Teaching and Learning

I Am Not Everything to Students

I saw this tweet the other day, and on the surface, it sounds like an amazing acknowledgement of the work of teachers:

But listen…

Teachers are not EVERYTHING to students.

Nor should they be.

When we see ourselves as EVERYTHING, as touchers of souls and builders of community, we see ourselves as saviors.

We are not saviors.

Chris Emdin, author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, explains why the savior concept is an issue:

The savior complex is … problematic because it reinforces the notion that the teacher is the hero. To be a good teacher the effective skill you need is not ego. It’s humility. You look at the natural, raw, unpolished beauty of the neighborhood, and if you are looking to save someone, you cannot see that.

Author’s Advice to White Teachers in Urban Schools: Drop the ‘Savior Complex’ and Learn from Students, by Maya Elie

When I started teaching in San Diego, I landed a job at an urban middle school in which I, as a Caucasian female, could easily blend in with 90% of the staff, but only 10% of the students. The first two years were rough. I had classroom management issues and struggled to find ways for the students to learn the content.

The issue wasn’t the students. It was me. I thought I could walk in the room with my fancy bulletin boards and my writer’s workshop book and my Holt pacing guide and make a difference. I thought I could teach.

But my curriculum, my teaching strategies, and my approach was rooted in ideas like those shared above. I thought that my teaching would save my students…awaken them to new ideas and give them opportunities for a future beyond their urban world.

And then I met Glenn Singleton, leader of “Beyond Diversity” professional development for our staff. He challenged every assumption I had about teaching, about students, about the urban city I drove in to and out of every day for work. His training forced me to consider the stories I chose for the class to read, the behavior rules I had established, and the communications I sent to families.

In short, he made me realize that I was not a savior. In fact, I was far from a savior. Many of my practices were harmful to the students of color and to the community. I was a road block, an enforcer of inequity. My inability to see beyond my whiteness, to see how my whiteness permeated every decision I made in that school, was not creating an environment for my students to thrive. It was perpetuating systemic racism.

I had to make a lot of changes, and I’m still making changes, to become a better teacher, a better anti-racist accomplice, and a better human.

I’ve come a long ways since then, and I still have a long ways to go. But I’ll tell you one thing I know:

I am not the transformers of generations, because to say so is to say that some cultures are in need of transformation.

I am not the builder of communities because the communities are rich with culture and history and should be valued for such.

I am not the refresher of spirits because I am part of a systemic institution that often equates black and brown spirit to bad behavior.

I am not the toucher of souls because I am not godly.

I am not the connector of knowledge because my connections are not your connections and my knowledge is not all knowledge.

I am not EVERYTHING to students.

2 Comments

  • Erick Carpenter – The road – We are on a road trip FOR a Lifetime. YAHOO!

    Erick Carpenter

    Laura, great article. While I agree, teachers should not be required to be all of the above, they are expected to be. A referee, a confidant, a disciplinarian, the list goes on. The things my mother did in her 27 year career as an elementary school teacher would get her arrested today. She made housecalls when children were in very poor conditions. She brought lunches for some that were just this side of malnourished. She spoke plainly and deliberately to parents. Even called the cops on some. She had children with severe mental and emotional issues and this was long before counselors in schools were anything to speak of. She found ways to deal with these issues, and years later, those kids held her in high regard. I could go on, but the point to all this, is that realized or not? you will make an impact on these kids lives, even if only minor. I have my list of teachers that made an impact on my life, most of whom are no longer alive. All I could do was go back and thank them personally. It was the best i had. so to that, in case the kids cant find you today?

    Thank you.

    • Laura Spencer – San Diego, CA – I've been teaching since I was old enough to speak! Former high/middle school English and Yearbook teacher, I am now an edu administrator focused on transformative learning experiences for students and teachers. In my (not so) spare time, I also teach college courses on learning design, Ed Tech, and educational pedagogy.

      Laura Spencer

      It’s not about required versus expected…it’s about teachers who see themselves as saviors. There are some racial and cultural issues with this approach. When we see ourselves as “everything” then we dismiss their other connections and lives. For some kids, we may be their everything but it’s not our place to just assume this almost godly, pedestal status.

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