Superhero question mark

NOT a Superhero

Jess Ledbetter Current Affairs, Life in the Classroom, Teacher Leadership

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child-164318_1280So 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.

people-2591673_1920I 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:

pow-1601674_1920Be 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.

zap-1601678_1920Unwavering 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.

kapow-1601675_1920Sidekicks 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?

Many thanks to the various authors at Pixabay for these free images: Andrew Martin, Productionpollucko, and StockSnap.


Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms. Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

Comments 10


    I feel this! Especially as a special ed teacher. I HATE when people think I am some kind of extra because I teach students with special needs. My job has hard days and rewarding days but it is not, on the whole, any more difficult or any easier than a general ed teacher. I still get excited when my students grasp a new concept and I still lay awake at night worrying if I did enough that day. Neither makes me a super hero.

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      Jess Ledbetter

      Totally agree! I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve heard the “you must have so much patience” conversation after I say I’m a special education teacher. Spare me! It feels frustrating to have the job minimized in that way, and I certainly don’t enjoy feeling patronized either :) All teachers are special, but none of us are superheroes. Hoping we can all work together to shift this dialogue and start talking about the real resources that Arizona teachers need to promote learning for our students.

  2. James King

    I think this post, Minor’s book, and our time at TLI are all so vital for those of us who care so much!

    When we care about our kids, our role in school, our community it can start to feel like we’re answering a bat signal to save the day. We let ourselves down when we aren’t perfect.

    It can be hard to let ourselves “off the hook.” And a community like this blog can really help us remember that “our best” is enough.

    ThankS for the reminder!

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      Jess Ledbetter

      Agreed. It’s important for teachers to know their own limitations and most importantly, to set the guilt aside when imperfections surface. Teachers should set out to be their very best selves each day–with an organized lesson plan based on reasonable data about student needs and learning goals. When things flop, we reflect and adjust. There is no shame in mistakes. We can seek advice from colleagues and go back to the drawing board. Teachers should embrace the motto “I’m human!” and leave the superhero stuff to Batman :)

  3. Kyle Bragg

    Great post, Jess!

    I really resonate with the “Be Authentic” part. It’s important to admit to students when we make mistakes to show them we are humans too. We need to model how to overcome those setbacks so students can see and learn resiliency. At times, I feel teachers are “acting” too much, trying to be someone they’re not. Be real. Students can tell the difference, and will appreciate the real you.

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  4. Susan Collins

    The conference this summer really resonated with me and left me with A LOT to reflect on. You really nailed the point that this profession is hard and we are not superhuman. The graphics and visuals are awesome! I’m so excited the Cornelius Minor is coming back to TLI next summer! You should be my room mate!

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  5. Beth Maloney

    YES! I’ve also been chewing on that sentiment since this summer’s amazing experience with Cornelius. We have the workload of superheroes and are expected to have the patience, stamina and strength of a superhero to accomplish said workload. Where is my power??? Luckily, I have lots of sidekicks to get me through like Clark Kent. Great post, Jess.

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