The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the media image of the ‘great’ teacher hurts the real-life good teacher

(Canva) (Roxanna Elden)

This is the first of a five-part series on The Answer Sheet this week about the stories we tell about teaching. All of them will be written by Roxanna Elden, who combines 11 years of experience as a public-school teacher with a decade of speaking about education-related topics.

Her first book, the nonfiction “See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers,” is widely used for teacher training. Her debut novel, “Adequate Yearly Progress,” about a diverse group of educators in an urban high school, is on store shelves in wide distribution beginning this week.

By Roxanna Elden

Public debates about teaching often raise some version of this question: How do we figure out what great teachers do differently and then get other teachers to do it?

The why-can’t-every-teacher-be-more-like-this refrain has long been popular. Media stories about the Next Big Edu-Thing begin by presenting the educator who embodies the new trend, whose rapt students lean forward in their seats, or chatter with purpose in self-directed, project-based learning groups, or interact glitchlessly with their school’s new blended-lesson tech tools. Focusing on great teachers seems to be a win for everyone — certainly, it’s less fraught than having to debate what makes a bad teacher.

As someone who spent more than a decade at the front of a classroom, though, these stories didn’t exactly inspire me to new heights in my own pedagogy. In fact, on a bad day, stories starring super-teachers made me feel worse than tales trashing bad ones.

After all, I knew I didn’t fit the media stereotypes of terrible teachers: feet up on the desk, newspaper obscuring my face, tequila bottle hidden in a drawer. But why, I couldn’t help asking myself, was the real-life classroom in front of my tired eyes so much less . . . great than the ones in all those news stories?

When teachers start asking themselves this question, it’s often on a day that began at 5 a.m., while they’re standing in front of a class full of students who are acting less than perfect, teaching a lesson using copy paper they bought with their own money.

More problematic than how great-teacher stories make educators feel, however, is the way these stories shape the public’s ideas about what it looks like when teachers are doing their jobs well.

Even in this essay, I may have already lost the sympathy of some readers by suggesting that students act “less than perfect.” For others, the phrase “standing in front of a class” will suggest someone who lectures at students instead of differentiating to meet individual needs. The reference to copy paper will prompt hand-wringing about teachers who give kids endless worksheets.

That’s three slip-ups in a single paragraph. What kind of teacher are we talking about here, anyway?

The answer, in many cases, is: a good one.

For the purposes of this article, let’s define good teachers as professionals who most parents, students, and colleagues would agree do the job of teaching well. Perhaps they think of the job as a “calling,” but not necessarily.

Likely, they possess some of the traits that can make a great teacher: charisma or creativity, passion for the subject matter or patience for listening, authoritative presence or attention to detail. But they don’t have all of these traits, especially because some of the traits contradict one another.

Some days they’ll have moments of greatness. Every once in a while, like anyone at any job, they just won’t bring their best selves to work. But most of the time, they’ll be persistently, unremarkably good. Might that be enough?

The gut response is often to insist that every child deserves a great teacher in every classroom. And . . . well, children deserve lots of things. One of these is a teacher with enough emotional reserves to show compassion when needed, and to bring consistency, focus, and enthusiasm to the work of providing instruction, bell to bell, from September to June. An emotional rubber band stretched to its breaking point not a recipe for great teaching. It is a recipe for avoidable mistakes.

The focus on great teachers can also implicitly suggest that educators shouldn’t need luxuries like administrators who handle schoolwide discipline, or advance warning before major changes in policy or curriculum, or enough desks. This is not an expectation we bring to our assessment of other professions; we would never applaud the example of, say, a no-excuses firefighter who doesn’t need appropriate firefighting equipment. (Or starts a Go Fund Me page to buy that needed equipment.)

My novel, “Adequate Yearly Progress,” follows several teachers at an urban high school as their professional lives impact their personal lives and vice versa. While writing it, I spoke with hundreds of fellow educators, sat in on classes, watched football practices, and attended conferences and trainings.

My hope was to capture teachers not as heroes, but as what they are: a diverse group of sometimes heroic, often flawed, and occasionally hilarious humans doing a complex job that no one ever fully masters.

These are the teachers who make up the majority of our teaching workforce. They have commitments outside of school and bills to pay. They, and we, stand to benefit from making sure teaching is a sustainable career.

It’s fine to ask what great teachers do differently, but let’s also ask what good teachers do mostly the same that we don’t want to ruin in the process.