The Myth of the Messianic Teacher

I was driving home tonight listening to Kai Ryssdal interviewing Bill Gates on Marketplace, and while I found his pronouncements about technology and the way that schools shunned its adoption to be provocative (and slightly ridiculous -- really? the institutions that made pencils, chalkboards, whiteboards and deskchairs standard equipment doesn't adopt technology? don't you mean your own particular family of technology, Bill? In which you have a rather deeply vested interest?), it wasn't really the technology talk that got me frustrated.

Kai pointed out that Bill has been outspokenly averse to the ideal of small class sizes. Bill didn't disagree, he just used this as a jumping off point. The *most important thing* he said, is that we get excellent teachers in the classroom.

What I'm about to say may blow your mind, but....

He's wrong.

Really, really wrong.

But I know you're with him, not me right now, and I know why you are. I don't know how you couldn't be.

Can you point to that one, amazing teacher that really shook things up for you? That made things come together? That *got* you? That put things in such clear helpful ways that you couldn't help but learn?

I know you can. Because there are LOTS of good teachers.

But I don't think our addiction to the Myth of the Messianic Teacher comes to us from our experience. I think it comes to us from the movies.

I mean you can't watch Dead Poets Society and Stand and Deliver and Music of the Heart and Freedom Writers, Mr. Holland's Opus and Remember the Titans and imagine any change without messianic teachers can we?

I'm pretty sure I'm just as much as a sap as you are. I cried at every one of these movies. Like an embarrassed, blubbering baby. No matter how saccharine and sentimental and melodramatic I found them.

And while it sounds like I'm blaming the movies, I'm not. Because the movies are just one instance of the ways that our culture worships the idea that:


Political and religious discourse are just as obsessed with this trope. Sports commentators, coaches, and fans? Just as bad.

So the story is a big story and it has alot of purchase in our culture. But just because a story is BIG and MYTHIC doesn't make it inherently false does it?

Of course not -- but there are harms to this story that *do* make it not - true.

I believe that a student is much better served by a wide diversity of teachers with varying strengths. I do not believe that good teaching looks the same for every student. I do not believe that good teaching looks the same for every subject. I do not believe that good teaching looks the same in every place or time.

I'm actually suspicious that people who win teaching awards and have a buzz that follows them work against the best possible learning.

The best possible learning consists of the multiple personalities, opportunities, approaches, strengths that students encounter across the arc of hours, days, weeks, terms, semesters and degrees.

While I may connect with a particular teacher in particular ways, my best friend may not. And my children may not. And I may not after a few hours, weeks, months or years.

So this documentary Waiting for Superman insists on -- harps on -- this same point that republican governors are making over and over again -- and that is that: We Need SUPERteachers! That SUPERteachers will somehow be able to overcome all the systemic problems of poverty, bureaucracy, racism, skepticism, class barriers and apathy.

While this myth is as attractive as flashy Come-To-Jesus pizzazz of a tent meeting revival....it's got just about as much staying power.

Learning needs to be distributed across a diverse group of educators -- across a long developmental field of experimental achievement -- across a commitment to incremental and communal growth -- and across a field of institutional and cultural barriers that must be faced communally.

I hope that earlier, when I asked you if you could identify that one teacher? That you accidentally named two, or now, upon reflection can recognize three -- and how there were four more who really didn't work for you but helped several others you knew.

While standing on desks and ripping out pages to salute: O Captain My Captain is a familiar romantic swoon, it's not a a real panacea, and letting go of the delusion might help us advance a more nuanced and sophisticated approach to solving our educational problems.


Marcia said...


Mike said...

"Learning needs to distributed across a diverse group of [PASSIONATE and GIFTED] educators," if I may add to your quote.

In my experiences, many of my high school teachers either hated their jobs or lacked a certain amount of giftedness in the general arena of educating (much like an off-key music leader at a church whom no one ever bothered to point in another area they were more gifted in).

While I understand "giftedness" is a generic term, it fits. I can sit through many different teaching styles and learn, even if I don't particularly LOVE some of their methods. But I can also tell when a teacher doesn't care about their students or what they are teaching. Could've used more passion and less phD in college.

Daniel Rudd said...

this makes sense to me, and it's probably important for us to be thinking about this right now...

BUT, I do hope you realize that you have just forfeited any future opportunity to start your own religious cult.

A throng of potential minions (formerly) standing at the ready--drawn from the innumerable students who have passed through your classroom...

Most of them eagerly named you at paragraph seven, but now, just 24 sentences later, they sit weeping and devotionless.

Their tears mingled with whiskey, scouring search results for "tattoo removal".

RED said...

Great post. I thought of five, your company included.

But don't minimize that influence. You can be sure you and passionate teachers like you left an impact and we former students still talk about you and how you affected us. Not because of some ridiculous movie. But because your passion and influence helped shape and inspire us when we were impressionable and pretentious young things.

I also thought of at least four awful teachers. And believe me, we still think and talk about them as well.