Teaching as Self-Sacrifice

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.

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103 thoughts on “Teaching as Self-Sacrifice

  1. This is great. Excellent post!

    This perception of the profession is closely tied to the perception of teaching as a women’s profession in ways that I can’t entirely wrap my head around.

    Before teaching was a women’s profession, it was adumping ground for failed academics:

    The teacher of the village school was usually a man, as were the teachers in urban areas. A student of the ministry or at college to learn a profession, he taught not for love but to earn money during his long winter vacation. Farther from the city, the teacher was often a college dropout or a fellow with some handicap that ill-suited him for farm life.

    During the 19th century, teaching transitioned to a profession for women, and the notion that teaching was an essentially motherly act was part of what justified the movement of women teachers. (This wasn’t necessarily an insidious argument at the time, since women used it to justify their ability to be professionally responsible and leave the domestic realm.)

    Is the perception of teachers as saintly a result of society’s assumptions about women and the work that they’re fit for? That’s definitely a huge part of it, but back in the 19th century the seeds of the “self-sacrifice” vision were already planted before the feminization of teaching. After all, teaching is only a sacrifice if it’s unattractive, and men didn’t want to become teachers back then.

    This is a long way of saying that I think there are two related, but separate, issues that have historically contributed to the cultural perception of teachers. First, that teaching is profession that is mostly female, and society has assumptions about the work that women are fit for. The second is a perception — and it must be one that predates the involvement of women in teaching — that teaching is just unattractive work. (Because of kids? Because of its ease? Because it was historically unimportant work?)

    1. Yeah, that’s interesting stuff.

      I see two components of the “self-sacrifice” view: (1) That the job is not desirable on its own merits for the worker, and (2) That the job nevertheless provides high value to society.

      I think you’re right about the historical lineage of Part 1, the view of teaching as undesirable and low-prestige (the “those who can’t, teach” perspective). Historically female professions are devalued, and (I speculate blindly) perhaps there’s something in the American do-it-yourself ethic that denigrates the role of the formal classroom educator.

      1. A lot of excuses are given as to why educators should not be paid more – it’s women’s work, anyone can do it, teachers are really glorified babysitters, schools are failing our kids so why give them more money, and so on. I’ve often wondered how many people actually believe any of these reasons, or do most people use these excuses to support whatever it is they are debating at the time?

  2. One more quick thought that also riffs off my reading of Women’s True Profession. Talk of the “professionalization” of teaching has a historical precedent (source?) in some of the union movements of the early part of the 20th Century. Back then, the unions were attempts for working class folks to organize and protect themselves against oppression.

    Women teachers were also disenfranchised by male administrators, but there was significant resistance to union organizing because of class assumptions. (Or they felt uneasy about allying themselves with the cause of the working class unions.) After all, many women teachers were born or married in to decidedly non-working class families. Unions were for working class men.

    In talk of “professionalizing” teaching, there’s an active discomfort of being treated like working class men or women. But shouldn’t that give us pause? Why should teaching, in particular, be professionalized? What fields shouldn’t be professionalized?

    Apologies in advance for ignorance. I wrote both of these comments with confidence because this is the internet but I haven’t read broadly in the history of education or teaching, and my comments are likely to lack subtleties and contain falsities.

    1. No apologies necessary – I’m enjoying the conversation.

      I could actually use a little clarification. Are you saying that talk of the “professionalization” of teaching has the effect of distancing teachers from the working class, or of uniting teachers with the working class?

      I find the idea of working-class solidarity personally appealing, though I think that the current structure of most teaching contracts (fairly low but guaranteed pay; good retirement benefits; a few years of next-to-zero job security followed by a few decades of near-perfect job security; relatively few opportunities for leadership even as career advances) probably isn’t optimal, even though a similar contract might make some sense for, say, a transit workers’ union.

      1. I was saying that talk of “professionalization” has the effect of distancing us from the working class. When we talk about the need for teachers to be treated like professionals, the subtext is that we want to be treated like lawyers, doctors and managers, and less like transit workers, construction workers, etc.

        Ultimately, I find it mind-boggling to try to figure out what sort of job teaching ought to be. All that I can reduce the question down to is (1) what would be best for the kids? and (2) what would be best for me?

        1. There is a real difference between jobs and professions that isn’t tied to class or income, though. You do professional work based on what you’ve learned from books, with or without the help of teachers. Doctor, lawyer, to some extent manager are professions: so is teacher. You do a job based on whatever skills and wits you have. Ditch-digging is a job, so is entrepreneur, and so is President of the United States.

        2. Job vs. profession seems like a valuable distinction.

          Even within the category of “profession,” though, there’s a lot of variety. Should teaching be like actuarial work, with a long battery of difficult tests to ensure mastery? Should it be like medicine, with a lengthy apprenticeship period (akin to residency)? Should it be like managerial work, with a one- or two-year master’s degree sufficing, and then lots of on-the-job professional development?

        3. Great discussion; I’d comment under John below but it won’t let me.

          T my thinking, the subtext around being a profession is the space between practitioners and the layperson. That is, if a patient stepped into a circle of a medical team discussing her medical care, it would sound like gibberish to her but every member of that team would know exactly what the others meant, despite the complexity of their discourse. This “jargon” enables the members of the profession to communicate quickly, efficiently, and across space and time. This space isn’t to elevate the profession above the layperson, but rather to ensure consistency across practitioners. I’m seeing the flaws in my own thinking as I write this but my mental models remains that teaching is a craft – there’s an art AND a science. The science is what makes educators a profession. The art is what makes it incredibly hard.

        4. Revisiting this: another difference between professions and jobs is that job-holders answer only to their bosses: their only question is “How high?” Professionals, on the other hand, have professional standards and professional ethics: they answer ultimately to their peers in the profession. (Clients don’t disbar lawyers, other lawyers do that.)

  3. I don’t see teaching as a charitable act, but I do see it as a noble act. In my eyes, good teachers are second in prestige only to successful research scientists (please forgive me for saying that). If only kids would worship teachers instead of pop stars…

    1. Yeah, the responses to this post have helped me see the value in that “charitable” vs. “noble” distinction, which I blurred a little in my original framing.

      I think lots of jobs have the potential to be noble – teaching, academic research, medicine (nurses, doctors, EMTs), police work, firefighting, artists, sanitation work… really, every job properly done should contribute to the health and success of society. (Yes, even investment banking.) And it’s okay to pick a profession partly because you value its contribution to the world. That just shouldn’t be your ONLY reason to pick it.

  4. Excellent post.
    This actually came up with me today when a student asked, “Why the hell did you want to become a teacher?” My stock response to this was often the ‘public good’ argument, but having read this post I thought twice this time.

    “Maybe the public good argument implies that I don’t want to be there or that I don’t enjoy their company,” I thought, “Maybe this perception contributes to the antagonism that some students feel with their teachers”.

    So instead of my stock ‘public good’ argument I instead looked incredulous and asked, “What do you mean? Teaching is awesome!”

    1. Thanks, I’m glad the post struck a chord with you. I like your answer to the “Why are you doing this?” question. That’s close to how I eventually came to answer the same question: “Well, someone told me how cool you guys were, and I didn’t quite believe it, so I decided to come teach you so I could verify for myself.”

      1. I have to admit that one of the reasons I give as an answer to the ‘Why are you doing this?’ question is related to ego gratification. The idea that I might be able to make some important difference in someone’s life. Not necessarily rooted in sacrifice, but related to making myself feel good by doing something to help others.

  5. It used to be that teachers were highly esteemed. They were sought after and recruited. Where, oh where, has that gone? When and where did the perception of our profession change and go? You are not alone in wondering these questions.

  6. I don’t want to be seen as charitable or noble for entering the profession I chose and doing it well. I want to be recognized for doing it well. I don’t have a problem with the amount of money I make, but I wish I had room for advancement based on experience and continuing ed without necessarily having to achieve another specialized degree. I have a masters and 15 years teaching experience and continuing ed at graduate level, but cannot “move up” without a specific degree at graduate or doctoral level. I work hard and I get paid for it, as everyone should for a job well done. Don’t think I think of myself as as angel, noble or charitable. Know that I care for all people, therefore the kids I come in contact with everyday, am skilled at my job and do it well. Give me the respect you would give anyone for that.

  7. Great post! I agree with backuphill! What happened to the high regard we once had for teachers. I will never forget the tremendous respect my father had for a friend who was an elementary school teacher and he received his degrees from Duke and Harvard!

  8. It’s too bad that teaching is sometimes a thankless profession. Honestly, until I became roommates with a girl who was a high school teacher, I had ZERO clue how many hours teachers put into their work. Sure, I understood that they had to make and mark tests, but the amount of hours is beyond what I had thought it was. She puts about 60 hours per week into her job. That includes teaching, making and marking tests as well as the after school programs each teacher is expected to lead (she happens to teach archery). So now, whenever I head anyone complain that teachers get two months off of vacation per year, I tell them that teachers deserve that break to make up for the many, many, many hours of unpaid overtime they put in to teaching during the school year. Teachers have my respect–at least the dedicated ones.

    1. Yes, they are hilarious! With your permission, Ben, I’d like to use your, “But, I’m just ladling” drawing. I have an idea for article which will compare my hobby (cooking) and my career (teaching) on different levels. Of course, I will credit you when I use your illustration.

  9. This is a really important point that I am glad I came across. If we are aiming to be charitable does that then suggest something about the children
    we teach? I never thought of that before. Being a teacher is part of my identity.

  10. I see a lot of myself in the beginnings of my career as a high school teacher reflected here. I think one reason I’ve managed to stick around for the last 8 years is my reason for beginning to teach. When folks ask me why I wanted to be a teacher, I respond with, “Because I love literature.” In some ways, this takes the burden off of me as being obligated to “fix” people and be the savior of a generation. No one person can do this. Also, I resolved to never be a martyr, especially as they began furloughing us. That being said, I’m not bitter nor am I careless. I give myself 110% when at work, and then I go home. I don’t bring papers home, and this allows me to truly rest, avoiding burn out.

    I’ve struck a decent balance I believe, but I do see many many teachers burn out and leave based on the patterns you so awesomely described on your white boards. Too often, we do get caught up in the Angel in the Classroom image when in reality we’re human. And it’s doing no one any favors, neither us nor our students, to pretend otherwise. Thanks for breathing a bit of reality into this dilemma that many people face when teaching. It happens all too often.

  11. Having attempted a career as a high school English teacher, and then dropping out because I had difficulty finding steady employment, I have full respect and sympathy for long-term teachers. I reached the point where the balance of positives (seeing the light turn on in students eyes, connecting with them, laughing with them) were out-weighed by the negatives (lack of administrative support, lack of job security, no personal time). I was burned out, and I felt it was better to step out of the job pool and let someone who still had the light and energy students need to step in.

  12. I started teaching at 22, and I knew after a few months that I would need a “plan B” (and planned accordingly). I taught high school math for 9 years until this year. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it!

  13. I love the honesty and harsh reality of this article. The fun factor has been removed from teaching completely. It should not have to be a struggle. For many of us, myself included I find myself overworked, unsupported and generally struggling on a daily basis because of the demands of the job. A lot of it is unnecessary paper work and keeping up appearances whilst important issues such as the children’s general well being and happiness in the classroom is left on the back burner. I fear things will only get worse.

  14. This is wonderful!
    I’m getting back into school, working toward my English degree, and have been contemplating putting it towards being a teacher, if nothing else because they will always be needed in the world.
    You’re right, it is a whole mess of self-sacrifice, and reading this gives me so much more respect for the educators that put up with me and everyone else while I was in school.
    This was really eye-opening, and if anything, somehow managed to inspire me to look more into becoming a teacher, if for no other reason that if one wants to change the system, you’ve got to work within the system (or appear to).

  15. Lol. The pictures tell the story pretty well, and are hilarious. I volunteer as an art teacher because our elementary schools don’t have real art teachers. I love it and some of the kids have said they want to be artists. Teaching art may be different, because you can teach and hold a career in what you teach at the same time. But I’d love to see them get full time art teachers back in the schools. And from my experience volunteering, it’s a very rewarding job.

  16. I was a teacher for over forty years. Some were good and some challenging. I blog about some of it. If you want to read a few I think you will put a smile or a frown on your face.

  17. This is great! I appreciate the illustrations just as much as your words. I recently graduated with my degree in English. I have found myself thinking that teaching was my only means of use for this degree. I had even begun the process of getting my teacher’s certification. I found myself becoming extremely unhappy by the thought of being a teacher! I was being influenced by the “compliments” that I was getting once people realized I was looking towards teaching. Their compliments weren’t rewarding. Your analysis of it all hit the nail on the head. You’ve reinforced my current decision to turn away from teaching. I believe teaching is a great gift that should be thought on carefully. I don’t want to add on to the existing problems which exist in our school system.

    What is the solution? Oh, there’s a blog….

    1. Do not teach unless you cannot imagine being happy doing anything else. Seriously. It’s NOT a sacrifice if that is how a teacher feels about teaching. For me, on the edge of retiring, the thought of NOT teaching is, usually, quite a sad thought. I will miss it very much and the problems have never been so “problematic” than I ever wanted to leave the profession. I honestly have loved teaching since the first student I taught as a volunteer teacher in a literacy program. I taught him to read. The feeling I got from that I still get very often in my classrooms. It is incomparable. 🙂

  18. Yep. As long as teaching is viewed in this light it will also continue to be thought as something anyone can do (like ladeling soup) and people such as I will work for 35 years, full-time+ without tenure.

  19. Not just in profession of teachers, there are many jobs that I consider as noble as what teachers does but left unnoticed nor recognized much. I applaud the teachers. My sister is a teacher. My best teacher- my parents – taught me what is unconditional love and getting inspirations from ordinary situations.

  20. Very interesting post – lots of food for thought here. Funny as I’ve been playing with the idea of becoming a teacher recently. I already teach English as a Foreign Language, but have been looking at training to work in a mainstream school. I like your distinction between salary and prestige – raising salaries may indeed take time and political will, but the choice to value and recognise the work as a highly skilled profession is a shift that can begin immediately, internally. I think the historical and global context is also interesting here. I’d have to research more but I believe this attitude to the profession has not always been the case, and is perhaps a result of the evolution of other and even new (IT etc) professions which have become more desirable, and yet all were dependent on, and grew from, the availability of a decent education to all…which is a reasonably recent phenomena, and one still not in place all over the world. Perhaps too there has been a not so subtle shift in attitudes to money. Now a large salary is perhaps seen to be of greater importance than whether the work is of any obvious social benefit, which makes me sad. OK – enough! Great post:-)

  21. This is nice.(plus the pictures)..I really believe teachers are really great. (That is why I choose this profession too. You have to sacrifice a lot of your time and energy in teaching. But the return is not always what we expect (salaries, and students performance). So we have to be more understanding to the needs of the students and as well as the people who hire teachers (admins). =)

  22. Almost two decades in the trenches and I can relate to your concerns. Good teachers aren’t respected or paid enough.
    From the other side, I see many college students who choose to teach, changing majors from science, math, premed, etc, mainly because it’s the easier college degree to complete. Not the best way to produce the best teachers. I’ve taught with some of them–they don’t want to be there and they stink up the profession for three decades.
    (I’d draw a stinking stick figure here to illustrate but I left my dry erase markers in my office.)

    1. Great post! I taught 6th English for less than a year and had the worst experience. The kids were unruly, administration awful and teachers overworked. We didn’t get our mentors until 2 months into the school year but by that time I was already burned out! It’s very sad that my heart wasn’t in it. Perhaps it was because I didn’t like the school, but I just wasn’t excited about the whole process. There are components I miss, such as my origami club with 6th-8th kids but it was mostly my lack of control and minimal work-life balance that caused me to leave. It was one of the hardest decisions I ever made-to leave mid-year. It’s been 3 yrs since I’ve been in the classroom. Looking back, I think I could have been a good teacher but given the right tools in the beginning.

      Many of my friends are teachers and surprisingly don’t think they’ll stay in the profession until retirement. Everyone’s experience is different but I agree with others that you really have to go into this profession for the right reasons. It irks me when people say, “If (blank) doesn’t work out, I’ll just be a teacher.” As if it’s super easy!
      There are other ways besides teaching to feel fulfilled and make a difference.

  23. Brilliant post! So true! :PP Unfortunately, teachers sweaty hard work, their efforts are not appreciated anymore by students or parents at all. The high regard students had for them faded away slowly but surely… :/

  24. This is a great post. I’m currently a student working on getting my teaching degree for special education k-5. I have worked the last 8 years in early education though and trying to run a preschool class and showing parents that what you’re doing is more than just “babysitting” (a word that I’ve come to hate) is next to impossible. For $20k a year I could find a much easier job that would probably pay a lot more but it wouldn’t be as rewarding.

  25. Teacher are those ppl, who at the beginning of the year are so enthusiastic with full of optimism, and at the end of they year they look like real WAR HEROES :DDDDDDD

  26. Reblogged this on Little Notes and commented:
    Teachers……enthusiastic & full of optimism at the beginning of the year, and at the end of the year look like REAL WAR HEROES…….

  27. Unfortunately, we live in an age where teachers are expected to teach children many things they should have learned at home. Things like manners and basic hygiene are good examples. The current system seeks to make teachers responsible for everything while absolving the parents. The system, the parents and the teachers must all work together to properly educate the children of this country. We must put an end to rushing to blame the teacher when juniors test scores are low.

  28. I am always amazed at people making excuses why teachers do not need to be paid any more. Then, the next thing you know, these same citizens make more demands of what they want us teachers to do. In what other profession, is more work demanded without any financial compensation? Better yet, in what profession are employees given more tasks and responsibilities, but told that most likely there won’t be any money in the budget to give them a raise for the next 3-5 years?

  29. Thanks for the thoughtful (and funny) piece. I’ve always admired teachers but I had never thought about how my perception of them as self-sacrificial was not only misplaced but a little condescending too. Good luck

    -Valentine
    Flux: Encountering Adulthood
    http://www.fluxforum.com

  30. Very interesting post! I work as an English teacher in the high school system in Japan. My job is a bit different since I’m temporary, but one thing that strikes me is the way teachers are perceived here compared to back home (Canada for me). It does seem to still be one of the more respected positions in society here, and teachers are accorded the same label as doctors, politicians, lawyers and martial arts instructors. There are problems with the education system here, too, of course, but I think the way teachers are perceived in general here is pretty good in comparison!

  31. I don’t think educators are paid fairly for the job that they do. They should be paid like sports stars…and the sports stars, like teachers. Thank you for your sacrifice.

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