Educators: We are not Heroes as Much as We are Guides and Allies for the Heroes

Each January I notice the increase in two types of articles and social media messages from educators. One is the common lists of reflections and goals. We reflect on the past year. What went well? What was memorable? What did we accomplish? What trends emerged and what happened with them? What can we expect for the new year? What goals does one hope to achieve?

Then there is a second type of article and message. It isn’t unique to this time of year, but it is more prevalent. As people reflect on what they accomplished in the last year and what they want to accomplish in the future, that naturally sparks questions and reflections about one’s purpose, meaning, value, and role in the field of education. What is my role? Have I accomplished anything worthwhile? Am I making a difference?

Perhaps that is why I find this longstanding quote getting shared and re-shared three times a year: the beginning of the school year, the end of the school year, and the end of December through early January.

“A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different, because I was important in the life of a boy.” – Forest Witcraft

Most of the time today, the word “boy” from the original source is replaced the the word “child” and the source is referenced as “anonymous.” Only it wasn’t anonymous. It comes from a 1950 article in the publication, Scouting. If you want the original context of the quote, the article is worth the one to two minutes that it takes to read it.

This quote resonates with many educators. Since teaching isn’t the highest paid profession, the quote resonates with the reason that many choose to go into the field of education. It also reminds people that their work is noble, and important. It is important for each child and for the world in which that child will grow and live.

“…because I was important in the life of a child.” This part of the quote, without the original article, is something that leaves me on edge. What does it mean to be important in the life of a child? In the 1950 article, the author explains what he means. He is writing from the context of being a scoutmaster, organizing Scout Troops, nurturing a sense of community, and serving as a guide on what the he considers a noble path for children.

Only, there are many other messages in social media that take this part of the quote, or some derivation, making the primary focus about being important, being a hero to the students, being loved and valued by the students. I’ve never been comfortable with this language, as it risks diverting attention away from the students.

I saw another teacher’s online profile that included being “a daily hero to children in my classroom.” This statement gets to the essence of my concern about the “being important in the life of a child” discourse in education. I celebrate and support educators grounding their work in a compelling reason, a sense of purpose. It makes sense to care that our work matters, that we are indeed making a difference in the lives of other people. Where this risks going awry is when such a discourse makes it more about us and less about the students. It isn’t about our importance as much is it is about their importance…and that is what makes our work important.

I don’t want a teacher to be a hero for my children each day, as much as I want someone who will invite my children to discover what it means for them to be a hero in the world. I recognize that “hero” is used in different ways. Some use it to mean “role model”, and that certainly makes sense for a teacher. In a more traditional sense, a hero is “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself” (Joseph Campbell). In this sense, it seems to me that the rich meaning in the teaching profession is less about being a hero, and more about pointing students to the heroic life. Or, as Christopher Reeve described it, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” The incredible honor of guiding students as they consider the path of the hero…that is the rich meaning of being an educator. It is not about being a hero as much as it is about being an ally and/or guide for heroes in the making, the students.

Teachers do important work. At their best, they are incredible guides, mentors, coaches, and even models. They are masterful designers of learning experiences and cultivators of learning communities. If people want to define that as a hero, then they will not get any opposition from me. Only, I caution myself and anyone who identifies as an educator to remind ourselves that, more than being a hero to the students, we exist to support the true heroes (or people on the path to the heroic life), the students. To be an ally and guide as a student embraces and persists with such a call, that is one of the most heroic things that I can imagine for a teacher.

Ultimately, if people protest my concern and line of thinking on this subject, I’ll finally concede. After all, a “hero” in my childhood said it this way:

“When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me.” – Fred Rogers