The Myth of the Serving Teacher

by: Timothy 

When I heard about the teacher strike in Chicago I worried about labor first. It would seem that the political right in Governor Walker from Wisconsin and the political right-of-center in Mayor Emanuel from Chicago are united in their disrespect for the laborer. The disrespect is not just local either. The teacher as laborer is being disrespected from national political figures like Arne Duncan and Jay Carney through their insistence that they are confident that all those involved in the strike have the children’s best interest at heart. This move to begin and end with the children’s best interest is insulting to laborers at best and disingenuous at even better.

Is it too much to hope that in this adult issue, Emanuel, Duncan, Carney, and by extension Obama would have the workers’ best interests at heart?

Perhaps it is. But the focus on what is best for the children is part of an extended and well-worn myth of the serving teacher that competes with the laboring teacher. Dishearteningly enough, the myth of the serving teacher does not allow the laboring teacher to exist.

Simply put, the myth of the serving teacher is a reductive discourse that suggests teachers can create dangerous minds. Teachers can help students stand and delivery. When students’ worlds crumble from the weight of social injustice, teachers can ask students to lean on them for support. And like most myths, there is some truth to it. Teachers help students find voice in a world that would prefer they stay silent. Teachers sometimes say in literature classes that Walt Whitman was gay because they know that gay history is important, too. Teachers can have their doors open for conversations when students walk into their office without shoes on because they had to escape a horrible home situation too quick. Many teachers take aspects of the myth of the serving teacher and hold dearly onto them. So, I am not really talking about what teachers actually do. I am talking about a discourse of service that suggests that this is only what teachers do. The reduction is the lie and it serves nefarious ends.

Under this myth of the serving teacher the following—among others—are true:

  • Teachers should want to work longer hours at the same pay because it serves the children. Teachers should want to sacrifice parts of their income to create environments that are more inviting for children.
  • Teachers should want to form deeply emotional connections with children because such connections change lives children’s lives.

When a competent teacher who demands respect for her labor fails to do any one of those things she is met with contempt. When we are asked to keep the children at the center of this strike, we are asking that we turn our attention away from the teacher as a laboring body. We ask that she suffer a bit longer while we do more important work of making sure the kids are alright. Ironically, by keeping children at the center of the strike, we reveal our distrust of teachers to carry out the myth without questions. Within the discourses are the keys to ideologies undoing!

If I felt that my labor was devalued and made to feel untrustworthy to educate young people in ways that I believe are important chances are I would strike, too.

Timothy  is a teacher of writing  He is an occasional Twitter user and obsessive FaceBook checker. When he grows up he wants to be Barney Frank during the 1980s or Rachel Maddow at any point in her life.

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