Confessions of an “Educator” blinded by Savior Complex and Poverty Porn

Being an educator who is now trying to unpack my savior complex issues, has become my life’s calling, but it wasn’t always like that. Along the journey, I think I may have done more harm as an “educator” than good. I would never really want to admit that though. I try to explain it away by stating that I had good intentions, but there’s that one saying, about a certain road being paved (to hell) with good intentions, do you know which one I’m talking about? I laid a lot of bricks on that road, and so have many of my colleagues, especially the ones that society deems “educational leaders.”

Over time, as an “educational leader,” I have learned that if I only look through my intentions, and not my impact, I am not taking responsibility for all of my actions, and it’s based on that, that I can be self-critical, realizing that most of my career I have actually done more harm than good. Here’s how it may have possibly started for me, but maybe it goes further than that.

Jaime Escalante, but the one played by Edward James Olmos, in the 1980s educational film “Stand and Deliver,” was my shining example and hero. I thought that film was right on. A Latino educator who believes in his students and prepares them for the greatness that’s already inside of them, what’s not to like about that? As I look back on the impact that “Stand and Deliver” had on me, I now realize that I have seen over 20+ films that appear to have the same story of a broken neighborhood and a hero educator. Even in that poster I was being set-up; “The school. The teachers. The Parents. The Students. No one cared, except one man. He was the new math teacher.”

Now I’m starting to feel duped. However, I must admit that having a Chicano, Raza or Mexican American teacher is somewhat rare for Hollywood. Most of the time the change agent is a white teacher, whether in “Freedom Writers Diary,” “Dangerous Minds,” “Music of the Heart,” “The Ron Clark Story,” “The Principal,” “Blackboard Jungle,” “McFarland USA,” or whatever the latest “inspirational” educational propaganda film will air next.

I hate to admit it, but all of these films pulled at my heartstrings. Sure, there was a part of me that was deeply critical of the white savior coming into the hood to “give” the kids hope, but somehow, I found myself always going to see these films. These educators found a way to somehow create “for them,” “those kids,” a “safe space” that they (supposedly) “wouldn’t have otherwise,” to help them see what’s already inside of them, their brilliance, because apparently only this teacher or leader can. However, that film, like most of Hollywood’s “educational” films, offer two critically important narratives that would live in my subconscious for almost 15 years as an “educator;” 1. the broken barrio or hood, where no one seems to care but the educator. It paints and focuses on broken windows. For every film to be successful, you have to include some of the following ingredients: kids of color and maybe some poor whites, graffiti, broken windows, gangs, guns, drive-bys, drugs, a pregnant teen, a parent in jail, struggling families (referred to as broken), a dysfunctional school, multiple forms of abuse, a feeling of being trapped, very little historical context, and a “no way out” plot line. Then you are ready for narrative number 2: the teacher as hero. These films position teachers as saviors, givers of hope, counselors, mentors, surrogate parents, cheerleaders, and everything in between. If it wasn’t for them, “these kids” would probably die. These narratives create the need for organizations like Teach for America, or educational reform organization fill-in-the-blank, to exist. It also becomes addicting for us to keep immersing ourselves in this type of educational poverty porn, stuff I know I shouldn’t be watching but they got me hooked like a fiend. I’m stuck watching films that paint neighborhoods a certain way, from reservations to rural towns, where the conditions are destitute, and in need of saviors with “lesson plans.” I wish this was only limited to films, but it lives everywhere, from grad school texts, to educational “research” findings.

Since birth, we are raised in this society to become heroes. So, I suppose that deep down I wanted to be that hero that this US society values so much in the form of the Lone Ranger teacher who shows up to a “broken” school and a “broken” barrio/hood and saves the educational day. The hero narrative, however, goes far beyond education. As a matter of fact, it is mostly white heroes who save us on the movie screen from pretty much everything, including outer space aliens. White people are pretty amazing as Hollywood myths, but historically, as educators, many of them have operated with a well-articulated savior’s complex, whether they know it or not. Many educators and most schools mentally lynch our students in so many different ways. It is the late educator Dr. Carter G. Woodson who stated that “as another has well said, to handicap a student by teaching him that his black face is a curse [with almost no mirrors in books about who they are, their beauty and contributions] and that his struggle to change his conditions [by not being able to fully take on white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism] is hopeless, is the worst sort of lynching.” We lynch minds every day in most schools, and yet no-one waves a flag outside the school, “a child’s mind was lynched today,” but we sure to do pathologize them when they “dropout.”

Many educators of color, who fail to see the savior complex within, the whiteness as a norm, do just as much, if not more damage to our communities, as they become the enforcers of white supremacy.

I honestly really struggle to admit that I, a Mexican migrant, man of color, self-identified “social justice educator,” am a perpetrator of the savior’s complex. I am.

As I find myself in a self-imposed savior’s complex rehabilitation clinic, I must admit that I fell into the trap of becoming a shining armor educator that comes to save the day. How could I let that happen and is this just about individual educators making that so-called decision or are we part of a much larger system at play that perpetuates the creation of the savior complex in education as a tool of colonization? What if the profession of schooling is one of preparing the next generation for mental and other forms of slavery?

The history of savior complex has much deeper roots. Many missionary movements the world over, have been based on the belief that it is the God-given duty of the “saved” one, to “save the savages.” It also has deep historical roots in education.

The very first boarding schools in the U.S., created for Indigenous, First Nations, so-called Native American peoples, were run on the belief that these “savages needed to be saved.” That history can best be found in the book “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” by Ward Churchill. Quite honestly, many of our schools today trace a lot of their practices to the ones from the boarding school. There are new saviors and new savages today.

Zero tolerance and no excuses schools are the grandchildren of the slave master (now the headmaster or principal) boarding school. Colonization manifests itself in bells ringing (like in prison), uniforms for conformity, lining kids up, ordering every minute of their day, presenting them with a daily white lens of history in almost every subject, teaching them only colonial languages, having armed guard “police” the youth on campus, metal detectors, bars and fences in many “hood” schools, and on, and on, mostly for “their own good,” oh and of course manners, etiquette and preparation for JROTC and the army, can’t forget that. This cements youth to know their place, knowing when to speak and how, know how to behave, knowing what and how to think, knowing what proper language to use, know what is proper, and it produces on average 3 million “pushouts” every year nationwide, and millions of youth who are anesthetized, numbed, to conquest. Conquest starts early and we punish Black and Brown (and most other kids of color and poor kids) students very early on, starting in kindergarten (or preschool and daycare sometimes) because they are so “unruly” (or hyper, behavior issues, ADHD) that they must be constantly “suspended” to beat the rebel out of them.

Schools value multilingual education to a certain extent, but only if the languages are European. I don’t need to remind you that English comes from England, and Spanish comes from Spain. So, in most schools, we are OK with helping kids reach their bilingual European self and that has a deep impact for Black and Brown children whose indigenous languages have been robbed from them in school. Kids do not speak Nahuatl, Swahili, Quechua, Mam or the language of revolution, on the daily, by colonial design, even in most dual-language or multi-language schools. Dr. Angela Valenzuela describes this practice as a form of “subtractive schooling.” She theorizes that the more time that Brown children spend in most US schools, the more that gets subtracted from them; their pride, roots, culture, history, languages, sense of belonging, and their deep sense of agency to stand up to this colonial state and rise up.

White sociologist Dr. James Loewen wrote a book about it, that based on my experience working with educators nationwide, hardly anyone has read, specially teachers. “Lies My Teacher Told Me” is an anchoring text that has been de-facto banned from most public schools. On the original cover of the book, Dr. Loewen placed a huge can of white wash paint on top of US history. He was not pulling any punches, and maybe we shouldn’t either if we’re really serious about being the educational leaders that we aspire to be; however, ethnic studies is still at best, an elective othering, a thing to bring in to the curriculum, but never central to US history.

Savior’s complex manifested itself in me in so many ways as an educator of “color.” I can only imagine where it must live for white educators and leaders who have not “experienced oppression” in the same way, and the “woke” ones, who funnel our kids to “fit in” to what is, and not stand in solidarity with and for “what must be.”

One of the areas where my savior’s complex lived in is in a deeply held belief in my students.

By the way, you have to know that I have a good heart, and that I have amazing espoused values. I guess I have to state that to deal with my own fragility as I want to only be seen by my intent, but not impact, at least not yet. As you know, espoused values are those amazing flowery words that we share with the world and even with ourselves about what we supposedly stand for. I’ve heard them all; rebel teacher, anti-racist educator, educational activist, freedom fighter, so on, and so forth. However, my enacted values were not always aligned with what I shared with the world, and even with myself.

I “love” my students (espoused value). I saw myself in my students, and that was deeply problematic for so many reasons. I oftentimes funneled everything that they were going through, through my own experiences and lenses. I often times made their journeys about me. Their stories made me cry, both because I cared, but also because they touched the pain and unresolved issues inside of me. That was completely unfair to them, unprofessional, and I was just a very poor educator who was neither trauma informed nor resiliency informed.

I used to have an un-minted doctorate at noticing and pointing out the injustice in other educators, even in this reflection, but not my own. I’m still a work in progress here. You have every right to question both the writer and the writing here, but I hope that after you throw out what is not useful, you still hold a mirror up to yourself, to the system, and are able to critically reflect on more than just the imperfect writer of this piece. In that spirit, I learned to become hyper sensitive of deficit language that others were saying, but not my own deeply ingrained deficit thinking that was even more problematic.

If I ever heard an adult say the words “at-risk youth,” I would flip it and say well they’re only “at risk of creating a revolution.” Isn’t that cute? I had catch-phrases for everything. But deep down inside, when students were going through difficult things, I only saw them through their pain points, their intergenerational trauma, and not their intergenerational wisdom. I took their struggles home with me and didn’t know how to carry them in an empowering way. I kept wanting to tell myself that I meant well. That I mean well. I carried their trauma and maybe assumed that it would break them, because all I heard was the litany of labels thrown at them/us: “minority” (and not minoritized), “free and reduced lunch,” “underprivileged,” “socio-economically disadvantaged,” “far below basic,” “first generation,” “immigrant,” and though I learned to not verbalize the label, I also never really saw that they were (cap)able (of revolution).

One of the words I hate the most is “pobrecito” (oh poor little one). That appears to be one of the most patronizing and patriarchal words that creates a particular teacher gaze where we see the difficulty that kids and communities are struggling with, and then we feel sorry for them. Sympathy is what normally comes, empathy is what some people aspire to, but solidarity looks very different, and I’m still not 100% sure of what that may look like as I take the luxury of sipping my $4 cup of coffee, with my fancy laptop out, as I write what may appear to be a self-serving, pompous pseudo self-reflection during the “work” day with the “freedom” to “reflect,” or if I teach in the hood, but live in the ‘burbs.

I think that all of the films that I have watched, all of the deficit articles that I have read, my own subtractive schooling experiences from kindergarten to 12th grade, have placed a deeply ingrained savior’s complex bug in the back of my brain, and it is proving to be extremely difficult to unlearn it. I have also gained a deeply held inferiority complex in the agency of our people to truly be free.

I don’t know that I really believed in the agency of my students to truly change the world, or that our barrios and communities could truly create revolution. I started to believe in the power of the empire and it manifested itself in not allowing me to dream of what true freedom could look like. I gave too much power to the prison system, the schooling inculcation system, the multiple layers that create poverty, as somehow much bigger and stronger than my faith in my students and in our communities. See, I have been trained to always study the wrong things, like reform, instead of revolution. So, I would go home and cry. I felt so bad for what was happening. Students are getting arrested. Students are getting deported. Students are losing their homes. Students have very little to eat. Students are taught that they can’t fully change the world. I began to see all of the world through this lens, and realized how ineffective I had become.

The only tired cliché solution that I could offer them is to prepare them for college. I would say ridiculous things about how great it would be to get a higher paying job, and none of this was about deeply believing that empowered communities could truly change the world. I just saw my kids as 21st century worker bees who should escape the barrio/hood narrative.

That’s why I am now in savior’s complex and poverty porn rehab. I am currently not teaching students anymore. I don’t deserve to. Honestly, I wish a lot of people would leave the profession, at least long enough to self-reflect. I have a lot to unlearn before I get the privilege to be with students again. I am now on a listening campaign as I hear from hundreds of students throughout the country who are telling me how deeply they have been scarred by school.

I must admit I’m angry.

I must admit I’m highly skeptical of educational reformers, including myself, so I’m done with that label.

I must admit I find corporate money in education highly suspect, and deeply problematic.

I find “well-intentioned” people to be those “nice” slave masters and colonialists who had house negroes be a part of their foundations, non-profits or schools.

I feel like a house negro who went to Harvard, and a bunch of other colonial spaces, wearing the suit just to get by.

I am shuckin’ and jivin’, and getting quite tired of it.

I am trying to be a school designer, but I find myself going up against everything that has created the colonial plantation now called school, trying to tell us how to do it, and under what terms.

If anyone out there feels this way, might we unite?

If you are done with this corporate, poverty porn, dog-and-pony non-profit industrial complex show, will you holla’ at a brother?

Rehab members of the world unite.

These are the confessions of a miseducated educator blinded by savior complex and the poverty porn within.

What’s your truth?

What’s your reflection?

How might we “see” blind our spots, and if we see them, were they ever our blind spots?

How might we maintain colonialism and what would it mean/look like to stop?

Written by Dr. César A. Cruz

  • Dr. César A. Cruz is currently a design fellow with Educate 78 and he is co-designing the HomiesEmpowerment School based out of East Oakland, CA. The school’s mission is simply to “welcome home resilient youth, with revolutionary love, holistic resources, nurturing the scholar, warrior, healer and hustler within, in the process of emancipation.” Learn more at www.HomiesEmpowerment.co

A Personal Reflection Exercise: Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Doors

Please read the article “Confessions of an Educator Blinded by Savior Complex and Poverty Porn.”

Then as you reflect on your practice please create a creative writing piece. Be free, but if you can’t, it can be a free-form poem, short essay, vignette, op-ed piece or even a raw journal entry that answers the following 3 prompts;

Prompt #1: As I look in the mirror, of this article, I see…

Prompt #2: As I look out the window to the field of education, through the purview of this article, I see…

Prompt #3: As I walk through a sliding door to create truly empowering education, I envision….