A Counter-Narrative to the Double-Edged Myth of the Heroic Teacher


Jim Burns I Education I Analysis I September 21st, 2015



The most recent round of financial woes to afflict Pennsylvania's Chester Upland School District have left the district unable to cover its payroll, yet the district's educators have vowed to continue working with no guarantee of being paid. The district's current iteration of a long-running financial crisis reportedly stems from a failed amendment to the district's recovery plan, which sought to reduce the transfer of public funds to charter schools for special education students from $40,000 per year to $16,000 per year and to cap public funding of cyber charters at $5,059 per year (see Sullivan, 2015). Those transfers of public funds to charter schools and virtual charters have been bankrupting the district and threaten to end public education in Chester Upland, a move straight out of the neoliberal playbook:


· Reduce public funding, particularly state funding, to public K-12 and higher education;

· Siphon public education funds to charter schools;

· Manufacture a crisis of "educational failure" through bankrupting public schools;

· Dismantle public support for public education through false narratives of market choice.


It is troubling enough that the neoliberal formula of accumulation through dispossession (Harvey, 2005, 2014) is being played and replayed by Republicans and Democrats alike: from Chester Upland to Scott Walker's Koch-fueled dystopian reframing of the "Wisconsin Dream;" from Rahm Emanuel's anti-union scorched-earth closure of nearly 50 public schools in Chicago, to Chris Christie, who in a boorish bid for cheap presidential applause lines remarked that national teacher unions should be punched in the face (Layton, 2015); from crippling gubernatorial and legislative attacks on public K-12 and higher education in North Carolina, to the planned destruction of public education in the New Orleans "Recovery" District, currently a confusing mess of charters run by gentrifying neoliberal edupreneurs (Burras, 2011).

Equally troubling, however, is the simplistic portrayal of the decision by Chester Upland's educators to work without pay as an act of selfless sacrifice, which perpetuates the double-edged myth of the heroic teacher. Even Diane Ravitch, who has devoted her work over the last few years to disrupting and discrediting what curriculum scholar William Pinar (2012) calls corporate education "deform," characterized Chester Upland's teachers as "heroes of public education" (Ravitch, 2015). As a former public school teacher and now as a teacher educator, I understand Ravitch's sentiment in support of Chester Upland's teachers, and I do not intend to disparage those teachers or minimize the perpetual fiscal crisis that continues to victimize them, their students, and their community. Rather, I offer a counter-narrative to the heroic teacher myth so often deployed in public discourses in response to situations like that in Chester Upland through which the public seeks to assuage its guilt for its inaction in defense of public education, public school teachers, and most importantly the children and communities those teachers serve.

So what is the myth of the heroic teacher? It is a racialized, classed, gendered, ideologically-fueled narrative with a long history in American education. Steudeman (2014), for example, explores the heroic teacher myth through his analysis of Lyndon Johnson's association of the heroic teacher, which emerged from Johnson's own limited experience as a teacher (one year) and principal (one year) in Texas:

Summarizing his take on the entire experience, Johnson reflected that "those little brown bodies had so little and needed so much." Assuming the heroic teacher's power to transform students' lives, he continued: "I was determined to spark something inside them, to fill their souls with ambition and interest and belief in the future." (p. 478)

Thus, in expounding his teaching experience, Johnson further popularized the narrative of the heroic teacher, which "valorizes remarkable, transformational teachers as sacrificial saints who relentlessly strive to save their students. Through their motivation and tenacity, teachers can undo the ravages of poverty" (Steudeman, 2014, p. 480). In the long-term, Johnson's deployment of the heroic teacher myth contributed to de-politicizing teaching through conflating education policy with the war on poverty, which positioned public education, and its heroic teachers, as the focal point in eliminating poverty in America (Steudeman, 2014).

The formulaic narrative of the heroic teacher includes the image of a typically White "intrepid, often young, teacher, full of optimism and a bit of naiveté" who confronts seemingly endless and overwhelming challenges through which the teacher's students ultimately overcome whatever obstacles stand in their way (Steudeman, 2014, p. 480). Historically, the reification of the myth of the heroic teacher has in actuality fallen far short of its ostensive presentation as benign empowerment. The much darker side of the heroic teacher myth has been well documented in the context of genocidal violence, colonization, assimilationism, and deculturalization (Spring, 2009) targeted at African-American (Watkins, 2001) and Native American communities (Battiste, 2013; Reyhner & Eder, 2004; Spring, 2009), in which racist slogans such as "Kill the Indian to save the man" were common. The motif that runs through the heroic teacher narrative, from the Indian boarding schools, to Johnson's war on poverty, to the contemporary expectations foisted on teachers in the era of rampant neoliberalism, lies in what Paul Gorski (2011) calls deficit ideology. Deficit ideology "deflects our scornful gaze from the mechanisms of injustice and the benefactors of these mechanisms, and trains it, instead, on those citizens with the least amount of power to popularize a counter-narrative" (Gorski, 2011, p. 156). White teachers, still over 80% of the public teaching force, thus heroically shoulder the burden of saving "at-risk" students-racialized, classed code for communities of color impoverished by a history of institutional and structural oppression.

Cinematic and documentary films like Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, and Waiting for Superman further perpetuate both sides of the heroic teacher mythology in popular culture. These media portray teachers both as individual saviors and as unionized collective obstacles to be literally swept aside, as depicted by the December 8, 2008 cover of Time Magazine in which former DC Schools Chancellor and neoliberal education icon Michelle Rhee struck an intimidating pose in a classroom holding a broom ready to "fix America's schools." Unfortunately, even teacher educators can perpetuate the heroic teacher myth through unreflectively reproducing a false narrative that positions education as neutral or objective, which, like Lyndon Johnson's rhetoric, de-politicizes inherently political work. As Paulo Freire (2009) illustrated through his lifetime of teaching and praxis, no pedagogy is neutral.

Yes, the concomitant narrative of the heroic teacher as savior portrays teachers as villainous fallen angels, which has historically positioned teachers as convenient political targets of opportunity. For example, in the wake of Sputnik, as Pinar (2012) notes, rather than scrutinize America's vaunted Cold War military-industrial complex for America's falling behind in the space race, political and military leaders condemned the schools. In apocalyptic headlines such as "Reds Better Schooled in Math and Science" (Society for Science & the Public, 1957) a national security "failure" was reduced to simplistic questions such as "Why can't Johnny read?". Schools thus became outposts in the fight against communism via the National Defense Education Act, with included a flood of resources for science education.

By 1983, A Nation at Risk reframed workforce development and global economic competitiveness as our new national security concerns. As was the case in the late 1950s, anti-public intellectuals and burgeoning anti-public apparatuses such as corporate foundations, think-tanks, media, and the corporate state positioned America's schools and teachers as failing. The prescription: unleash the market's equally mythic invisible hand through which competition and choice would purportedly incentivize educational innovation and lead to greater educational outcomes. In what Michael Apple (2013) characterizes at the "Wal-Marting of America," schools, colleges, universities, and their faculty have been re-positioned as providers of educational services to students who have likewise been reframed as the consumers of those services. Inherent in the marketization of our schools and universities was the implementation of audit culture in education (Taubman, 2009) replete with the lexicon of corporate-speak: metrics, accountability, standards, value-added, entrepreneurial, innovation, choice, and on, and on.

In his analysis of the history of American anti-intellectualism, particularly American's preference for intelligence over intellect, Richard Hofstadter (1962/1963) noted:

In our education, for example, it has never been doubted that the selection and development of intelligence is a goal of central importance; but the extent to which education should foster intellect has been a matter of the most heated controversy, and the opponents of intellect in most spheres of public education have exercised preponderant power. (p. 25)

Hofstadter's (1962/1963) distinction between intelligence and intellect is instructive in understanding the history of American education policy and the double-edged heroic teacher myth. Americans have historically preferred intelligence because of its "practicality" that "works within the framework of limited but clearly stated goals" (p. 25). Americans have historically been less tolerant of intellect, the "critical, creative, and contemplative side of the mind," a quality "which is both praised and assailed" (Hofstadter, 1962/1963, p. 25). Americans tend to value an instrumental education in which people become "useful citizens" who are "honest, industrious, religious, and moral…untouched by the effeminate and perhaps even dangerous influence of the arts or scholarship" (Hofstadter, 1962/1963, p. 309). As the rush to the "war on terror" illustrated, Americans seemed to value a "decider" à la George Bush rather than a thinker à la Rebecca Solnit or Noam Chomsky.

Hofstadter's (1962/1963) analysis illustrates the ambivalence with which Americans have historically held education, and that ambivalence has provided the fertile ground from which narratives of teachers as heroes and villains have grown. In current discourses, teachers are simultaneously venerated and vilified. Chester Upland's teachers are portrayed as tragic heroes, while public education and public school teachers as organized labor are excoriated by anti-intellectuals like Scott Walker and Chris Christie. Through it all, corporate education deform relies on the heroic teacher myth "as a normative expectation, demanding miraculous outcomes of educators with little additional support" (Steudeman, 2014, p. 501). Yet, as Pinar (2012) reminds us, when the miracles have historically failed to materialize, American ambivalence toward education positions teachers as deserving of Chris Christie's punch in the face.

No, Chester Upland's educators are not heroes. Rather, they are highly educated professionals whose commitment to their work and love for the children and community they serve have consistently been exploited by anti-intellectual ideologues whose only vision consists of destroying anything with the word "public" in front of it. American teachers have been trapped in a historic narrative in which they are expected to heroically sacrifice their time, talent, and personal financial resources for their students. These sacrifices include paying for classroom supplies and working "off-the clock" long after the students have gone home, work which lies beyond what their contracts cover. In just another sign of the ethical bankruptcy of neoliberalism, corporations wallow in protected speech and unrestrained political spending, and lobbyists for many of the same industries that seek to destroy public education enjoy unrestricted access to servile legislators. Yet our "heroic" teachers and other public workers who attempt to organize to protect their profession, and by extension the communities they serve, are vilified by grandstanding politicians and anti-public intellectuals whose twisted idea of citizenship is fueling consumption and commodifying everything and everyone in search of quick profits.

The myth of the heroic teacher being played out in Chester Upland and many other communities, illustrates a historic American paradox. In our continuing ambivalence toward education, teachers like those in Chester Upland are labeled as heroic for their "selfless" actions of working essentially as indentured servants. Simultaneously, teaching as a profession and a public trust is being viciously attacked and public K-12 and higher education dismantled by the real American thugs-largely privileged White, male, bloviating governors, anti-intellectual state legislators, and hyperbolic presidential candidates from both major parties doing the bidding of their corporate overlords. In our neoliberal dystopia, children are nothing more than disposable commodities useful only to the extent that they can generate a profit, whether for a textbook publisher, the hedge fund managers who run charter schools, or if all else fails, a privatized prison. Margaret Thatcher once argued that there is "no such thing as society, only individuals and families" (Giroux, 2014, p. 187). Viewed through Thatcher's anti-social lens, perhaps Americans love their own children, but considering the unraveling social fabric, anti-public demagoguery, and the reframing of individualism as nothing more than pure self-interest, it's hard to believe that as a culture Americans give a damn about anyone else's children.

Perhaps that's the tragedy and the prophetic warning illustrated in the myth of the heroic teacher. The myth flourishes in a culture that clings to what the late historian Ronald Takaki called the Master Narrative of American History-a powerful, popular, and inaccurate story of an exceptional nation-a culture that continues to prove incapable of understanding the tragedies and paradoxes in its own historic narrative. We proclaim to value freedom while we succumb to an increasingly militarized culture of hyper-masculine violence targeted at Others at home and manufactured enemies abroad. We worship a political, economic, and judicial infrastructure that commodifies poor communities of color through a system of neo-slavery known at the prison-industrial complex. We sanctimoniously pontificate about family values and the sanctity of life while we accept a calculus of disposability that condemns between one-fifth and one-quarter of our children to abject poverty where approximately one-half of the students attending public schools nationwide are classified as low-income. How can we reconcile claims to care about future generations when our enthrallment with the present and disavowal of our own history is destroying our environment and our people for quick profit and condemning future generations to suffer the consequences of our narcissistic greed and selfishness? The unreflective acceptance of, and blindness to, such contradictions signal a social, economic, and political system ethically bankrupted by the worship of neoliberalism, an order that can only collapse under its own slovenly weight.

And yet, it doesn't have to be this way. In his theorization of governmentality, Michele Foucault (as cited in Gordon, 1991, p. 46) concluded that to work in a governmental system "implies neither subjection nor global acceptance. One can simultaneously work and be restive. I even think that the two go together." Governmental systems, which perpetuate hegemony through promoting institutional practices aimed at controlling populations, also contain possibilities for what Foucault called the "'strategic reversibility' of power relations, or the ways in which the terms of governmental practice can be turned around into focuses of resistance" (Gordon, 1991, p. 5). Ziarek (2001) conceptualizes Foucault's strategic reversibility of power as an ethos of becoming noting that the multiple modalities through which power is actualized in bodies renders power open to the "reversal of forces" (p. 25). Thus, the very governmental system that produced the double-edged myth of the heroic teacher contains within it the fissures through which the seeds of dissent, resistance, the reframing of power relations, and a new narrative can grow.

Such forms of resistance, what I call a praxis of refusal, have occurred in the past in the form of freedom schools, which as Pinar (2012) notes, were an attempt to subvert an existing educational paradigm and create an alternative. That praxis of refusal in contemporary education is taking the form of the opt-out movement in opposition to obsessive standardized testing, and as union actions in places like Chicago and Seattle in opposition to the neoliberal narrative of teachers as failed heroes and the attempted destruction of public education. Teachers in Seattle, in voting unanimously to strike on September 9, 2015, agreed to do so specifically to press for "teams at each work site to identify and address structural inequities" among other demands (Trocolli, 2015). Such ethical praxis among teachers, working with students, parents, and community members in pursuit of equity and justice, exemplifies working restively within a governmental system to reframe power relations and create a new narrative not of heroism, but of courage. Parker Palmer (2011) reminds us that the word courage derives from the Latin cor, meaning heart, an integrative space "where our knowledge can become more fully human:"

When all that we understand of self and world comes together in the center place called the heart, we are more likely to find the courage to act humanely on what we know. (p. 6)

To truly honor and defend public education, teachers, children, our communities, and our democracy, we must work in solidarity and courageously-not heroically-to act humanely on what we know to be just in a governmental system predicated on greed, rapacious self-interest, cruelty, and hyper-masculinized institutional violence. As Foucault suggested, let us work and be restive.



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