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Teachers: Heroes, Victims, or Somewhere in Between?

Teachers come in all shapes and sizes. Some of us are good teachers and some of us should have quit a long time ago. Some of us are excited about life while others tame thoughts of suicide with daily doses of Prozac. Some teachers are madly in love with their spouses while others enjoy illicit affairs after school. If any of this is shocking to you, than you may not have realized this simple fact: Teachers are people, too. We breathe. We cry. We struggle.

The fact that teachers are regular people with normal joys and pains is rarely acknowledged. We are often represented as caricatures. Look no further than the education reform debate.

On one end, teachers are expected to be heroes (that's why the film title Waiting for Superman was so effective). We are commonly billed as the primary solution to fixing the education mess. All students would learn if teachers would only work longer days, work longer years, teach to higher standards, engage more parents, address students' socio-emotional needs, differentiate more instruction, use better assessments, get more training to advance our pedagogy, and not ask for or expect to get an increase in pay.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, teachers are portrayed as the victims. They label any criticism of teacher performance as "teacher-bashing"; reject any policy that is cloaked in "education reform"; dismiss low student achievement data because standardized tests are unfair and meaningless; believe that any wealthy donor who invests in public education is ultimately out to privatize the system to gain more profits and power; and argue that gains made in the classroom will be counteracted by the effects of poverty.

There are teachers on both ends of the spectrum, but I think the majority of us live somewhere in the middle. Teachers are not teaching tools—we are people. We think in many shades of gray. It's not because we are indecisive; it's because both ends of the spectrum are correct in different ways. So often we are forced to choose between the two camps. We pick a side, and then we sit there shifting uncomfortably in our seats, feeling misunderstood, pressured, or out numbered.*

I worked with a highly educated teacher who lived in a motel, and got "beat like a man" by her husband if she said the wrong thing. Another teacher told me that she left her husband for two weeks. Though she was always upbeat in front of students and colleagues, she spent her prep crying at her desk.

In fact, at 2:40a.m. today, I got an email from a male teacher requesting prayer. It read:
"I wonder if you have a knowledge base that I may draw from. Are you aware of any quality of life grants afforded to teachers? Because of suffering from credit card fraud, I have the need to raise funds for rent. Our landlord is trying to be patient, but we still need to pay."

Most teachers don't want to be portrayed as heroes or as victims. We don't want to be political pawns, either. We are people with a job to do. For many of us, it's more than a job, but a vocation. We have a passion to help kids learn. It is time for teachers to speak out for ourselves, even if what we say will contradict our teachers union or the head of our school districts.

But our discourse must be respectful and solutions-oriented. I believe teachers, with all our many differences, can come up with a realistic, sustainable plan to help increase student achievement. A plan that won't make us heroes, martyred by burnout. A plan that won't make us victims, always saying "no" to progressive ideas.

*A powerful roundtable discussion hosted by the Center for Public Justice on June 19 (including a keynote speech by Ted Williams, political science professor for the City Colleges of Chicago and Chicago State University) inspired this blog post.

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