People love a heartwarming story of a teacher’s self-sacrifice. This might be a full-time PE teacher who also hosts three different programs for the community for likely little to no pay. This might be a teacher who manages to lead his class from a hospital bed while fighting stage 4 cancer during a pandemic. These stories give you the sense that kids are getting from one person the time and support they deserve from a dozen. When teachers make the news for something good, it’s usually because they’ve mastered some superhuman, time-splitting set of responsibilities under terrible circumstances.
The concept of “good teaching” itself has internalized the requirement for self-sacrifice. Washington State’s Teacher of the Year, for example, cannot simply lead all students of all backgrounds to academic excellence. That would be too easy. They must also find the time to connect their classroom to key stakeholders in the community and demonstrate “leadership and innovation in and outside of the classroom walls.” Pinterest is filled with well-loved photos of elementary school classrooms covered from floor to ceiling with intricate arts and crafts, disguising hundreds of dollars and hours that teachers spend decorating or otherwise stocking their classrooms. The media shines a spotlight on teachers who sacrifice the little time they don’t spend teaching or preparing to teach to offer additional unpaid service to their school and community, time they could have spent with themselves or their families.
The legend of the self-sacrificial teacher is a fantasy that lets you pretend we were summoned by some higher calling to lives of poverty, endless toil, or martyrdom. It obscures how elected officials leverage teachers’ visceral concern for our students, because they know that teachers will spend the little time and money they have to cover much of the difference between what governments are willing to pay for and what students deserve. It glorifies teachers whose unpaid labor fills gaps in underfunded public services that should have been filled by other professionals, such as academic counselors, therapists, after-school program coordinators, coaches, or custodians. Like the fantasy written to sacrifice nurses and grocery store workers to COVID-19, it lets you off the hook for failing to protect and support the workers you depend on. And during this pandemic, it lets you pretend we signed up to die in service of you.