behind my mom’s car so he wouldn’t see me: Mr. B has kids? Mr. B has a wife? Mr. B goes to the store? I thought he just lived in the school building!

As a newer teacher, I think the risk is in seeing yourself as a martyr when you enter the profession. You think will be the one to single-handedly rechart students’ lives and heal every bad experience a student has had with the school system. You will be the one to single-handedly turn around a struggling school and get every student reading and doing math on grade level.

You’re the first one to show up to work. You’re the last person to leave. But once the realities of teaching set in and you realize why things are the way they are, you start to wake up in the morning thinking, I didn’t want to wake up this morning, and I don’t want to go to work today. Once Shocktober of your first year comes and every day is a struggle to get through, that ambivalence can transform into I really hate my life right now. Instead of being the idealistic new teacher who’s in it for the kids, you start to look at the clock, begging for the end of the day to come sooner, looking at the calendar longing for Friday.

You realize the problem is a lot more than just teachers, that one individual is not going to fix a problem that only a whole community and village can solve. You realize, above all, there’s only so much you can do.

Good teachers manage their stress, get adequate sleep, and take care of themselves. School districts across the country have started embracing social-emotional learning (SEL) as a more culturally responsive, restorative, and less punitive way for students to manage emotions and conflict. SEL is likely the most common buzzword in the world of education right now. But according to McGraw-Hill, schools work better when teachers have strong social-emotional learning competencies too. Their classrooms start to have more positive behaviors and outcomes.

Back to the concept of teacher martyrdom — Hill recommends setting stronger boundaries and saying no when we’re asked to do more and more. Not being able to say no to yet another meeting or another class coverage places a burden on our co-workers, students, families, and above all ourselves. When we continually sacrifice more and more for the kids, we’re actually hurting them by becoming short-fused, impatient, and stressed. The main reason I’m going so strong in my second year is that I learned to take a step back and prioritize everything other than my job.

A second solution is to accept we’re human and forgive ourselves. Accepting our flaws, that we can only do so much, only grade so much, is another way to do what’s best for the students. And Hill urges that we, as teachers, ask for fair compensation because “being a great teacher does not mean taking a vow of poverty.” Is it any wonder so many leave the profession when it pays so little?

When I asked my students the traditional question of what do they want to do when they grow up, the most common answers were athlete or doctor. I joked with my kids about why they didn’t want to be teachers. The answer was often that students didn't want to be stressed out like me or wanted to be paid more.

Teachers who don’t subscribe to this martyrdom model or refuse to work 80-hour weeks are not lesser teachers. Teachers are human beings before they’re teachers — it is more a job than it is an identity. There’s no honor in being so overworked you have no personal life or end up in the hospital.

A martyr teacher eventually becomes burnt out. Burnt-out teachers leave the profession, and we need more, not fewer of our teachers to stay.

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