Teaching: if you aren’t dead yet, you aren’t doing it well enough

So another World Teachers Day has come and gone. All the build-up, all the excitement, and it just seems to go by in a flash. One minute we’re all hanging our stockings up in the classroom ready to be filled with gifts from our generous pupils, the next minute we’re all sick of spending the week eating leftovers from the big World Teachers Day feasts laid on for us by our families and friends.

I love all of the traditions of World Teachers Day: chugging a yard of tea, the enormous full-sized teacher-shaped chocolate cake (bagsy the heart – it’s the biggest bit!), marking under the mistletoe, pinning the grade on the lesson observation (blindfolded, of course), being allowed to go the toilet, the Airing of Grievances, the singing of teacher carols (“Mark! The Herald Angels Sing”), the Returning of the Glue Sticks, and – the best bit – all the inspirational memes.

The memes range from the uplifting to the banal via the truthy, just the way we all love them. But some memes tap into a well-worn trope that does more damage than good: that of the teacher as self-immolating martyr. See exhibit A:

Quite often promoted by non-teachers, this trope says one thing: good teachers kill themselves for their jobs.

The valorisation of teaching as a form of ritual suicide is subtle but pervasive. Once you realise it, you begin to notice it all around. It appears when the Chartered College of Teaching platforms speakers telling us that “teaching is a way of being, not just a job.” And it’s in motivational posters telling us that we should “give meaningful feedback on students’ work even if [our] pile of books seems endless”.

What of those teachers who aren’t prepared to give their whole self over for their job? Those teachers who put their family first or who want to have energy left at the end of the day for other interests? Maybe they should just accept the fact that they aren’t good teachers? If they simply won’t consume themselves to light the way for others, should they feel guilty? Why aren’t they prepared to throw themselves on the funeral pyre like all the other good teachers around them?

The thing is that people don’t share these sorts of ideas because they want to attack teachers. The intentions are actually good; it’s just that such ideas are also completely unthinking. People assume that it flatters teachers: “anyone who is prepared to self-destruct just so that every child understands quadratic equations/oxbow lakes/pointillism is a truly an angel.” But this kind of hagiography actually damages teachers. It allows the system to tell teachers they should always be doing more. It allows the system to say: this is what teaching is; this is what you have to live up to if you want to feel you are doing enough.

We really need to shift this narrative that teaching should be all-consuming and that self-destruction is part and parcel of our job. We can’t complain of workload issues at the same time as promoting this harmful shibboleth.

Perhaps years ago I might have seen the ‘candle’ meme above and not noticed the deleterious subtext. I might have seen it as a celebration of our job. But after years of full time teaching, I realise how unsustainable this attitude is, how damaging it is.

And this realisation means that I should probably throw away all of these old memes I made years ago when I thought I was celebrating teaching too. Silly, silly old me.

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13 thoughts on “Teaching: if you aren’t dead yet, you aren’t doing it well enough”

  1. Reblogged this on Shropshire English Tutor and commented:
    An interesting and very hot topic at the moment. I certainly do disagree with the idea that ‘great’ teachers are only those whom commit their whole lives to the profession. I know teachers from previous generations who were ‘great’ and very dedicated and loved by many students yet they still had their own life outside of the job. Unfortunately the profession is very different these days. This is one of the reasons I enjoy working solo as a private tutor so much. I feel much less restricted in how and what I teach and I can cut out a lot of the unnecessary and tedious work I would have to do if I were in a school. I’d love to hear the views of any other professionals on this subject. Feel free to comment below.

  2. Really like the blog and memes! Dejan Lovren, from what I’ve witnessed as a Liverpool fan, abandons his marking duties in a way I can only aspire to 😂

  3. Absolutely right on, and the reason that I had to quit my teaching job to realize that I am actually better at everything when I don’t spend all my time working or feeling guilty about not working.

    Sadly the attitude is not limited to teaching, although the promulgation of it by teachers manages to convince many that having boundaries is being a bad worker. There are too many people who think you must choose between working all the time and being a lazy pud who sucks away a paycheck for nothing, and the first group are valiant and worthy and everyone else is in the second group. See, for example, those who assert “Teaching has never been a 9-5 job” who fail to recognize that it now seems to be a 6am-midnight job.

  4. So true. But you forgot to mention that teachers are also supposed to declare personal bankruptcy as part of the job requirement. “Do it for the children” is the mantra when they want you to work without getting paid or you haven’t seen a raise in years.
    Plus if you don’t spend thousands of your money buying writing utensils, paper, and candy for your students you must be a bad teacher and not love your students. I wrote a piece about teacher martyrs a few years back https://kafkateach.wordpress.com/2014/10/16/dedicated-does-not-equal-doormat/

  5. Endless hours spent grading and correcting is a misuse of valuable time. Teachers should work at streamlining their grading and put the majority of their time and energy into improving lessons, presentations, content area knowledge, and student activities. Making learning more interesting and meaningful is far more important than wasting time on arbitrary, unreliable, and inaccurate grading systems.

  6. I really enjoyed the article. The martyr complex that surrounds some teachers is extremely destructive, as is the hyperbolc language (passion v enthusiastic, love v want the best for). Give me a snub nosed professional teacher over a so called passionate teacher anyday.

  7. I have to agree. I gave up taking work home with me last year and my stress levels us e gone way down! Does every assignment get graded? No. Do they need to be? Again, no. Now I spend my evenings and weekends doing restful things and having fun with my family. My job is just that, a job. I am much more than just a teacher and I have a life outside of school.

  8. Sadly, I’ve noticed this in primary and secondary… more so in primary. In many primary schools, there seems to be an unspoken rule that you give up evenings, most of your weekend and at least half of your holidays… and if you don’t? You’re probably failing at something.

    The irony is that this workaholic culture isnt healthy or sustainable… and actually has a detremental impact on teaching and learning. I know that my lesson delivery is much better when I’ve had at least a few hours to myself the night before, rather than when I’m reading emails at 10pm.

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