You have probably seen those "Hero Teacher" movies where the selfless teacher goes into that inner-city school and saves the students however that teacher (usually a she) can manage. The teacher becomes a de facto parent, making visits to students' homes and tutoring the student on the teachers own time; the teacher reaches into her pocketbook and takes her students on field trips in order to give those students experiences that they would otherwise never have; the teacher dedicates her time and energy to her students to the point where her marriage deteriorates and eventually terminates.
And of course, we are constantly hearing from teachers who complain (or brag) about the hundreds of dollars that they spend out of their own pocket to buy supplies for their classroom that the district can't or won't provide.
What doesn't help in changing these entrenched opinions is when the education establishment itself calls for a continuation of this unrealistic altruism that is expected of teachers.
As I am not a member of the National Education Association/California Teachers Association, I instead belong to the Association of American Educators (AAE). The AAE sends me a monthly professional journal called Education Matters. I usually enjoy the articles in this journal, but every once in a while, our opinions clash. The front page article of the April 2010 issue provided one of these occasions.
The title of the article is rather intriguing: Teaching as Leadership: 6 traits of highly effective teachers. It was written by Jamie Davies O'Leary, who worked for a program called Teach For America (TFA).
While I certainly agreed with some of the writer's ideas of what makes an effective teacher, she lost me with trait #2:
Invest in students and their families. Teach For America doesn't have a monopoly on this; however, TFA may be unique in the extent to which its teachers will do nearly anything (dye their hair, shave their heads, pay for field trips out of their pockets) to motivate their pupils to learn.I will even stipulate that I would be willing to dye my hair, and I already shave my head, but pay for a field trip out my own pocket? Not on your life!
What people sometimes forget is that the kids I teach are not my kids. In fact, I never refer to the kids I teach as "my kids." I make it a point to always refer to them as "my students." I already have kids; two of them. I am not going to take money from their mouths or their college funds in order to pay for a field trip for a bunch of my students who have their own parents or adult guardians at home who have their own responsibility to provide those experiences to their own kids.
I already know what some of you are thinking: "Oh, but some of these children come from deprived homes where they will never get the chance to have so many of these life-enriching experiences unless you, the teacher, provide them."
To that I say: Not my problem. Regarding those 180+ students that I teach every day; I am not their parent, and I am not their friend. I am their teacher. Teaching is a job. I go to my job, I perform it, and I go home to my family. And make no mistake, my family comes first. Isn't that the way it is supposed to be? And if the parent(s) or legal guardians of some of the students I teach choose not to put their family first, it sucks, but there isn't anything I can do about it, except to do my utmost to provide the most informative and quality classroom lessons I can. And when the end-of-day bell rings, the students go home, and they are no longer my legal or moral responsibility.
There are teachers at my school who I believe to be overinvolved in the lives of their students. They let the students come in their classrooms every day to eat lunch; they give their students rides home; they regularly attend their students' sports and band events.
I am not one of those teachers, and I absolutely refuse to feel guilty about it for even one second. I believe that not only can a teacher be effective without "investing" in the lives of his students and their families, it is actually imperative that a teacher maintain a professional distance from his students and their families, and leave parenting of the students to the parents.
Even though many teachers entered the teaching profession with expectations of saving the world, further investigation will show that that particular endeavor is not in the job description.
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free... it expects what never was, and never will be." -Thomas Jefferson