Casting educators as saviors undermines the teaching profession—and our students.
Political sound bytes about classroom incompetence and the crisis in education frighten me far less than the rhetoric of those looking to defend teachers by calling us “heroes.” The myth of the teacher as hero is a damaging one—and one we need to examine closely in these turbulent political and economic times. Deconstructing this myth reveals negative implications for students and for colleagues at a time when teachers need support—not labels that undermine our profession.
As an educator for social justice, I want my students in the hero role, not myself.
First of all, to call teachers “heroes” implies that they must be “saving” someone. It follows that, in this metaphor, students play the role of the anonymous civilians in peril. To conceptualize students—even nominally—as people in need of saving strips them of their agency and goes against the very meaning of the word education. The Latin root of this word—educere—means “to lead forth.” In light of this etymology, the heroes live inside our students, who need orchestrated stimuli, love and attention to lead them toward their potential.
Second, the myth of the teacher as hero places inherent judgment on any cultural, socioeconomic or familial status that might alter a student’s learning or educational needs. According to the hero narrative, students need to be saved from something. So what is it we’re saving students from, and who decides? No one would dispute that learning disabilities or family poverty can pose significant obstacles to learning and that students who grow and learn despite these difficulties have developed great coping mechanisms. But I think it’s egotistical to pin this “triumph” on a single teacher rather than on students’ own efforts and inherent capabilities. It also demeans students’ identities to cast the realities of their lives as circumstances from which they must be saved.