What We Call Teachers: The Rhetoric of Martyrdom

Glenwood Springs Post Independent October 16, 2015

Across our drama-hungry nation, the media is abuzz with reports of the country-wide ‘teacher shortage.’ Columnists, anchors, and NPR murmerers are eloquently wringing their hands and pointing their fingers at a variety of causes, as school districts sink further into ‘crisis.’ Here in our valley, this issue has been intimately discussed in the PI’s coverage of the ‘Cost of Paradise,’ and, as a middle school teacher in her fifth year, I have felt the financial struggle on a personal level, especially as my own little family grows. But I am an English teacher, so instead of giving you yet another column about money (vote for 3B!), I am going to write about words.

In fact, I am going to tell you that if we ever want to ‘fix’ our education system, the first thing we all need to do, right now, is change the words we use when we talk about teachers.

And no, I’m not talking about the words my eighth grade students use when I give them homework again. I’m talking about the words like ‘sacrifice,’ ‘selfless,’ ‘underpaid,’ ‘overworked,’ and ‘saintly.’ Never used that last one? Ok, fair enough. But lets talk about the others.

Many of you reading that list just now may have pictured any number of internet articles, inspirational essays, or “Thank a Teacher” memes that you or your friend recently shared in SUPPORT of teachers. You are thinking that those words are positive and respectful and that if nothing else, can’t you at least tell teachers how much you appreciate them?

Sure, tell them personally. Give them coffee, chocolate and wine (maybe not in that order). But what I want us to realize is that every time we share and discuss the teaching profession using the rhetoric of martyrdom, we further entrench in our cultural understanding the notion that teaching is not actually a profession. Words shape our attitudes, and attitudes shape our actions. History has proved this over and over again.

Still confused and maybe a little defensive? Let me put it this way:

Think of any real-life Disney/Lifetime movie where the mother or father is becoming so wrapped up in their career that they are beginning to neglect their family. Weekend trips are canceled, dinners eaten late and cold, and teenagers begin acting out. Throughout such a movie, the career-blinded individual learns a valuable lesson about what is really to be treasured in this life, and in the end, they throw away their cell phone, or call their boss a PG-13 word, and then quit to spend more time with the people they love.

Now go back to those internet memes about teachers. On several of them is a reference to this exact scenario: ‘Giving up your weekends to help me accomplish my dreams.’ In any other situation, the parents/spouses who do that for their job would be condemned as selfish and career driven. But in teaching? That same sacrifice is at the center of their accolades. Why the dual standard? Why allow teachers to be ‘martyrs’ and ‘inspirations’ for the same actions that get the better-paid professionals condemned? How many excellent teachers have left the field because what society expects them to be is unsustainable when they have their own family, and maybe even, their own dreams?

Every time we repeat the idea, even from a place of gratitude, that teachers are under-appreciated for all the extra work they do, we are only strengthening that expectation as a cultural norm. And for as long as this is our status quo, our nation will continue to struggle to find the professionals needed to educate its future.

I always tell my students that words are powerful. I tell them this because I believe it. Change the future of education? Change the words you use when you talk about it.

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