Stop Celebrating Teacher Self Sacrifice

November 18, 2019

“My son’s teacher woke up early to attend his 8am baseball game & cheer him on the sidelines!  She makes sure to attend one extracurricular activity for EVERY one of her students.  Her love and support is so special.”

“Mr. Tom is such a great teacher.  He wakes up early every morning to get to school and stays late every night working tirelessly with students.”

“Mrs. Ching is an outstanding educator who brings in healthy snacks from home every day to make sure all her students have a nutritious breakfast.”

Social media is full of these feel good posts. These stories, however heartwarming, just kind of rub me the wrong way.  I find myself wondering, “Is that what I have to do to be a great teacher now?” In addition to crafting quality lesson plans based on student interests, providing detailed individualized feedback, and cultivating a nurturing environment where my students feel safe to share their thoughts, I have to bake healthy snacks and attend soccer games at 8 am?

Not that I don’t applaud the amazing educators who go above and beyond to meet the needs of their students. It is important to remember that teachers are people too. They are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and friends.  For every time they stay late or go in early they are giving a little more to their students and a little less to themselves.

It is dangerous and unfair to romanticize teachers “above and beyond” behaviors.  Celebrating these types of behaviors sends the wrong message. The message is that overwork and self-sacrifice are commendable behaviors for teachers.  If these behaviors are routinely acknowledged as “amazing” and “outstanding” they will become the expectation rather than the exception. Normalizing self-sacrifice is detrimental to individual teachers and the profession as a whole.

Teachers give us so many reasons to celebrate them on the daily.  We need to rewrite the narrative about what makes a great teacher.  By redefining what teacher behaviors are praiseworthy it will create a healthier more sustainable expectation for current and future educators.

Let’s look at some healthy teacher behaviors worthy of celebration.

Celebrate lifelong learning

Teachers should be celebrated for a commitment to continuous education.  Engaging in professional development, staying up to date on current educational best practices, and applying new ideas to their instruction is worthy of praise.  Teachers who are eager to keep learning should be celebrated.

Celebrate collaboration

Despite being surrounded by people all day, teaching can be a very isolating profession, if teachers don’t make a concerted effort to break down the walls of the classroom. Sharing with and learning from other educators is a very powerful tool. Teachers who broaden their horizons through social media, professional development, or just articulating with colleagues on a regular basis should receive positive attention.   The value of collaboration and teamwork should not be overlooked.

Celebrate risk taking 

Whether it be trying a new lesson for the first time or presenting at a conference, any time a teacher steps outside their comfort zone is cause for celebration.  By striving to be a responsible risk taker, teachers making strides to find innovative ways to improve student learning and reshape education deserves kudos.

Celebrate reflection

Teaching is a fast paced profession.  Every day a new challenge. Every day a new triumph.  It can be exhausting. Teachers who make time to reflect on struggles and successes should be celebrated. Reflecting, whether it be through writing or conversation, can bring clarity to the maddening rush of the day. Often reflection is something that teachers express an interest in wanting to do but just simply “can’t find time” to do it. Teachers who consciously “make time” to write and reflect should be celebrated.

Celebrate self-care 

Teaching is a demanding profession. Teachers are constantly tending to the needs of others often at the expense of their own.  Teachers who prioritize self-care are worthy of recognition and praise. Teachers who make time to pursue their own interests and passions are great role models for their students.  When a teacher runs a marathon, knits a quilt, acts in a play, or publishes an article, it should be celebrated widely.

We need to rewrite the narrative about what makes a great teacher or unrealistic expectations will burn out even the brightest lights among us.

Lory Peroff, NBCT

Lory Walker Peroff is a fourth grade teacher at Waikiki Elementary School and a Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow alumna who believes writing is not only enjoyable but essential. She lives in Honolulu with her husband, two energetic and curious daughters, five chickens, two ducks, and one peahen.