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…all have one thing in common: they represent, or depict someone who represents, the ultimate classroom savior. Whoopi reformed her ragtag group of uncouth and disrespectful Catholic school students into a disciplined,  enthusiastic chorus in Sister Act II. Hillary Swank depicted Erin Gruwell, a miracle worker who healed her violent group of delinquents and transformed into respectful, college-aspiring students. Finally, Michelle Rhee, the former Washington DC chancellor who polarized DC and the nation with her “get tough” methods of administration, miraculously pushed her students from from the 13th percentile to the 90th percentile of the national standardized test scores during her short tenure as a teacher in a DC public school.

All these figures have contributed to the collective perception of teachers as super sacrificial, enduring, saviors of lost and powerless students. Articles have been written, book tours have been booked, and movies have been made around these legendary figures and their miracle work. This glorified image continues to inspire thousands of fresh college grads, still emerging misty-eyed from the last showing of Freedom Writers, to jump into the classroom and “fight the good fight”. I think I would be untruthful if I said that Freedom Writers, or Blackboard Jungle played no part in my decision to become a teacher.

While I’m glad that the media highlights and improves the impoverished reputation of the teacher, I question the healthiness of ingesting and internalizing  these characterizations of teachers as an expected norm.

While these media portraits of the teaching profession might benefit the overall reputation of teachers, they also might adversely affect teachers by placing unrealistic expectations set by these inspiring movies and books. While I admire Rhee and others like her for achieving the impossible with their students (although, I’d also question the accuracy of their claims as well), I think if society accepts this image of the self-sacrificing teacher as the norm, then we unduly place an excessive burden on teachers who already play the roles of  counselor/mentor/life coach/big brother or sister/mini parent/intervention specialist in their daily work. They have to get their lesson planning done some time!

In addition, no one internalizes these expectations more deeply than the teacher himself. Strangely enough, I find that I often compare myself to Michelle Rhee or Frank McCourt during my struggles as a first year teacher, constantly criticizing myself and asking, “How did Rhee do this? How was she able to flip a classroom? Why can’t I produce the same results as her?”, and so on and so forth. While these thoughts might push me to achieve more productive results,  they also encourage an unhealthy attitude of constant comparison. Instead of pacing myself and trying to set goals within my own internal and external limitations, I place undue burden and unrealistic expectation on myself by constantly comparing my experience with superstar stories like Freedom Writers. .

And when I finally do get around to doing a little digging up of facts, I realize that education titans like Rhee and Gruwell are much more “human” than they are depicted in the media. Even though Rhee championed her miraculous test score results, people have found that the gains achieved were much more modest than she had claimed. Gruwell, whose claims can actually be corroborated by her students, left the teaching profession after a measly 4 years at the school. She might have done a great thing during those four years, but now she’s traveling around the country promoting her methodology that survived the scrutiny of a tiny sample of 4 years. I would respect her more if she remained in teaching rather than capitalize on her succes by running for office. Why do so many super star educators end up leaving the profession in the first place?

At the end of the day, I suppose I should forget trying to find that teacher hero on the screen or in books, and try to look for them elsewhere. Perhaps I might find them in the beat-up, albeit a little jaded, veteran teachers around me. They may have haggard faces, and be a little off putting, but at least they’ve opted to stay in teaching, and, by extension, they’ve chosen to remain with their students.



  1. I like this sentence ” While I’m glad that the media highlights and improves the impoverished reputation of the teacher, I question the healthiness of ingesting and internalizing these characterizations of teachers as an expected norm. “

    • Thanks man!

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