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Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles   |   Mar 31, 2019

No, teachers, you don’t have to consume yourself to light the way for others

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

No, teachers, you don’t have to consume yourself to light the way for others

By Angela Watson

This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: We’re debunking 10 of the most annoying — and dangerous —teacher platitudes. I’ll share my thoughts, along with the opinions of other educators from a great discussion on my Facebook page.

If there’s a common saying in education that’s always sort of bugged you but was so popular you felt like you must be the ONLY one concerned, this is going to be super validating and empowering!

Read or listen in as we question these platitudes, and consider some more accurate truths that allow you to define the role of a teacher for yourself.

Want to listen instead of read?

Download the audio, and listen on the go!

A good teacher is like a candle, consuming itself to light the way for others

Being a good teacher does NOT mean consuming yourself. I love the way a teacher named Chavie reframed this in the comments: “How about, ‘Good teachers are like a candle, because they can enable others to shine without shining any less themselves’?”

I love that twist, and it’s so true — one candle can be used to light another, without losing any of its own flame or light. It’s a matter of sharing the fire. A candle doesn’t have to be completely consumed to be useful. In fact, the opposite is true.

Teachers don’t do it for the income; they do it for the outcome

This is another platitude that’s similar, submitted by Kristina.  I remember sharing a quote image online a long time ago that said that, and I thought it was so clever.

But as Donna commented, “I actually do it for both. Making a difference and making a living are not two mutually exclusive goals. Just because you want to make a positive impact doesn’t mean you can’t also care about making money.” As Rachel added, “Outcomes won’t put food on the table for my family.” Well said.

It’s all for the kids / do it for the kids

Here’s one that’s always bothered me a lot, submitted by Melinda. “Every time something is added to our plates, we are told, ‘It’s in the best interest of the students.’ Don’t try to guilt me!”

Kendra added, “It’s what’s best for kids. Yes–I hear that often whenever they want to add to the to-do list.” Betsy said, “We do it all for the kids. But I do this for my mortgage too.” Teachers, yes! There is no shame in that.

Vanessa added, “I like kids, but If I didn’t get paid, I’d be doing something else.” Thurmiere complimented her by saying, “I totally respect your honesty. So many teachers are politically correct when it comes to why they teach. But the reality is that teaching is a job that pays the bills (like any other job). I guarantee most teachers wouldn’t show up on Monday if they had to volunteer teach for life! (unless of course, they have a steady income stream from somewhere else).”

We have to let go of the belief that wanting to make enough money to live comfortably is somehow selfish or bad or antithetical to being a teacher. Every caring teacher I know also cares about the paycheck and we shouldn’t have to hide that to embrace the martyr mentality that’s been forced on us.

Do “whatever it takes.”

That leads to a good one, submitted by John. He wrote:  “Um, no. Boundaries matter.”

Laura chimed in with, “Yes, and it’s equivalent: you must always put the kids first; do it for the kids. No, teachers cannot be required to sacrifice their mental and physical health ‘for the kids’ or ‘do whatever it takes’ at the expense of their own wellbeing!”

As an aside here, I’ll tell you about a counter-quote that I really love, and not surprisingly, it didn’t originate from the education space. It’s “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

One is born to teach

Eric mentioned the platitude of “One is born to teach”.and says, “This obscures the fact that great teachers are made through hard work, study, practice, reflection, etc. As a teacher educator, this one drives me nuts.”

I have to admit, I’d never thought of it that way before, because I do feel like I was born to teach. I am a teacher at heart, and I do that every day, all day long, in one capacity or another. I was that teacher who used to play school when I was five and always dreamed of having my classroom.

But Eric’s totally right. A great teacher is not just born that way. Yes, you might have the desire to teach inherently, and it might feel like your calling or your purpose, but it requires a tremendous amount of learning, practice, experimentation, reflection, and growth. Teaching is a craft which must be perfected over time. And if we reduce it to something where you’re just born to be a teacher, that really downplays all the hard work, skill, and money that went into being trained as a teacher.

Teaching is a calling

Christy says it’s not a calling: “It’s a career that you went to school for a long time and devote so much of yourself into. You should be paid for it. However, each time a teacher says this, someone hears, ‘Teachers don’t need to be paid more. They get to do what they love.’”

I’ve been rethinking that a lot, too, especially with that interview I did with Jenn Binis in EP153 on how teachers are historically overworked and undervalued. I read the book she recommended by Dana Goldstein called The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.

Dana talks about how at the beginning of the common school era (which eventually led to our American public school system), teaching was seen as a calling which one would devote one’s life to. It was like entering a ministry or becoming a nun: Women teachers were required to be single and childless and devote themselves selflessly to their students. Many teachers were young teenagers — 14, 15 years old — and teaching was viewed basically as unskilled labor. It was seen as an extension of mothering (which is obviously unpaid) and the main job of a teacher was to impart morality and manners, not academics. Obviously, salaries were commensurate with that view of the profession as a ministry or a calling.

So when we talk today about being born to teach or teaching being a calling, we’re reinforcing that narrative that has persisted for 200+ years in America about teaching being something that you do because you were called to dedicate your life to it. You don’t demand that your own needs be met in ministry (at least, not in popular opinion.) You submit to the calling and sacrifice your own needs for it.

But today, teaching is supposed to be a career. Teachers are degreed and highly trained professionals. So even if a person feels like teaching is a calling, we have to counter the narrative that it’s a calling which is supposed to be totally selfless. That’s not accurate at this point in time and it’s certainly not healthy, given all the demands that are placed on teachers and justified because “you’re doing it all for the kids.”

I teach; what’s YOUR superpower?

Now this is interesting. It’s one I personally found empowering until I reflected a bit more on Amy’s comment: “It’s not a superpower. It’s freaking hard work and we are human beings with limits.”

Patrick added, “Frankly, I hate this phrase with anything being the ‘superpower,’ as a superpower would be something that just happens to you, that you have no control over. Which means the task is extremely simple for you to do, or takes very little effort.”

And Vanessa pointed out that, “The concept that teachers are superheroes means they can do everything at the same time. But teachers are human beings who need to take care of themselves in order to take care of their students.”

If a student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught

Nanette mentioned this, writing, “I’m not a miracle worker, I’m just a human.” Debra added, “And I’m only one variable in that person’s life.”

A good teacher can manage any class size

Regina mentioned a platitude around class size: “If a teacher has strong classroom management skills, it doesn’t matter if there are 15 or 35 students in a class. But it does matter. I’ve had both size classes and everything in between. You can obviously give more attention per student if there are fewer children in the class.”

We teach students, not a subject area

Zendre wrote, “I get so tired of reading, ‘We teach students, NOT math/reading/science/ELA/etc.’ This is a false dichotomy: It’s not an either-or situation. I don’t choose between students and the subject I love. It’s a fake problem to pretend like teachers must choose between teaching children or teaching the subject they love. It’s the fact that I love BOTH my subject AND children that makes me love teaching and makes me desire to gain expertise with students and math. I often say it this way: ‘I love walking beside children as they learn mathematics. I love being there when they discover they are, in fact, good at math, that math is neat, etc.'”

Data should drive instruction

Mindi wrote, “We’re always hearing that data should drive instruction. But a good portion of the data is not relevant or accurate representations of what they can or can’t do.”

THAT’s a powerful point, and it made me think a lot about why the term data-driven has bothered me so much. True confession time: I never really used data to drive my instruction. Influence and inform my instruction … of course. But drive it? Never.

I don’t need test scores to tell me if a kid understood what I taught. The logical, concrete stuff is just one piece of information. My intuition, observation, and anecdotal evidence matters just as much and is often even more accurate because it’s holistic and doesn’t reduce a child’s learning to a score on an assignment.

I know–as a human being with a connection to my kids–when a student did poorly because his parents were fighting the night before and he was distracted. The data doesn’t tell me that.

I know the kid who seemed to master the standards really doesn’t know how to think critically or problem-solve but has simply done so many test prep activities she can fake it for an exam. The data doesn’t tell me that.

Teachers, your humanness, your connections with kids, your relationships and observation skills matter. They are integral to the job even though they are not measured, so don’t let anyone discount that in your mind.

So there you have it, a dozen-ish teacher platitudes debunked. If it seems like I’m passionate about this kind of stuff right now, I am. If it seems like I’m talking a lot about big picture stuff on the podcast these days, and things around how teachers are treated and how the profession is viewed, I am.

I share with you on this podcast what I’ve been learning and focusing on myself. And over the course of this past year, and particularly these past six months when I was writing this new book “Fewer Things Better”, I began to see some things that I can’t unsee now.

I want to share as much information with you as possible about how you as a classroom practitioner can take charge of your profession and rewrite the teaching narrative and define the work you do for yourself.

I’d love for you to share in the comments:

What teacher trope or platitude do you wish you’d never hear again? 

Thank you, Advancement Courses, for sponsoring today’s podcast episode. You can earn graduate credits or CEUs through over 200 online PD courses in 19 different subject areas for K-12 teachers. Everything is online and self-paced, and you have 6 months to complete. Right now, you can save 20% off each course with code TRUTH20 – that’s just $120 per graduate credit hour. To learn more, visit advancementcourses.com/truth.


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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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  1. Thank you! I love this! I also work to empower teachers to STOP “doing it all” and put themselves first. I became a better teacher the day I took control of my career by setting limits, starting something of my own and taking care of myself. I enjoy helping other teachers do the same! Karen Capone

    1. Thank you for being our cheerleader! I love what I do and it has taken over my life. I’ve hit rock bottom and now I’m working to pull myself up. Thanks to people like Mrs.Watson and you for paving the road fo teachers who live what they do as a career to find balance.

  2. “Be Flexible.”. I hate that phrase.

    “It is a district directive.” These people haven’t taught in YEARS!

  3. “Teaching is a NOBLE profession.” Ugh. It is no more NOBLE than any other profession. Plus the term NOBLE tends to suggest that what you are doing doesn’t need much compensation because you’re doing it for NOBLE reasons. Um, no, I teach because it is a profession I was drawn to, trained for and work hard @ it every day. Just like my peers who went into other careers.

  4. Work smarter not harder. Lord how I hate this phrase! You are told this everytime you are about to be slapped with a bunch of changes or new expectations. No one ever explained how I do this….

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