Friday, May 22, 2015

The Myth of the Hero Teacher

Oh, that hero teacher.

Larger than life. Leaping tall filing cabinets with a single bound. Taking a few moments out of every day to personally reach out to every single student and making that child feel special, while at the same time inspiring greater levels of smartitude just by sheer force of teacherly awesomeness. The Hero Teacher shoots expectation rays at students, making them all instant geniuses.

The Hero Teacher is featured in movies and television, from Sidney Portier's Sir to William Daniels' Mr. Feeney. The Hero Teacher usually has only one class (Feeney is the ultimate example, staying with his students through their entire academic career), and limitless time and resources to Change Their Lives. The Hero Teacher is committed, miraculous, transformative.

The Hero Teacher is also a giant blight on education.

The Hero Teacher haunts the dreams of real live teachers, taunting us with a level of perfection we will never achieve. We will skip over the 100 students we reached to obsess about the twenty we didn't connect to at all because if we were real Hero Teachers, we would have connected with every last student.

Worse, the specter of the Hero Teacher tortures and twists education policy as well.

See, if Hero Teachers are real, then our education policy should be built around finding and retaining them. Hero Teachers are imbued with some teacherly gift (maybe they're born with it, maybe they were infected by another Hero Teacher) and so we don't have to develop and support such people-- we just have to find them. It's possible that some of them aren't even teachers, so we need to make it easy to bring them into the schools from whatever line of work they're currently in. They certainly don't need any special training, because a Hero Teacher just has It.

If Hero Teachers are real, we don't have to address the system. We don't need to build a school that is a community with systems and processes for providing support and development. We don't need to try to develop a good system; we just have to root out the Bad Teachers and hire more Hero Teachers.

This is what reformsters are talking about when they proclaim that we must find the most excellent teachers and pay them really well (though a Hero Teacher would never actually ask for a  big salary, because noble)-- find the Hero Teachers and get them to teach everyone. Maybe they could have teaching assistants, or maybe they can just teach 200 students at once (because, after all, they are awesome Hero Teachers). Maybe this is appealing in part because ten well-paid Hero Teachers are still cheaper than fifty moderately-paid regular old teachers. And the as-yet-unrealized requirement that states have a plan for moving highly effective teachers to problem schools is also based on the Hero Teacher story-- we find a Hero Teacher and we send that Hero off to trouble spots, where Hero Teacher will heroically Fix It All.

It's not poverty. It's not systemic failures. It's not crumbling infrastructure. It's not a lack of resources (because a Hero Teacher can MacGyver instruction out of two rocks and a shoelace). It's not the absence of a system to build community, stability, and the room and help to grow as a professional.

No, it's just that we haven't found enough Hero Teachers yet (or maybe, as some reformsters posit, we actually need to find Hero Principals or Hero Superintendents or Hero Charter School Operator).

The Hero Teacher narrative is appealing, but it's lazy, and it lets everybody else in the school and community escape responsibility-- the responsibility to do the best they can for the pieces that they work with, the responsibility to be an active part of a community, the responsibility to help build and grow and lift up the people around them. Effective schools do not run on Hero Teachers, but on strong, stable, supportive communities, and that is no myth.


  1. And, I might add, the Hero Teacher myth is also dangerous to newbie teachers who burn out when they realize they are not the next Hero Teacher., as well as harmful to students. The Hero Teacher creates the sense that the students are victims who need to be saved. All in all, I HATE the Hero Teacher myth.

  2. I'm making a documentary film on this subject. Check out to learn more, or visit our Youtube channel:

    Check out our project and share as you see fit. You article is totally on point by the way. Thanks for writing. We shared your post on our Facebook page:

    1. Sounds really interesting and important. I'm looking forward to seeing it. I also followed links from your website to Angela's op-ed and from there to the website/organization she founded,, where I found anecdotes/posts that reminded me of the first article by Peter that I read, called The Hard Part, from Dec. 2013. These posts explain how pretty much all teachers feel and what they'd like people who aren't teachers to know. It sounds like your film will demonstrate this, which will be a really important way of reaching people.

  3. Excellent insights, and so true. And I especially love the leaping tall filing cabinets, shooting expectation rays, and MacGyvering instruction.

  4. A lot of schools don't like teachers to share their knowledge or gifts and then teachers aren't comfortable being themselves. Heroic efforts are needed just to maintain the status quo and survive the system. This does lead to burnout.

  5. You left out Erin Gruwell from "Freedom Writers." One class she followed through high school, to college and then left teaching. In the meantime she worked three jobs and ruined her marriage. Thanks for pointing out the danger in this Hero Teacher archetype.

  6. As a retired teacher and sometime-writer, I thank you for this piece. I've had the same thought for years and wanted to put it into words. Good job! By the way, I HATE Hollywood movies on education where this Super Teacher idea is always prevalent. The best movie I know on education is the French movie "Entre les Murs"
    with the American title, "The Class." Worth a watch.

  7. The real heroes are the everyday teachers who love their students and work hard to inspire them to learn. Plain and simple!

  8. Your words made me think of one of my favorite poems by William Stafford, "Wisdom is having things right in your life and knowing why. If you do not have things right in your life you will be overwhelmed. You may be heroic, but you will not be wise..." What students need most of all is the opportunity to be with wise adults.