Why I don’t want to be a hero teacher, and maybe you shouldn’t either.

A month or so ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in AITSL’s symposium on 21st century learning. At the symposium I was asked to speak briefly about my philosophy on education and my experiences as a teacher in 2013. It was cool because two other public school educators were there to share the limelight with me – John Goh and Alice Leung. They both have great things to share about education and are both very hardworking individuals.

That last point is what the focus of this post is about. Just how hardworking are we three educators and how has that allowed for us to be given opportunities like the AITSL one? When Alice spoke before the room full of policy-makers, academics and others aligned to the education sector, she was met with a rather surprising comment from Valerie Hannon (if you haven’t heard of her check out Innovation Unit – she’s the director and a pretty cool chick). Valerie suggested that Alice was a ‘hero teacher’ and then went on to explain that maybe this isn’t a good thing. I’ll just add here that Valerie was not intending to criticise Alice, in fact she was supportive of her and in awe of her complete dedication to her school and her students. Valerie was suggesting that Alice has taken on the role of change agent in her school and beyond, requiring excessive working hours, sacrificing hours of her life to her job. For Valerie, this is not sustainable and not the ideal situation for a teacher. She was critical of the lack of systems and support structures (and yes, vision from those in positions of power above the classroom teachers) for not instigating, facilitating and supporting needed educational change.

When I got up to speak, I’ll admit that I was scared of Valerie Hannon. She’s a very provocative thinker (which I love) and I feared what her response to my video and ideas would be, lol. But when I was standing there talking I got fired up, and directed my discussion at her. She is right. We’re not supported. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice our lives to our jobs. Add children and a husband to the mix and it’s insane trying to sustain such a commitment to excellence and innovation in the classroom let alone adding blogging, conference gigs and workshops to that. IT IS NOT RIGHT! So I agreed with Valerie and told her and all the other powerful people in the room that I will probably burn out in the next 12 months. I probably won’t be teaching this time next year if I try to keep up the pace I’m at. And what did she ask? What do I need in the way of support to ensure that my enthusiasm, interest, knowledge and skills can be sustained for the benefit of my students and school? What should those in power provide teachers with so as that my innovative student-controlled teaching methods can be the most effective? She stumped me! I didn’t know the answer! All I managed to say was: 1. Give me space to experiment with learning. 2. Acknowledge and praise me when me or my students manage to do something amazing.

What did Valerie say? NO! That’s NOT what you need! You need REAL change. We need to radically change what schools look and feel and run like. She was talking cool stuff like John Goh is doing (note, he is a principal and can therefore enact actual, lasting change unlike we classroom teachers who can only try and try and try) like changing school times, lesson times, the physical layout of the school, the way subjects are taught – everything. I could only laugh and nod. Yes, there’s the dream Valerie. But we teachers can’t be held responsible for bringing those changes on our own … and that’s why they didn’t even come into my mind when she asked me. I guess I’m a defeatist and I didn’t know it.

The lone nut video of 2009 was a popular one for us eager little DER bunnies. But the batteries have run out. We’ve been dancing for too long and for the most part no one is following. It’s not fair that we keep shouldering the burden of educational change. Maybe we’re deluded. We can not keep working 12 hours a day. We are NOT hero teachers, and we shouldn’t be. We should be supported by systems and individuals in the position of power to reshape these systems to ensure better outcomes for teachers and students and the wider community. Let’s be honest, no one is inspired by someone who works constantly, who lives and breathes teaching and has no time for anything else. They might be full of respect, but who wants to follow in that teacher’s footsteps? No one is in awe of the teacher who thinks that he or she is the only person who can teach the class well and therefore must never take a day off (unless it is to present at a conference). I’m tired. I don’t want to do it anymore. Valerie is right. We shouldn’t be hero teachers. Things need to change. Cos you know those classroom teachers you follow on twitter who are pushing themselves to the limit in a vain attempt to champion and generate change? They may not be able to last much longer.

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48 thoughts on “Why I don’t want to be a hero teacher, and maybe you shouldn’t either.

  1. OMG! bravo! I am a ‘change agent’ in a tiny school that has no principal. I know first hand what you are talking about and I worry about it. Thank you for your brave words.

  2. You’re spot on! We need those things outside teaching – new inputs, Art, experiences, interactions – to feed what we do in the classroom, without them we are DOOMED!! This is a great article, I wish you luck in finding balance so you can continue to benefit all those around you 🙂

    • YES! Too often we busy teachers (especially those of us with children!) get so caught up in the work/home juggle that we forget about the importance of culture and travel … these are the food for our stories!
      I thank you for your wise comment 🙂

  3. Hello Bianca,

    Congratulations on another great post. I must say, that you are a “Hero Teacher” and not just for the school at which you teach. You may remember visiting Wagga Wagga last year. Your input and insights about project based learning resulted in an open minded English KLA leader @materdeiwagga working with her team to tweak, even redesign some senior units of work. “Thank you!”

    Now, with a focus on your post. I agree there needs to be sustained change. As a principal (not in the class of John Goh – whom I follow on Twitter), I work with teachers to innovate within a system that is still held in high regard by policy makers, politicians, parents and some teachers, (that’s part of the challenge!), and, to be quite honest, there are still many parts of the system that work well. However, that same system does not properly facilitate the development of the skills that students will require for their future. I am rambling now…..

    @materdeiwagga we have many teachers, a majority of teachers, who are open to new ways. As a principal I am very lucky indeed! Of those may teachers open to news ways, we also have “Hero Teachers”; most of who are involved in two major 2013 initiatives;
    1. “TED” – an integrated approach to learning for English, Religion and HSIE. @Steve_Collis (a real innovator) from @scil (another real innovation unit) has mentored the team as late as Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.
    2. A blended approach to a compressed Studies of Religion 1 Unit course so that Year 11 sit the Prelim and HSC course this year and sit the exam at the end of this year.

    I admire the teachers who had the courage and conviction to take up such a challenge. Whilst they will say it is exciting to be a part of such projects, I am acutely aware that the energy, drive and commitment to deliver learning which promotes increased interest, rigour and engagement is energy sapping and extremely tiring of teachers. As their principal, I need to be aware of that and (somehow) know when to challenge, when to support, when to ???????

    As a principal, I have an obligation to support these people, but I can only do so within the confines of school staffing formulas which only allow the minimum flexibility and little time required to properly plan and implement ‘new ways’. Because of this, these new initiatives/projects/new ways can only get real traction with the creativity and energy of “Hero Teachers” who give an extraordinary amount of hours over and above what can be reasonably expected of teachers. I agree this cannot be sustained long term. It is only through real change at the ’very top’, the policy makers, where change in structures to support “Hero Teachers” will result in the changes you, and I, are looking for.

    Onwards and Upwards,
    Greg.

    • Thanks Greg. I think that the things you have highlighted above reflect your capacity as a principal to take risks and initiate lasting changes at your school. I think what you say about requiring ‘hero teachers’ is flawed – if you have inspired teachers, passionate teacher, committed teachers that’s fine … if they CHOOSE to dedicate themselves to a project a bit more than others, that’s fine as well. What you CAN do as a principal is identify those individuals and support them as best you can – don’t exploit them and their enthusiasm. Don’t use them up until they are burnt out and have to pass the flame to the next suckers.
      YOU as a principal have the responsibility to provide your ‘hero teachers’ with the support and structures and praise that they need in order to sustain their passion. How are you doing that?

      • Hello Bianca,

        How am I doing that????

        By constantly meeting with them, reviewing the program(s) with them, but by mainly listening to them.

        I have no intention of using them until they are burnt out. The reality of some teachers last term was they were very tired, more so than event before They were in real need of R & R and that worried me, still does wit this term ahead.

        If I, or the program, or lack of structures lead to burn out, then they, me and most importantly, the students are all losers.

        Listen, learn, sustain!

        Thanks for your thought provoking challenges.

        Regards,
        Greg.

  4. This is a really inspiring and despairing read all at once. I left a job that paid twice as much to be a teacher. I did it becuase every day I sold my soul becuase that’s what the job asked. My question to Bianca (and others) is, if we are not ‘hero teachers’ do we stop being true to ourselves? Do we sell our souls? I have lots of thoughts this year about what acutlaly makes a ‘good teacher’ and the points raised in this post and comments add to my thoughts. I am scared to stop instigating change in my school becuase if I do, I stop being true to me and then stop being true to my students. And students are what it’s about. Hmmmmm so much thinking to be done. Thank you for adding to the ever bubbling couldron of confusion! (posted by a struggling second year teacher)

    • Too true. To learn is to take a risk. Students get this when we do. And students are what it is all about. I’ve been teaching a long , long time and if someone said I was a ‘hero’ teacher, I would so take it as one of the best compliments I have ever had.

    • Never once did I say that I would stop being true to myself. This post is the ultimate self-truth – I can not sustain the level of work I have been trying to maintain over the last few years. I won’t stop being the best teacher I can be, but no where does it say that being the best teacher in the world means forgetting your own life, making yourself sick and reaching a level of despair that may only be escaped by serious medication.
      Perhaps I did not make my definition of ‘hero teacher’ fully clear – it means going BEYOND what is normal and expected and healthy in order to bring about changes that perhaps are not within your reach to change. It is about taking on FAR more work and responsibility than what is due to us. It is fighting, fighting, fighting until we are sick because there is NO ONE looking out for us. Heroes spend all day fighting villains for the greater good … or to win some type of trophy. What type of hero do you want to be? Are ‘teacher heroes’ ever really rewarded? If systems changed, would we need ‘hero teachers’? No!

      • Your posts and the comments about ‘hero’ teachers really resonate with me. When I made the career move from English teacher to Teacher Librarian, I deliberately and consciously put in place systems to stop me burning out (as I had almost done in the classroom).
        I believe I am a chane agent, but I go out of the school for an hour everyday for lunch and I never take work home (I am aware that as a classroom tecaher there’s no getting away from this) So while I am at work I do the absolute best I can, but when I leave, I am fully in my own life. I don’t believe that this means I am letting students down, or not being true to myself – myself is not just a teacher, after all.

        Tracy

  5. Brave post, actually putting it out there how unsustainable it is devoting all our thoughts and energy to teaching. It has really made me stop and think about expectations I have of myself and my staff and the cost those expectations might be having. Thank you Bianca.

    • Thanks for your comment. I think teacher well-being is paramount. If systems aren’t supporting those who we can deem our ‘very best’ teachers, then what hope do we have for the future? Why would anyone go into teaching (regardless of how passionate they are) if they must work, work, work, work, work without support for their passion? To simply be preyed upon by vampiric systems that suck the lives from passionate, enthusiastic teachers rather than providing them with the support and structures to actually implement innovative pedgagogies?

  6. Don’t despair. It was a digital education Revolution – and as a history teacher revolutions always have blood on the floor (for lots of complex reasons). I scared some teachers today when I commented that this yrs laptops are the ‘tipping point’ because, finally, I can see the kids are controlling whether they use them. Had to have a disagreement that kids play games on them v kids doodling in books and daydreaming. Woe betide any teacher who tries to tell them to leave them in their bags until ‘I’ say you can use them. Would not have said this at the start of the year when I told the principal not to bother about trying to get kids, teachers and parents to do the dER survey. Can now see a BYOD revolution at my school as IPADs and macs start to sit in front of kids (let along phones which I let kids use too) If you burn out, you burn out. BUT … your passion for what you do is allowed in our job….. where else will you go to.. I am a DP, and when I was a classroom teacher was about to leave… love what I do now and wouldn’t do anything else. A year is a long time.

    • Once again, just want to say that you have misunderstood my post. Completely. Why would I EVER suggest that teachers shouldn’t be passionate about teaching? Ridiculous! This post is about the ineffectiveness of ONE teacher trying to sustain a ridiculous workload that not only involves day to day teaching (and all the admin BS that comes with it) as well as trying to introduce new pedagogies, technologies etc to the wider school community and/or a regional/global community via a blog. The issue is that trying to do things differently (in order to be the BEST possible teacher ever) isn’t sustainable simply because there isn’t enough TIME being given to teachers to do the required process of ‘research, plan, reflect, modify, share’ in order to improve learning outcomes for students.
      I’d NEVER advocate for a rejection of passion and a adoption of mediocrity.

  7. I kept waiting for the shift when you would tell us we can all do it all. Thank you for surprising me. I get tired reading the tweets of the teachers I follow on twitter let alone trying to do what they do.

  8. For a short while I worked in emergency medical services, and while I never thought of myself as a “hero,” everyone in that line of work does heroic things on a daily basis. I emphasize “short while” here, as heroic work is indeed humanly unsustainable. I share Ms. Hannon’s evaluation of the hero teacher issue.

    The kind of reform we need is not at the level the politicians in any western country have been willing to entertain, but it is one Asian countries have, and it’s why their systems are soundly kicking our collective education asses, both in delivering content and in technology. If they ever find PBL, we’re done for.

    Teachers need significant collaborative time, as in hours per day, and they need to work (during their work time, not at night, over weekends and during breaks) with colleagues continually on how learning happens in their classrooms. They need to vet their practice constantly, daily, not just during some ex situ summer institute where students are nowhere to be seen. They need time daily to build collegial trust, to observe each other, to comment, to practice, and repeat. They need the opportunity daily (have I used this word enough?) to be critical of themselves, and time to stay in touch with trends of change, both in their students and in their tools. They need to feel protected in a professional enviroment in which not only are they accountable for student learning outcomes, but also valued for the societally vital role they play every day.

    Our current mode of packing as many students into a room as possible and packing as many instructional minutes into a day as can be shoehorned into a schedule and still give people a chance to eat is educationally insane. The pols who hold the strings to the money bags still think we’re educating lineworkers and field hands. Until they wake up and get a grip on what they’re asking us to do, we will continue to burn through our hero teachers and nothing will change.

    • Well said, Bill! Time and support are essential … Less micro managing, bureaucracy and top down policy, and more collegial collaboration time to meet the learning needs of studens at our own individual schools. At the moment we spend far too much of our preparation time doing things that really could be done by other support staff, leaving us to get on with the business of teaching. Too often we spend our schools chasing our tails, which leaves us planning and preparing alone, in the wee hours, when we should be relaxing and recharging. While of course we need leisure time, teaching is also a creative outlet, and the current climate is stifling that creativity … which causes frustration and dissatisfaction. Looming policies like LSLD will bring us more hoops to jump through and less freedom in what we teach. Where does all this extra time and support come from? Increased funding!

    • Bill – please be in a position of power to make this change because your point about time is the most accurate observation of all. Time is too short to be effective in the classroom and international comparisons are just frightening for the future of this country. After all, education is the future GDP.

    • YES! Perhaps this post is a plea for time and recognition … for some visionary leadership from those working outside of schools. Why do they wear those power suits and wield such little power to enact genuine educational change?

  9. Bianca, via Valerie Hannon, you have drawn attention to an important professional and workplace issue — that of burnout. Of course it’s not isolated to the teaching profession; it’s a cultural fixture of “white-collar” workplaces around the world that they institutionally and structurally rely upon Herculean efforts by up-and-coming workers with ‘something to prove’. That is arguably an acceptable price to pay in professions like law, finance, even marketing — where the rewards and ‘glamour’ accompany the efforts. It only becomes problematic when it’s encourage in fields like education (and nursing) where, as you’ve identified, there are not concomitant support and rewards for such striving.

    Could I also suggest that the ‘hero teacher’ paradigm is excessively individualistic in its orientation: a most unfortunate irony considering how much time we spend trying to foster collaborative learning between students? It’s a case of teachers teaching what they most need to learn: that we can’t (and shouldn’t encourage the delusion that we can) do it all on our own, that we need to support our colleagues as they support us and, I believe most importantly, we need to find the courage to stand in solidarity. In the years and decades to come, the humanistic orientation of professional educators standing in solidarity will be an important challenge to the overly technocratic, bureaucratic yet atomised “vision” of education that is currently being foisted upon us by our political leaders and their finance departments.

    • I completely agree with the assessment that the hero teacher paradigm is individualistic. If I was honest (and I try my best to be), a lot of what I have done over the last 5 years has been about me and my pursuit to be the best teacher I can be. I DO have an impressive and supportive online community who I share my ideas and experiences with, but rarely do I collaborate with them to ease the burden I bear. Why? Ego, perhaps? I don’t know.
      I also agree with you about the benefits of working excessive hours for other professions – we do not get those privileges. We just work and work and work. yes, it is for the young people in our care, of course it is – but how do stressed out, unhealthy and distracted teachers actually help our kids? We can’t!
      We are NOT pop stars earning millions of dollars a year with the potential to go and relax on our own private islands in between tours. We are like the little indie bands that tour like crazy for three years, trying to make it big and then realise that we have no hope and give up. Why? Because like indie bands, there is little support for teachers and pretty poorly designed systems to ensure our hard work is shared, celebrated, effective.

  10. Pingback: Being a Change Agent: Helping One is Better than Changing All | The Embedded Platypus

  11. I totally agree with this! Where is teaching heading? The few that try to change and are positive, trying new things, get no support and a lot of road blocks. You feel as if you’re surrounded by negativity and soon this toxicity starts to have an effect. I’ve been contemplating leaving the profession over the last 2 yrs…. It’s twelve hour days, weekends, going in on the holidays and all my enthusiasm and energy are getting zapped. It’s also not fair on the kids if I start to lose my passion. Just saying.

    • Charmaine, you’ve hit the nail on the head! Sustaining passion without support is NOT POSSIBLE … we will last at most five years and then it’s gone. We listen to the cynics, get grumpy with ourselves and then this impacts the young people in our care. I hope you manage to find some balance so as that our profession doesn’t lose another dedicate and excellent teacher!

  12. Thanks Bianca for a great post. I totally agree that well-being and family obviously comes first, having myself recently stepped back from a leadership position to being ‘just’ a teacher after feeling a little burnt-out.
    The frustration of people not getting on-board is hard but trying to have an influence from our own teaching areas and circle of influence is hopefully effective as well.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • I’m with you, Paul. If the energy has gone, we need to step back. If we try and try and try to get people to think differently about education and they continue to push back against us, when is it time to say, ‘Enough is enough’?

  13. A fitting post to read today as I had a conversation with a colleague at lunch who refused to join edmodo because he does not want a third party company having access or ‘owning’ his Powerpoints and resources. When I brought up PBL, he asked me what it was and then proceeded to express his distate for ‘buzz words’.

    This saddened me for his students (who are now joining my edmodo group as we teach the same subject), but frustrated me as a teacher in the 21st Century who has to fight for inevitable change against people who don’t understand it, and refuses to even try to understand.

    I love teaching. I can work a 12hr day and still be happy at the end of it but I hate that I barely spend time with the husband and cannot imagine what it would be like if I had kids.

    You are an inspiration Bianca Hewes.
    You are a fighter.
    You are many teachers’ hero.

    You are not the lone nut – you have many followers dancing alongside you!

    • Yup. I think I scare teachers off with my fanaticism. I’ve tried not to, just sharing a link here and there or an idea as part of a conversation. I still wait in hope that things will change and I think they are, but they’re just not being driven by me. That hurts my ego and maybe this post is really just a confession of ego and how it can get away from us.
      I am happy working constantly too, but it isn’t fair to my loved ones. My boys only ever hear me talking about education-related stuff and it’s unhealthy.
      Thanks for your compliments, it’s nice to hear these things (feeds my dark little ego) but really it’s probably all smoke and mirrors.

  14. Two ‘hero’ US maths teachers who I have been learning from since I started teaching have moved out of the classroom recently. It is a shame but very understandable.

    • Thanks for this, Simon. I can see why they’re moving out – the tidal wave of energy regarding the much touted ‘education revolution’ has dumped on the shore and there are many bodies being washed up. Sad to admit it.

  15. Pingback: Why all teachers should be hero teachers | Alice Leung

  16. Pingback: Love2Learn » Blog Archive » Do we need heroes?

  17. The batteries have run out.

    My favourite quote from Dr Paul Brock on this topic – change must be owned and understood for it to be sustainable.

    Creating change is great. Sustaining change is the challenge. This doesn’t happen alone and burn out happens without support.

    Keep doing what you do B! Us other nuts need your honesty, awesomeness and ideas!

    Clarinda

    • Haha – we are ALL nuts and we keep blabbering on to each other about it and it’s kinda awesome and it’s kinda weird. I don’t know, Clarinda. I might be on the pile of burnt out bunnies. Bring on the fresh batch of over-enthusiastic baby bunnies. The system wants to suck them dry.

  18. Pingback: Why I Teach. | Expat Teacher Man

  19. It is only in the last year or so I have even been thinking about they way education needs to develop. We have a society that wants education to create independent and motivated people that can cope with any situation, but that same society doesn’t want to spend the money, or trust the teachers needed to make those changes.
    Education is important, if society can’t see that, the lone nuts that are currently dancing in their own schools need to find a place to dance together and keep the change going.

    • I desperately want to be at a school full of nuts, haha. I want a nutty leader to dance in front of me and lead me astray into a bigger field of nuttiness. I want to be in a crazy school that focuses solely on learning and students and ignores everything we have ever thought about school and education. I wanna work at the ‘not-school’ place of learning. Know where I can apply to get a job? Haha!

      • Can I work there too? True learning and teaching and building relationships. All else is expendable. We could have a truly great school with nuts in every classroom.

  20. The burnout issue is a really important one. Too often I see beginning teachers being given way too many tasks and responsibilities in their first few years, and experienced teachers (and those higher up the food chain) working themselves into the ground. They are often banging their head against the brick wall at the same time, as they try to bring about change and are thwarted by invisible brick walls.

    I’m really not sure what the answer is, except to take a step back every now and then and reassess what you’re involved in. In most schools there are many people who take on one or two extra jobs/activities, and a few people who somehow get stuck doing many. Pick the ones you love the most and throw your energy into those. Pass on a couple of the mundane jobs to someone who is looking bored.

    Pick your battles. You aren’t going to win every fight. Chose the one that will make the most difference and go with it. Recently I was given the advice to chose one battle a term, I was told I would look like a lunatic if I wanted to change everything right then and there. My response? Aaaarrrggg, but I want it all to happen NOW!!! Frustrating, but perhaps she was right.

    In terms of collaboration, find a few like minded, enthusiastic people and work together to change your school. Try to have a DP or P involved with the group so that they can hear all the reasons and viewpoints right from the beginning. That way, you will be more likely to get approval for any changes. It might mean that you will have to compromise on a few of the specifics, but the load gets shared, and you might just get a bit further than if you are working in isolation.

  21. Bianca, I really found your post very insightful. I know you love teaching so much. I know you will never lose your passion for it. I agree that systemic change and leadership from the top is the way forward. In the meantime, I wish you lots of fun in your classroom and lots of excellent times away from it too. You are one of my heroes and I wish you a very refreshing holiday and a lot of boring times plus a lot of laughs. My little group of project learning people is having such a blast working away – inspired by you. So lots of good things are happening in little corners everywhere. Thanks, Bianca. L

  22. You’re telling my story although I’m a head teacher now and have been for the last ten years. Teaching, my school and my ‘kids’ were my life. I really loved the challenge of exploring new and better ways to do the best I could for my students. All my teaching has been in low Socio-economic schools with students who didn’t believe they could have the same chances as everyone else. When I added two children and a chronically ill husband to the mix, well, last year the wheels fell off completely. I had to take almost a term and a half off and hand over all my special projects to other people. My doctor refused to let me return to school if I kept anything extra. Things are getting better now, but its been tough having to pull back and not being able to focus on the big changes being a HT gives me the opportunity to be involved in. Still, the alternative was giving up a career I love (although I think sometimes admitting that is treated like a betrayal – we’re really all supposed to moan about how horrible it is regularly, after all, not say we like the job!!).

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