Inside Take: Don’t Call Me Superman

Expecting teachers to be superheroes undermines the profession.

Surely mega-Spidey can handle 35 kids per class. |

Surely mega-Spidey can handle 35 kids per class. |

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.)

“This Crisis affects all of us”

“You can save them. You can save all of them”

“You have the power to Change things”

Pop quiz, Reader! The above quotes are from:

  1. The Teach For America Website
  2. Superman’s wise father, Jor-El
  3. I have no idea

If you’re not up on the comic-to-movie pipeline: This summer, DC comics is planning to bring not one, but two mega-famous superheroes to the big screen. “Batman vs. Superman.” Flying! Punching! Freemium mobile games! All, of course, accompanied by a slew of articles about (insert popular topic) being the “real superhero.”

Teachers always get the “real superhero” label. Here’s Buzzfeed. Here’s the Huffington Post, proclaiming teachers are “the last bastion of hope.” Here’s the Washington Redskins teaming up with the Virginia Lottery – now there’s a buddy film – to reward SuperTeachers. And teachers love this stuff. No matter what terrible ideas come down the pike, teachers can be assured that they are the good guys. There’s an Etsy page for it.

The problem is that the people who are buying and selling these products, like some of the Hollywood producers, know nothing about superheroes. If they did, they would realize that equating teachers to superfolk, though well intentioned and warm-hearted, is utterly destroying the profession.

Let’s review the qualities and experiences of your typical superhero: Isolation: Check. Like the veritable Fortress of Solitude, teachers spend 97% of their workday – teaching, grading, planning – in their classrooms, disconnected from other adults and colleagues. Guilt? Plenty to go around for teachers! When President Obama passed the American Recovery Act, he included measures for “teacher effectiveness,” implying we can’t beat the recession without great teachers. No pressure.

Betrayal? We saw SHIELD turn on Captain America in his most recent movie. Teachers know the feeling. Governor Cuomo labeled the teacher evaluation law he signed months before “baloney.” He sounded an awful lot like Mayor Nutter, who sounded a lot like former Governor Corbett. Schools will get little until teachers give a lot. With great power, it seems, comes a sharp decrease in medical benefits.

Alienation? It’s unavoidable when see 20% of your colleagues quit within the first 5 years. Small wonder some teachers are resistant to change, particularly when so many of its advocates have bailed on the profession; if you can’t survive Gotham, don’t lecture Batman.

Ageism? Of course! Nobody wants to see a superhero dealing with diapers or watching “Frozen” for the umpteeth time. In Comics, Your Friendly Neighborhood Spiderman had finally settled down with his beloved Mary Jane. Readers bailed, and Marvel moved to a “reboot.” Thanks to groups like Teach for America and the seemingly serialized Budget Crisis, teachers are far more likely to end up like the new Spiderman: Younger, frazzled, and broke.

It’s not just policy, it’s personal: In January my daughter had a low-grade fever and my life was a snotty wreck. And as much I was concerned for my first child, I was wracked with guilt. How can I miss my 100 kids (I have a smaller roster than most of my colleagues, being the teacher technology leader) for just one?

I shouldn’t have to be a super-hero just to do my job. All the pressure, drama, and high stakes that drive movies like “Superman” or “Dangerous Minds” is toxic in the classroom. Projected onto teachers, the results are devastating and expensive: Teacher turnover, or the attrition of those who can’t wear a cape for 30 years, costs taxpayers $2.2 billion a year.

But there are easy, inexpensive ways to fight the “superherofication” of teachers. SRC Chairman Bill Green, busy trying to sue teachers into the Phantom Zone, loves praising those in the classroom before demanding they pony up. Instead, all sides should work towards more career advancement, where teachers can pursue education-related interests like curriculum or coaching without leaving the classroom. Teachers should be evaluated on the whole of their work, not on inauthentic test scores. Peer evaluation, where teachers visit each other’s classrooms, elevates the entire profession. Education non-profits, a cash crop for Philadelphia, should work to add more teachers (not the dreaded ex-teacher-turned-lobbyist) to their governing boards.

We don’t associate teachers with accountants. Maybe we should. Every financial professional is going to be working overtime as tax-season approaches. Nobody will say “good for you” or praise them for “being the change.” They will be paid, respected, and evaluated as employees. Teaching is a unique profession, our “product” is dynamic and chaotic. But it would be nice if the expectations for teachers were closer to those of members of the Bar Association than the Green Lantern Corps.

A final reason this analogy needs to die: Alisha, class of 2013 asked me to edit her personal essay for college. Her Mom, I discovered, had been laid-off during her Sophomore year. Alisha called and emailed every relative, neighbor, and friend to let them that she was their new baby-sitter. The proudest day of her life, she wrote, was being 16 and paying her family’s bills.

So yes, there are heroes in the classroom. I’m just not one of them.

Andrew Saltz has been teaching children reading and composition for 8 years at the Paul Robeson High School for Human Services. Follow him on Twitter at @mr_saltz.