“The Limits of Heroic Teaching”

My first year as a teacher I lived and taught with a wonderful roommate and teacher. For the first several months I would stay up late every single night trying to perfect my lesson plans and by November I was miserable because I wasn’t doing anything else but working. My roommate gave me some great advice: “You can always do more with a lesson, at some point just stop. It will never be perfect.”

This was the beginning of trying to balance a compelling and demanding profession with a personal life. Over the years I have known many teachers who have sacrificed so much for their students including their physical health, relationships, bank accounts, and mental well-being. I do not believe in a burn-out model of teaching and I do not believe this is what is required to be an excellent teacher. Unfortunately, many of the charter school systems I have worked with as well as TFA have spot-lighted teachers who put in 70+ hour weeks and inadvertently encouraged, or at times outright advocated with purposeful messaging (“Work Hard. Be Nice.” and “Whatever it takes” and “Relentless Pursuit”), personal life martyrdom for the achievement gap. Although this kind of all consuming teaching, which Wendy Kopp calls “heroic teaching,” may result in student academic growth within a single school year and/or subject – what happens the next year? Will the students sustain their growth with a new teacher? Will the teacher be able to sustain a career in the classroom? Kopp writes . . .

heroic teaching like theirs does not offer a likely path to educational opportunity for all. It is impossible to imagine a force of hundreds of thousands of teachers as rare in their abilities and commitment as [these teachers] are, and it is impossible to imagine hundreds of thousands of them sustaining the requisite level of energy and devoting the requisite amount of time not just for two years but for many years, and on a teacher’s salary to boot. We can’t expect all of our teachers to shoulder the responsibility of creating transformational classrooms within schools that often don’t have the mission or capacity to change students’ trajectories, let alone provide teachers with the training and professional development necessary to teach this way.

Although Kopp admits self-sacrificial teaching is unsustainable she certainly admires it – it is “heroic” – but I would argue the opposite. This kind of teaching is both unsustainable and ultimately destructive for teachers, students and schools.

One teacher does not close the achievement gap in one year in one class. Research shows students need at least three years of excellent teaching in order to make up performance differences (although some argue even three years with a great teacher isn’t enough). If a good teacher burns herself out after 2 or 3 years although her students might have had one great year the cost is high: her school looses a veteran teacher and potential leader, hundreds of other children will have to settle for a weakened school experience and that promising young teacher will never reach her full potential as an educator. Additionally, what kind of example for her students is a teacher who is not eating well or exercising or maintaining healthy relationships or improving her mind and soul through reading and non-education related activities like spirituality or hiking outdoors?

Rigorous and challenging professions with sustainable career paths exist (ex. doctors, lawyers, etc.) however making this possible for teachers requires systemic changes. In the meantime, fellow teachers, let us commit to balance and help lessen the burden by sharing resources and supporting each other. Set a timer when you write lesson plans and when the timer goes off put it aside and call it done. Use or modify resources from other teachers – don’t “reinvent the wheel.” Spend time on what is important (giving useful feedback to students, backwards planning to strong assessments, getting to know your students as people and learners) and less time on the small stuff (formatting documents, finding the perfect picture for that power point, obsessively tracking small knowledge bits instead of larger skills or themes). Breakdown the walls of isolation in your building and collaborate with your colleagues.

And if your colleague next door is burning herself out please stage an intervention like my roommate did with me 10 years ago. Let’s not call what is tragic heroic.

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16 thoughts on ““The Limits of Heroic Teaching”

  1. Jennifer says:

    True story, Abby. We have been lucky to hear and repeat the mantras of sustainable teaching. Shall I paraphrase them here? “No special place in heaven for people who martyr themselves teaching.” “Last to arrive, first to leave.” “It is arrogant to believe that having a slightly better lesson, or even better year, will make all the difference in the life a child who has so many other influences in their day.” etc…

    You keep preaching; I’ll keep trying 🙂

  2. Preaching to myself! The whole heroic teaching thing also feeds the myth of “rock-star” teachers who make unrepeatable gains in student achievement not because they are born talented but because they work harder than everyone else. This kind of thinking implies that if you aren’t making huge gains with your students it’s because you simply aren’t working hard enough. Then it becomes this dark circle of “if I just worked harder then they would have passed that test” or “she wouldn’t have gotten pregnant” or “he wouldn’t have started selling drugs” or whatever and the truth is it is more complicated than that. AND more of us can be great teachers . . . without being born great or working ourselves to death.

    • Jennifer says:

      This point is so important. And again, I admit that I fall into the trap – I constantly internalize the blame via “If only I had…” I think the tension there is that when you believe “teacher actions –> student actions” it is easy to see everything in those terms.

      Keep preaching for all of us 🙂 I imagine it is still hard for you, too, but I just feel like you do a better job embodying this message than I do (I just talk about balance, and then stay at work until late, boo). Though, I do feel like engaging in this conversation over and over again is the best way to keep it real, so thanks!!

  3. lnikstad says:

    Thanks Abby and Jenny for your thoughts on this important topic to teachers.
    As someone who is transitioning from “sprint” to “marathon” mode, I believe that structural changes at schools are key to helping teachers maintain balance. Instead of expecting first year teachers to reinvent the wheel, we need mentoring programs and coaching that provide course releases to the mentors so they can show new teachers which wheels have already been invented and in what situations these wheels are useful. Then the mentee can make instructional decisions about which wheel (or modification to wheels) might be most useful for these students, at this time, in this context without complete reinvention. Schyuler refers to this kind of knowledge as “pedagogical content knowledge” and we need institutions that preserve and cultivate this type of knowledge rather allowing such knowledge to be lost to teacher turnover.

  4. Christine Roach says:

    I think that teachers are the ones that harm teachers the most. I remember raising my eyebrows at a fellow teacher because she “left early”, at 4:30! There can be this unspoken culture of “good teachers suffer”, and a great many teachers take pride in how much they have suffered. (not me! I never moaned about how late I stayed up the night before doing some school related project……er…).
    Looking back, I think that our school team that year was expecting to achieve nothing less than perfection from day one.
    High expectations are necessary, but there must be some realism and tolerance practiced alongside. Perhaps it is okay for teachers to perform and improve at a level that is not suicidal. Perhaps it is okay to enjoy what you do..
    *end rant*

  5. Christina O'Malley says:

    I was really grateful when the teacher across the hall when I was student teaching taught me this. I was pregnant and had a child and husband (thank God for the husband last year!) and the teacher just pointed out that if I had to work at home regularly, I was making it too hard. He was much better able to help me learn how to keep things on the building. Many days I would leave with my purse and planning book, while the other student teachers would take home a foot-tall stack of books during the week. And who was exhausted after 13 weeks of student teaching? Not the 7.5 months pregnant one!

  6. I’m totally with ya. I was a heroic teacher for 2 years and got burnt out. Always in the back of my mind is this regret, this guilt that I couldn’t do more, but I was killing myself. These kids definitely deserved more, that is the truth, but I was giving all that I could give there was no more. I still think about my students, I wish I could give them all they deserve, but until there is educational equity in the US, teachers will continue to be burnt out trying to make it happen. Imagine if everyone: parents, students, community leaders, administration, government were all heroic at every level, could we have educational equity? If everyone put in a couple of years of heroic work? Because the way I see it, unless it’s everyone pitching in, teachers will continue to burn out. It’s got to come from the top down. Education has to be made a priority.

    • I like this idea of heroic at every level!

      • Ya, I guess when I said heroic, I meant to put quotes around it. I think for education to be equitable for students everywhere so we can compete on a global level instead of having pockets of failing schools, we need all levels to pitch in to make it happen. There needs to be full support. Another reason teachers get burnt out is that they feel like they have to do it all on their own, but this isn’t necessarily the case. If a teacher has a good support system they’ll work however long it takes to give those kids what they need. I know I didn’t do enough, but I would have worked even more tirelessly if I felt that I had the full support of the administration, community, parents, students, etc. to do what needed to be done. Thank you for your post. I think it’s great that you’re getting the word out.

  7. Crischelle Navalta says:

    Abby, my friend and colleague. I absolutely agree about balance, and I think the reason that I have been in the classroom for the last 8 years has been because I have kept sacred the other parts of my life just as valuable as the profession.

  8. Ann Vega says:

    After 30 years plus in education, it took years before I understood the meaning of balance. I have been “TEACHER OF THE YEAR” twice in two different school districts. The first was in Cypress-Fairbanks and I considered that one of the most forward and innovative districts I have ever worked for. The second honor was with IDEA Public Schools, another top district in the world of education. Both honors were at a time in my life where I dedicated over 70 hours a week. When my husband was in law school, I mastered the art of teaching and dedicated myself to being the best. The second, with IDEA, I had just stepped out of homeschooling and relished in the challenge set forth by my charter district. The older I get, the wiser I get. The thing is, when you are around countless TFA kids (under 30 to me) you challenge yourself because you are inspired by their dedication. The best teaching I have ever been part of was with Nicole Mortorano, Sam Goessling, Jennifer Corry, Eric Banister, Kerri Firth, Kara Mitchelll-Santibanez, Carl Hultgren and SOOO many more. But the formula for TFA involves two years (and in rare cases a bit more) of teaching and teaching is usually a lifetime for the rest of us…….

  9. Taylor Delhagen says:

    Teach and walk in balance. And while at it, don’t forget to have fun. After all, you’re with kids. Tomorrow’s lesson = so much fun.

  10. […] call this heroic because it stems from the noble motivations of teachers I would argue again (click here for my other anti-hero post) that it is actually a tragic misappropriation of resources has lead to teachers working beyond […]

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