I’m sorry. I am not a hero teacher. I am not stronger than a locomotive. I cannot jump tall ignorance in a single bound. I am not faster than a tax-cutting zealot. Up in the air – it’s a bird, it’s a plane, but it’s certainly not a teacher because we can’t fly.
I am not bullet proof. If a gunman storms the building and shoots me, I will be wounded and may die. Giving me a gun doesn’t help, either, because I am not a marksman. I am just a man.
I cannot stand in front of a class of thirty and give them each my undivided attention. Not all at once. When students ask a question, I need time to answer it. When students hand in a paper, I need time to grade it.
During the workday, I need time to plan my lessons. I need time to call parents. I need time to read all the individual education plans, fill out all the weekly monitoring forms, finish all the administrative paperwork.
When the day is done, students often are reluctant to leave. They cluster about in the hall or linger in the classroom asking questions, voicing concerns, just relieved that there’s someone there they can talk to. And that’s reason enough for me to stay.
At the end of a long day, I get tired and need rest. At the end of a long week, I need time to spend with my family.
At the end of a long year, I need time to myself – to get a summer job, to take continuing education courses, to plan for next year, to heal.
I need a middle class income – not because I’m trying to get rich, but because I’m human. I need food and shelter. I have a family for whom I need to provide. If you can’t give me that, I’ll need to move on.
Sorry, but it’s true.
I’ll tell you one thing I don’t need. I don’t need the state, federal or local government telling me how to do my job. When I plan my lessons, I need the freedom to teach children in the way that seems most effective to me – the professional in the room.
I also don’t need some bureaucrat telling me how to assess my students. I don’t need some standardized test to tell me what kids have learned, if they can read or write. I’ve spent an average of 80 minutes a day with these children for five days a week. If I can’t tell, I don’t deserve to be in the classroom.
And I don’t need my principal or superintendent setting my colleagues and me against each other. We’re not competing to see who can do a better job. We should be collaborating to make sure everyone succeeds.
What do I need? My union, for one.
I need my right to collective bargaining. I need the power to gather with my colleagues and co-workers so we can create the best possible work environment for myself and my students. I need due process, tenure, so I can’t be fired at the whim of the school board or administrators without having them prove my inequities.
I need my work to be evaluated fairly. Judge me on what I do – not on what my students do with what I’ve given them.
And when it comes to the racial proficiency gap, don’t look to me to exert some kind of supernatural teacher magic. I am not a white savior who can make school segregation, racism and prejudice disappear. I try to treat every student fairly, but my actions can’t undo a system that’s set up to privilege some and disadvantage others.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re expecting a superhero, I’m bound to disappoint. And that DOES seem to be what many of you expect us to be.
Seven years ago, Davis Guggenheim characterized the public schools as if we were Waiting for Superman. Things are so screwed up, he alleged back then, that we need someone with superpowers to swoop in and fix it all. But there is no superman. There’s just Clark Kent.
That’s me – a bespectacled shlub who shows up everyday in the naive hope that he can make a difference.
According to landmark research by Dan Goldhaber and James Coleman, only about 9 percent of student achievement is attributable to teachers.
That’s right – 9 percent.
If you add in everything in the entire school environment – class size, curriculum, instructional time, availability of specialists and tutors, and resources for learning (books, computers, science labs, etc.), all that only accounts for 20 percent.
There’s another 20 percent they can’t explain. But the largest variable by far is out of school factors. This means parents, home life, health, poverty, nutrition, geographic location, stress, etc. Researchers estimate those count for 60 percent of student success. Yet we somehow expect teachers (9%) to do it all. I’m sorry, America. I can’t.
More than half of all public school students live in poverty. No matter how hard I try, I cannot solve that all by myself.
I try to teach children how to read though many are hungry and traumatized by their home lives. I try to teach children how to write though many haven’t slept the night before, haven’t taken their ADD medication and – to be honest – many haven’t even shown up to school yet.
I most certainly try to get them to pass culturally biased, developmentally inappropriate standardized tests without sucking away every bit of creativity from the classroom. But much of this is beyond my control.
I can’t help that the federal, state and local government are cutting school funding. I can’t help that my impoverished district has few school supplies, the students enter the building without them because their parents are too poor to buy them. But I can – and do – spend out of my own pocket to make sure all of my students have pencil, paper, whatever they need.
I can’t help that officials at every step of the way want me to narrow my teaching to only things that will appear on the yearly standardized test, that they want me to present it as a multiple choice look-a-like item, that they want me to teach by pointing at a Common Core standard as if that held any meaning in a child’s life. But I can make the lesson as creative as possible and offer kids a chance to engage with the material in a way that connects to their real lives, desires and interests.
I can’t help that kids don’t read like they used to and instead experience the bulk of text on the Internet, Facebook or Twitter. I can’t help that most of their real world writing experience is limited to thumbing social media updates, comments on YouTube videos or communicating through a string of colorful emojis. But I can try to offer them meaningful journal topics that make them think and offer them the chance to share their thoughts in a public forum with their peers.
There’s nothing super about any of it. But it’s the kind of things teachers do everyday without anyone noticing. It’s the kind of thing that rarely gets noted on an evaluation, rarely earns you a Thank You card or even an apple to put on your desk.
However, when the day is done, students often are reluctant to leave. They cluster about in the hall or linger in the classroom asking questions, voicing concerns, just relieved that there’s someone there they can talk to. And that’s reason enough for me to stay.
The odds are stacked against me. Help isn’t coming from any corner of our society. But sometimes despite all of that, I’m actually able to get things done.
Everyday it seems I help students understand something they never knew before. I’ve become accustomed to that look of wonder, the aha moment. And I helped it happen!
I get to see students grow. I get to nurture that growth. I get to be there for young ones who have nobody else. It’s a wonderful feeling. I know I’m making a difference.
So, yes, I’m no superman. I have no special powers, no superhuman abilities. I can’t fix all of our social problems all by myself. But I help to make the future. That’s why I do what I do. Thank you for letting me do it.
Steven Singer is a husband, father, teacher, blogger and education advocate. He often writes at his own blog: https://gadflyonthewallblog.wordpress.com.