Secret Sauce

No More Superstar Teachers

Education doesn’t need a hero, it needs you.

That teacher from The Freedom Writers. That teacher from Dead Poet’s Society. That teacher from Dangerous Minds.

The list goes on and on.

The trope of the superstar teacher is pervasive. We watch documentaries, read articles, and listen to podcasts about educators who’ve overcome the odds. Teachers devoting every part of their lives to supporting students. Buying textbooks out-of-pocket, driving kids to academic and athletic events after hours, even letting students live with them to avoid dangerous home lives.

Unfortunately, this kind of self-sacrificial support is unattainable and unsustainable. We’ve created unrealistic expectations for educators. When teachers leave their jobs or change professions, “teacher burnout” is used as a blanket statement to places an unfair onus on the educator; that somehow they were unable to rise above, to overcome or to endure. But endurance does not mean building up an immunity to toxic school environments. Instead, the goal should be to empower and support educators’ advocacy for change and reform in their schools. It’s easy to buy into the myth that certain people are just “naturally good” teachers. This narrative is a way for all stakeholders -- administrators, policy-makers, and community members -- to opt out of supporting educators in becoming the kinds of leaders and mentors that make lasting change in the lives of young people.

The superstar teacher affirms a mythical hierarchy built on self-sacrifice.

In an Atlantic article on Hollywood’s Reductive Narratives About Schools the author writes “these simplified stories distance teachers from their students, reinforcing the power imbalance created when a teacher arrives thinking she already knows who her students are and what miracles she should perform.”

Not only are educators being held to unhealthy standards by others, but they’re also holding themselves to unhealthy standards. Many first-year teachers come into the classroom hoping to make radical, transformative change in the lives of their students. When the subconscious desire is to be a “superstar” teacher, personal success can isolate an educator from being present to the specific needs of students, colleagues and the school at large.

Often what’s needed is not glamorous, dramatic or exciting. Many children go home to poverty or neglect. Many children struggle with mental and emotional disorders. Many children combat the effects of systemic racism and other prejudices. It’s not the job of the educator to end poverty, find a cure for mental illness or heal our nation’s racial inequities.

The job of the educator is to promote human development. To introduce students to the kinds of secure relationships that may not be present in their lives. And to prepare them, piece-by-piece, for the expansive and complex world that awaits them.

There’s something better than the superstar teacher. The consistent teacher.

The great advocate and activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu articulates this idea beautifully stating “Even if you are not the best one, you may be the one who is needed or the one who is there.” Similarly, Carl Rogers, a foundational leader in person-centered approaches, talks about the role of the educator as someone who does not impose knowledge but provides “offerings” to their students. These two concepts embody an often forgotten truth: students need you. Education reform needs you. Our world needs you.

There is no great hero coming to save the day. There is no magical answer to solve all of the problems facing the world of education. There are just ordinary people, offering themselves -- their experiences, knowledge, and love -- to better the lives of the next generation.

About the author

Jasmine Barnes

Partner - Chicago IL

Jasmine studied sociology and journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and has experience in community organizing, event planning, multimedia and group facilitation. She is a passionate storyteller and strategic innovator. Written and verbal communication, collaborative problem solving and operational excellence fuel her desire to create a more just and equitable world where underserved and underrepresented populations have access to resources and holistic education.

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