Great Teachers are Not Rock Stars

Great teachers are not rock stars. Rock stars take the center stage. It is all about them. They garner and thrive on the praise of their fans. The focus is on the rock star’s performance. This is the exact opposite of what we need in education. Education is about student performance. Great teachers help the learners be their best on the stage of life. They shine the spotlight on the learners. The best teachers are far more interested in giving than getting praise, and they are not in it to get a following of student fans.

Teachers matter, but we are not the center…at least we should not be the center. Education is a service industry and whenever a service industry becomes more focused on protecting and preserving the preferences and traditions of the professionals than meeting the needs of those being served, there are serious problems on the horizon. Consider the following few scenarios.

A school is exploring the best class schedule to accommodate the diverse needs and life circumstances of a student population. A team conducts extensive research and determines that it is best to create more early morning and evening options. When presented to the teachers, they reject it because it disrupts their preferred schedule or how they have opted to organize their day.

A group of teachers are introduced to the best, most solid, most current research about how to improve student literacy, but two-thirds of them reject it, arguing that, “this is not how I like to do things in my classroom.”

A teacher’s union is negotiating wages and sets strict guidelines for teachers to avoid working “over-time”, making sure that they leave the building by 4:00 PM at the latest. Some teachers ignore that guidelines because many students had after school extracurricular but wanted/needed extra help. These teachers stuck around until 4:30 or 5:00 to work with those students for a half an hour. Fellow teachers and those holding leadership positions in the union confront these well-meaning teachers about this “unacceptable behavior.”

A group of faculty at a non-exclusive college laments the declining college readiness of students in their freshman classes. Without much more than anecdotal research, they move that admission standards be increased so that these professors don’t have to deal with such problems.

Someone writes an article in the local newspaper making a valid critique about the quality of teaching in a given circumstance. Without even assessing the validity of the argument, there is a mass backlash from teachers, labeling the author as anti-teacher and trying to destroy the teaching profession.

Go to an education conference (almost any one of them) and sit in countless sessions where you are reminded that, “the most important thing in a classroom is a quality and effective teacher.” Far less often do you hear anyone argue that the most important thing in a school is an engaged and growing learner. Maybe you will argue that having engaged and growing learners requires quality and effective teachers, and that is indeed the case in many approaches to education…but it isn’t as fundamental or foundational as an engaged and growing learner. Let’s put first things first. School is first about learning and learners, not teaching and teachers. The best teachers that I’ve seen know this. The joy in their work doesn’t come from declarations about the greatness of teachers as much as seeing learners get lost in their learning, deeply engaged and curious, pushing and stretching themselves beyond their comfort zones, achieving a leaning discovery after weeks or months of effort, or making great progress despite personal adversity.

Do you remember that song, We are the World, the one that pulled in a dozen or more well-known musicians to craft a single song of hope? As an educator for over twenty years, I sometimes feel like I’m in a profession that has re-written the song to say, “We are the world. We are the teachers. We are the one’s who make a brighter day so let’s start giving.” What still baffles me is that some will read this and think that word change might be a good idea.

I don’t look at it that way. I appreciate excellent teaching as much as anyone else. I commend taking the time to show gratitude for excellent teaching, lifting up specific examples as models. I understand that we need to lift up the nobility of the profession to recruit a next generation of the best and brightest teachers. I also get that we want to frame our own work as educators in a noble way, seeing how we are contributing to something good and important in the world. At the same time, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an amazing teacher who does it for the praise or accolades. Teaching is about learners and moving the spotlight from these learners to the teachers risks undermining the best in the teaching profession.

i heart learnersPeople selling educational products and services do not help matters. They persistently write and speak with clichés about the greatness and importance of teachers, even when or if they are selling a product that promotes independent learning outside of the classroom. I get that they have to do this to some extent because teacher adoption and endorsements helps their business cause, but I would rather these business leaders dig into the research and explore the many possibilities for high-impact student learning and engagement. Keep the focus on learning and learners, and really good teachers will be far more interested in your product than just buttering them up with a “We [heart] teachers bumper stickers.” I want to see some “We [heart] learners” bumper stickers.

I’ll admit it. I’ve used the term “rock star” once or twice in reference to an educator who is doing great work. However, when we really think about what it means to be a rock star and what it means to be among the best in the teaching profession, they are completely different. Education, at its best, is always focused on learners and learning. It is about putting the spotlight on the learners.


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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.