Political sound bytes about classroom incompetence and the crisis in education frighten me far less than the rhetoric of those looking to defend teachers by calling us “heroes.” The myth of the teacher as hero is a damaging one—and one we need to examine closely in these turbulent political and economic times. Deconstructing this myth reveals negative implications for students and for colleagues at a time when teachers need support—not labels that undermine our profession.
As an educator for social justice, I want my students in the hero role, not myself.
First of all, to call teachers “heroes” implies that they must be “saving” someone. It follows that, in this metaphor, students play the role of the anonymous civilians in peril. To conceptualize students—even nominally—as people in need of saving strips them of their agency and goes against the very meaning of the word education. The Latin root of this word—educere—means “to lead forth.” In light of this etymology, the heroes live inside our students, who need orchestrated stimuli, love and attention to lead them toward their potential.
Second, the myth of the teacher as hero places inherent judgment on any cultural, socioeconomic or familial status that might alter a student’s learning or educational needs. According to the hero narrative, students need to be saved from something. So what is it we’re saving students from, and who decides? No one would dispute that learning disabilities or family poverty can pose significant obstacles to learning and that students who grow and learn despite these difficulties have developed great coping mechanisms. But I think it’s egotistical to pin this “triumph” on a single teacher rather than on students’ own efforts and inherent capabilities. It also demeans students’ identities to cast the realities of their lives as circumstances from which they must be saved.
Another point to consider is that by glamorizing teachers as epic figures to whom we should all be grateful, we encourage teachers in training to imagine themselves as heroes going out to save the world. This view, we know from culturally relevant teaching practices, is shortsighted and distracts from the reality that teaching is a rigorous and specialized intellectual practice. In addition, according to Herbert Freudenberger, the father of “burnout” research, the youngest and most idealistic teachers—the ones most likely to believe they will be heroes—burn out first.
Lastly, the myth of the hero teacher leads attention away from the real changes that are needed in policy and wider social structures. Promoting the hero narrative is akin to pointing at the few exceptions and exclaiming, “See! Everything’s fine!”
We need to draw more attention not to how individual teachers overcome immeasurable odds, but to ways in which we can reduce those odds to begin with. If teachers need to be creative and honest in the classroom—if that’s what makes a teacher a “hero”—then we need to dismantle the obstacles to creativity and free speech on a wide scale so that those teachers become the rule, not the exception. We need to promote teacher creativity by reducing the amount of standardized testing and the resulting fear of poor results and loss of funding. If being authentic were really a quality valued in great teachers, we would celebrate inclusive, empowering teachers regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or ability.
The dramatic light the hero myth casts on teachers is one I think we—as teachers—should wholeheartedly work to avoid. The example of a few isolated individuals working alone in red capes makes for an inspiring narrative, but it won’t transform our troubled educational system. We need a new narrative for teaching, one that we write together, one that unites us as educators and honors our students.