Like everyone else, I’m heir to the prejudices of my culture. So even though I know firsthand that teaching is a profession, on some level I see it as an act of self-sacrifice, as a hard path undertaken for the greater good.
This might not sound like a prejudice. Not a damaging one, anyway. It paints a generous portrait of teaching as noble and virtuous—a useful antidote to the too-common caricature of educators as lazy, union-fed bureaucrats. This ethic of “the greater good,” in fact, helped draw many of us into the profession. What we lack in salary and prestige, we make up for in civic-mindedness, in moral conviction, in feeling we’ve taken a high road through our professional life.
But all this high-mindedness has a dark underbelly. In painting the choice to teach as an act of self-sacrifice, I believe that we may harm our schools more than we help them.
First, most folks don’t want to sacrifice themselves—at least not for a whole career. Lots of good potential teachers will take a pass on the profession as long as teaching’s selfless nobility remains a selling point. That’s part of why Teach for America only asks for a two-year commitment—not because short stints are better for students, but because it’s the surest way to get hordes of ambitious young people to give teaching a try. Devote two years to the greater good? “Sure!” Two decades? “No thanks. I’ve got my own life to live.”
Second, this notion of self-sacrifice ties into the wild swings in motivation teachers sometimes feel. First, there’s the despairing cry of the martyr: “I shall be a teacher first, and a person second!” We promise to stop being so selfish—what with all our sleeping, eating meals, and occasionally watching Netflix. No more! If our job is to sacrifice, then sacrifice we must.
Soon comes the backlash. After a few exhausting months, burning fumes for fuel, we slide into a self-justifying complacency: “Hey, this is practically volunteer work. I’m a good person just for showing up. No need to kill myself trying.” We’re burned out.
Ruminating on our own self-sacrifice rarely provides stability. Mostly, it keeps the pendulum of our moods forever swinging.
The third problem is that we tend to see charitable, self-sacrificing work as unskilled labor. Helping in a soup kitchen, for example, takes no fancy degree or expensive licensure. Because it’s all about self-sacrifice, you get full marks just for showing up. But this couldn’t be further from the reality of teaching. Even folks with enviable instincts in the classroom need years of practice, reflection, and support to endure the climb from “adequate teacher” to “great teacher.”
Finally, in seeing teaching as charitable work, we risk edging people out of the profession. For folks like me—with no debt, a financially supportive family, and no pressure to fulfill a parent’s dream of upward mobility—teaching’s low salary and low prestige pose no big problem. But that’s less true for folks like Amanda Machado, with student loans to repay, no safety net, and the burden of a family’s expectations and aspirations.
The country needs teachers like Machado, who wrote eloquently about this dilemma even as she left the profession. We need teachers who understand where poor and underserved children come from, who can grasp instinctively the patterns that a privileged transplant like me needs years to figure out. But when others have sacrificed for your sake, making a dramatic sacrifice of your own can feel—paradoxically—selfish and ungrateful.
Okay, real talk: I’ve got no solutions. If you come to “Math with Bad Drawings” expecting answers to the big questions confronting our democracy, then you’ve got another thing coming (namely, stick figures debating which number is truly the loneliest).
But I know this much: The teaching profession doesn’t always benefit from its perception as a vast community service project. It ought to be seen as just what it is: a profession. Raising salaries will require political muscle, but raising prestige can start now. It only demands that we inspect our biases when they surface. It demands that I muffle the voice that whispers, “How noble of you to teach, when you could’ve done so much better for yourself,” even when I don’t want to admit that the voice is, in some way, my own.
EDITS: Tweaked some word choices to clarify the argument, in response to some thoughtful comments on Twitter. I’m still struggling to find quite the right language for my thoughts (which are themselves still evolving). More to follow soon.