The myth and reality of heroic teaching

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Dec 9, 2016

A popular theme in movies about K–12 education is the archetype of the heroic classroom teacher. From Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poets Society, to Richard Dreyfus’s character in Mr. Holland’s Opus, audiences are inspired by teachers whose dedication and passion changes their students’ lives forever. And lest we dismiss the archetype as just endearing fiction, many of the most popular stories are based on real teachers, including Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver, Ron Clark in The Ron Clark Story, and Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers.

Unfortunately, part of the reason why movies and society celebrate these teachers is because they are so rare. Mainstream society often fails to appreciate that being just an average teacher is incredibly hard work. To begin with, effective teaching is an art and a science that takes most teachers years of training and practice to develop. By itself, supervising young people is exhausting; then, add to that responsibility the work of trying to maximize the productive use of every minute of the school day in order to help students master rigorous academic standards. On a typical school day, after five or six hours of teaching, teachers’ afternoons and evenings are often packed with additional responsibilities, including preparing lesson plans, grading assignments, fulfilling professional development requirements, and performing other school-related duties like coaching sports teams, advising clubs, and leading performing arts groups.

Heroic teachers must do all of these things. But on top of regular teaching duties, heroic teachers do things like tutoring a struggling student on Saturdays to help him catch up on concepts he’s missed, helping a student after school with his college applications, visiting a student at home to build relationships with her parents, designing custom learning activities for particular students in order to catch their interests, or pulling aside a student during a free moment to offer urgently needed advice or emotional support. These stories are what make the romantic ideal of the heroic teacher so endearing, and many real-world teachers strive to live up to this ideal.

But the stories also represent an ideal that, for most teachers, is unsustainable, even in the movies. In Stand and Deliver, Jaime Escalante overworks himself until he ends up hospitalized. In Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell’s dedication to her students costs her her marriage. By the time most teachers finish their long day of formal responsibilities, few have the time or energy for the heroic extra mile. When typical teachers face the choice between being average or being heroic, many choose average impact and a balanced life over heroic impact on the edge of self-destruction. Thus, the tales of the heroic teacher are more often myth than reality; the exception rather than the norm.

Nonetheless, we need heroic teachers. We need teachers who don’t just cover their lesson material and call it good, but who instead doggedly do whatever it takes to ensure their students beat the odds and defy status quo expectations. We need teachers who see their work as a noble act of leadership and who dedicate themselves to changing their students’ mindsets, goals, and futures for the better.

The good news is that heroic teaching is now more possible and sustainable than ever before. With new technologies and the new instructional models they enable, schools are reinventing the roles and the work of teachers such that more teachers have capacity to step up to acts of heroic teaching.

Much as hydraulic excavators augment a builder’s physical strength for moving earth, or high-powered telescopes magnify an astronomer’s power to see beyond the stars, innovations in education can amplify a teacher’s capability to impact her students’ lives. The power of these technologies works in two ways. First, new technologies multiply a teacher’s ability to identify and address students’ individual learning needs in order to ensure that every student experiences academic success. Second, technology streamlines and automates some routine teaching tasks—such as taking attendance, lecturing, providing practice on basic facts and skills, and grading some types of assessments—so that teachers have more time during the school day for the heroic and human aspects of teaching.

In schools of the future, teachers will always be an indispensable part of high-quality education because machines can’t imitate the acts of heroic teaching. But with the help of performance-augmenting technologies, teachers will have an unprecedented ability to impact their students’ lives for the better.

This week, I published a paper that describes in greater detail how technology can amplify teachers’ effectiveness. To learn more about this historic opportunity, download “Teaching in the Machine Age: How innovation can make bad teachers good and good teachers better.”

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Thomas Arnett

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.