Education and Martyrdom

How much work is too much work?

This question presents a constant struggle that educators are faced with. Many struggling students need the extra support and help that teachers can give. Yet giving that extra support takes extra time. What does that extra time cost?

When I was at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire as an undergrad, I struggled with this question constantly. On one hand, I had personal life goals – starting a family, authoring a book, becoming great at Ultimate frisbee. On the other hand, I wanted to become a great teacher, and I was told constantly that becoming a great teacher required sacrifice. How much sacrifice was required to be a great teacher? At the time, it seemed that I would not be able to balance my personal and professional goals.

Then I heard Manuel Scott speak.

Manuel Scott was one of the original Freedom Writer students, whose story was told in the 2007 movie Freedom Writers. He was an excellent speaker, and I still teach with some of the strategies he discussed from his presentation, seven years ago. Yet, one phrase still stands out from the hour I was with him that evening.

“Don’t become a martyr to education.”

Manuel discussed the wonders that his teacher, Erin Gruwell, was able to instill within their shared classroom at Woodrow Wilson High School. However, he cautioned us not to walk the same path that she did in her personal life. He discussed how her marriage fell apart, and how the classroom they shared became the only driving force in her life. The movie Freedom Writers highlights some of the personal sacrifices she made for Manuel Scott, and his peers.

After hearing Manuel speak, it changed many of my thoughts on sacrifice and education. I realized that while great teaching did require time and effort, it did not require great personal sacrifice.

Unfortunately, it seems that much of the culture surrounding public education in the United States celebrates the teacher that becomes the martyr. In some ways, this has almost become an expectation for public teachers. The martyr is celebrated, but the great teacher who does not take great sacrifices is forgotten.

As you begin teaching this school year, take heed of what sacrifices you are taking. Consider what sacrifices you are asked to take, what sacrifices you need to take, and what sacrifices you are willing to take. Do the best you can at your job, but don’t sacrifice more than you are comfortable. Remember, despite all that she accomplished, Erin Gruwell only taught for four years before leaving.

Don’t become an educational martyr.

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