Most of us are probably aware that in the Classical tradition, teaching was often seen as a servile occupation. Additionally, most have probably seen those archaic lists of rules for teachers from 19th and early 20th century America, in which teachers are expected to do everything from scrub the classroom floors to leading virtuous lives beyond reproach and perhaps achievement. Little has changed. It’s no wonder that teaching remains a difficult occupation in which much is expected from faculty, while little about them is respected within American culture.
The continuity of this seemingly ageless mentality that teachers must be subservient to the rest of society continues to be pervasive in the present, and it perhaps lies at the core of some of the larger problems facing education today. For example, who wants to pay faculty a respectable professional salary or what educator would dare to speak up with such a request when they are supposed to be in it only for the good of the students?
Although teachers can not quickly change this inherited attitude toward their profession, we can change our own attitude and behavior. Teachers can continue to be dedicated and caring individuals without being submissive. Teachers must stop playing martyrs for education to improve.
Two Personal Examples
What is meant by teacher martyrdom? Years ago, I had the pleasure of teaching at perhaps one of the best and largest public high schools in the country. At first, I loved being engaged with the school as everyone seemed so focused, so driven on doing anything and everything that was perceived as best for the students. Then almost with a feeling of horror perhaps only matched by that of a recent arrival among the Stepford Wives, I realized I was expected to sacrifice myself for my students.
Although I arrived at school each morning at 6:30 and worked until 4-5 PM each day to complete my instructional, supervisory, and extra-curricular duties, others increasingly commented about my habit of walking next door to have lunch with my daughter at her preschool, or that I left at the end of the day when others stayed until at least 9 PM. When I spoke to these teachers, I noticed a high number of personal issues, such as divorces, their own children struggling with various addictions, and/or constant health issues. I was not willing to sacrifice my own life and well being to be a martyr for my students.
In relation to this, in my role as a faculty assembly president at a community college, I found that instructors would barge into my office, close the door, and rage about one injustice or another. Most typically this involved low pay with substandard working conditions. Yet, when I offered assistance, such as the opportunity to take part in a task force or committee to propose concrete solutions, I received the same response. “I’m afraid to speak out, but know that I am a shadow supporter if you can do something.”
These two symptoms of teacher martyrdom routinely surfaced throughout my career in education, and observing their effects on some of my colleagues and former colleagues has always been unsettling.
The Big Picture
The above scenarios are not mine alone. Others have written and spoken about the perception that teachers should be subservient and the descriptor of the profession as being one that “devours its young” has been used. Consider these examples:
• American media stereotypes teachers as individuals who give their all; then leave the profession. For example, Erin Gruwell of Freedom Writers and Louanne Johnson from Dangerous Minds each saved a group of students and ended their professional lives as educators once their mission was accomplished ( Miss Education, “Martyr Syndrome,” 11 January, 2011).
• Ex-teacher Jordan Kohanim, who recently received a lot of attention for her post about leaving the profession because the excessive demands of the profession were, as she says, causing her to “neglect [herself ]for the sake of others’ children.” In effect, the job after seven years was slowly killing her and her love of teaching, so like nearly 50% of new(er) teachers, she left. In response, a colleague quipped: “It won’t make a difference” (22 June, 2012).
• Dr. Rebecca Anhorn took a more in-depth look at how widespread Kohanim’s experience is among new teachers in her article, “The Profession That Eats Its Young,” (Spring 2008). Anhorn explains that many new teachers run into the reality that they will not be given enough orientation, time, collaboration, collegiality, or support (especially for classroom management and financially). The subliminal message: Be a martyr or leave the profession.
The motif of the teacher-martyr must end for education improvement to really begin. My hope is that Americans will pay more attention to voices like those of Kohanim and Anhorn, I’m going to continue to place my faith in my colleagues and ask that teachers join together in helping one another out of this spirit of learned helplessness. We can still be dedicated, effective, and caring faculty as we speak up and stop playing the martyr.
Based on my nearly 30 years in the profession, I can say that teachers are in reality more like superheroes. They may not leap a tall building in a single bound, but they can evaluate thousands of pages of student work in a single semester. Most don’t drive a cool car like the Batmobile, but many of them can utilize educational technology in ways that would make Alfred proud. Therefore, I know teachers are the ones to be the catalysts that end the perception that educators must be martyrs.
Soon after the announcement of her departure from teaching, Kohanim flew back into the education scene to offer three suggestions for improving the prevailing attitude toward teachers. She stated:
1. Acknowledgement: Everyone needs to recognize that the expectations of teaching are too high while the rewards are low. People need to focus less on disparaging education and more on the very real successes that are achieved every day, including the importance of the role of teachers.
2. Financial Gain: This doesn’t just refer to individual salary and benefits, but also to the expenses needed to effectively provide a quality learning experience for students in all subject areas.
3. Destroy the Martyr Mentality: Stop buying into the teacher as monk, nun, or starving artist.
For each of these suggestions, teachers and other educators must take the lead. For example, be sure to thank colleagues for their efforts and acknowledge both their accomplishments and those of their students. Get donations that help teachers or their classrooms. For instance, there are programs that will donate appropriate work clothing to professionals, and I once had a colleague help to arrange an annual Roman feast at a local Italian restaurant for my Latin students at $3.00 per person. Finally, shake off the learned helplessness. Be a superhero!
If teachers can be the catalysts that eliminate the teacher-martyr mentality, a greater respect for teachers may result in improvements such as higher remuneration, better access to the materials helpful to student success, a more equitable work/life balance, etc. After centuries, it’s time for a change. Teacher martyrdom must end for education improvement to begin.
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