So everyone dreams about being a superhero when they’re a kid, right? The idea of cape-crusading, building-climbing, crime-defeating glory sounds pretty awesome to anyone under ten. Superheroes are known for saving the world in cool costumes while soaking up love from masses of strangers shouting their name in rhythmic unison.
I just want to be clear: This is not a superhero story. This is a story about being a teacher.
I know, I know. There are shirts that say: I’m a teacher. What’s you’re superpower? There are mugs that say: Teachers are just superheroes in disguise. I’ve even seen cartoons with sweater-wearing teachers flying through the air rocking a superhero pose amidst airborne apples and books. It’s slightly cute and kind of flattering.
I bought into it. The little sayings on those mugs made me feel like a fierce warrior. Teachers can do anything, right? Then, I met Cornelius Minor over the summer at Arizona K12 Center’s Teacher Leadership Institute. In the introduction of his terrific book, We Got This, Minor encourages readers to consider how the myth of the “teacher superhero” actually damages teacher morale and prevents authentic actions that are needed in schools. I’ve been chewing on that for a few months and I’m here to say: I completely agree.
I am NOT a superhero. I struggle to hold it together sometimes. Balancing the workload of teaching gets me to my breaking point. A LOT. Being a mom pushes me even closer to the edge. I go through weeks with significant sleep deprivation to keep my classroom instruction, special ed caseload, teacher-leader projects, and personal household running smoothly and effectively. I have moments where daily events pile up and make me cry in tired frustration at the end of the day. I have well-planned lessons that bomb and efforts to help students that don’t work. I’m not always patient with my own children. My house gets crazy messy. I overlook self-care. I can’t do everything I want to do because there are finite amounts of time and far too many things that I care about. Being a teacher certainly seems like a Superman job. But I feel more like Clark Kent than Superman.
I think teachers need to set the superhero folklore aside. Minor writes, “The problem with this [teacher-as-hero] narrative is that it erases the complicated calculus of becoming and being a hero, a leader, a change agent, a teacher. This narrative does not allow heroes to be imperfect or to be nuanced. It does not allow them to grow tired, to fail, to learn publicly, or to grieve…It suggests that one can work alone, that constant sacrifice is the expected method for doing this work well, or that our work is the result of some kind of inherent or mystical goodness and not years of careful practice and study” (p. 3-6).
It’s time for teachers to drop the superhero myth publicly and speak more honestly about the preparation teachers need and the dedication it takes to create great learning for kids every day. Admitting human limitations is liberating and does not imply that one is not doing their absolute BEST. In the last few weeks, a Facebook post proclaiming that there is “no trophy in parenting” has gone viral. I think people really resonate with the idea of being authentic. And I think teachers need to take the same sigh of relief.
So here is my twist on things: There is no cape in teaching.
Does this mean teachers cannot be significant leaders and change agents in their local context? Not in the least. When teachers drop the superhero myth, we can adopt more appropriate mindsets to further our goals. Here are some of my tips for living a non-superhero life:
Be authentic in your successes and challenges. Embrace imperfection. When you make a mistake or a lesson falls short, be honest with kids so they can learn the importance of perseverance through failure. Struggle openly instead of silently. Let your colleagues know if you need help. Do your best and embrace the results. Apologize when needed. Give credit to others. There is no cape for pretending to be perfect.
Unwavering commitment to carefully chosen goals. Instead of trying to change the whole world, take a more realistic approach. Pick a few very important goals each year and politely decline other opportunities that interfere with your work on those things. Keep self-expectations realistic and don’t get discouraged when the To-Do list is long. There’s no cape for being overcommitted.
Sidekicks are for everyone. You might not be a superhero, but relationships are everything in this job. When things feel busy or stressful, it’s harder to make time for relationships with colleagues, students, their families, and your personal family or friends. But these relationships are the fuel that keeps teachers going in the job each year. Make your sidekicks a priority no matter what. There’s no cape for being alone in this work.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about the superhero myth. Is it helpful or detrimental to the profession? What are your tips for surviving in the non-superhero teaching world?