Within my 5 year-old’s book collection from which we read each night is a book called Superhero Dad. You can imagine the storyline. The young protagonist in the picture book claims his father is a superhero and proceeds to list the reasons. The dad is fun, knows what his kid likes and engages him in those activities, builds things, fixes things, and even scares away the monsters. In the classic expression of fatherly love, the father claims that he is not the superhero, but in fact, it is his son who is a superhero.
As the new school year begins, I’m reminded of the heroes that reside among us...our teachers.
Unless you’ve been a teacher, it’s hard to truly appreciate how complicated and demanding the profession can be. At a recent conference I attended, a well known neurologist and researcher remarked that teaching requires a heavier “cognitive load” than just about any profession that exists, as much or more than a surgeon. This might come as a surprise to many, but not to those of us who are privileged enough to work alongside teachers every day.
In any hero’s journey, it’s important to consider what the hero is up against. So let’s take a gander at what our teachers are up against. For the classroom, teachers spend countless hours preparing instructional experiences that have the best chance of meeting the differing needs and interests of 20-35 children (over 100 children for secondary teachers), all of whom have different levels of foundational knowledge about each topic that is taught. And those children? Not a one has a fully developed brain or sense of self; many of them come with anxiety, trauma, and challenges that are outside of their control. The languages they speak at home are often different than the one in which they are expected to learn, and their homes vary in size and comfort; some don’t even have a place to call home. Teachers in many districts are expected to purchase their own materials for the classroom taken from already low salaries that in most states have not kept pace with the increase in salary in nearly every other profession that requires a college education. In the San Francisco Bay Area where a fixer upper in a decent neighborhood can cost $2 million, teachers often live over an hour’s drive from their school, simply to be able to afford to live on a teacher’s salary.
During awake hours, teachers often spend more time with our children than we parents do. Not only are teachers engaged in teaching our students how to read, calculate, understand history, and deploy the scientific method, they are also teaching our children how to be good people. Teachers navigate a daily balancing act as they try to make sense out of a sometimes dark, confusing, hypocritical and intolerant world while managing the emotions of our young people. For example, they must teach our children how damaged our environment has become as a result of choices we adults have made for many generations and choices we often continue to make, highlighting the real possibility that the world is doomed if we don’t do something dramatic very soon, all while not freaking the children out or placing blame on anyone they know or love. In the same breath that they provide a safe and nurturing environment, they must prepare students for the very real possibility of violence hitting their community or school. Teachers do more than teach every day. They provide counsel, therapy, conflict resolution services, executive functioning coaching, nursing and emergency services, health and wellness advice, furniture repair, tech wizardry, and parenting support. They do all this and more knowing that everyone is watching nearly every decision they make, some doing so in preparation to pounce whenever they perceive a teacher to have made a mistake.
Anyone in this line of work would need some tools to help meet these challenges head on. As all heroes have one or more “super”power to help them triumph, teachers have many at their disposal. Teachers have an uncanny ability to see potential in our children that we often struggle to see ourselves. They are “kid whisperers” speaking possibility into the minds and hearts of our young ones. Teachers can teach children how to read the written word--the most important gift anyone can be given. Teachers give supernatural hugs; they also have outsized hearts for caring and superpowered hearing for listening patiently and understanding. They can somehow read hundreds of narrative essays and find the uniqueness in each. Teachers possess magnificent feedback-skills, providing insight that challenges our children to stretch beyond what’s comfortable. Deep within our teachers exists emotional x-ray vision that allows them to know when our children are hurting, or lonely, or bored. Quick with a snack when our little ones are hungry, encouragement when they are sad, and the just-right-book when a lesson needs to be learned, our teachers seem to always have the right tool when they need it. And with a bullhorn or whistle one teacher can manage scores of little ones on a playground, a feat few of us mortals could hope to accomplish.
Like most heroes, teachers give the credit to others. As a group, teachers are some of the most selfless people on the planet. Were they motivated by fame, money, or prestige, they most certainly would not have chosen a career in teaching. While most people, parents in particular, have a deep and abiding respect for teachers, you wouldn’t necessarily know that by the way the profession is sometimes maligned by the news media or politicians. When they do receive praise and accolades, they regularly deflect, opting instead to shine the light on the children they serve. Their support of our children extends beyond the classroom walls, too. It is common to see teachers in the stands at their students’ sporting events or in the audience at their plays. Some of the biggest fans in our kids’ lives are the people they call teacher.
Teachers are very much like the dad in the children’s book I read to my son, as the father closes his hero’s journey deflecting his own heroicness and breathing a message of encouragement in his son.
“Superhero Dad,” I say, “you are the best by miles.”
My dad says, “I’m no superhero,” then he stops and smiles.
But I know a superhero who is brave and kind and fun.”
Who is it?
“Why, it’s you! You are my superhero son.”
-Tim Knapman, Superhero Dad
Teachers do that everyday. They whisper into the hearts and minds of our kids that they are, in fact, the superheroes of their own tales. They help our kids discover their own superpowers and then send them out into the world to use those powers to do good and be good.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.