In a World of Perceptions: Perceiving Oneself as a Teacher

Dec 16th, 2010 | Category: Research in Education
By Sara Kahn

I think I know why I teach. I hear other teachers talk, I read enough professional development books, and I find that I agree with William Ayers’ (2001) thoughts in To Teach:

I do this job because I love being in the company of children who need to learn. I love watching them become more competent and powerful in the world—I mean it. However, the real reason I teach—the real reason I do any of the grunt work, paper-pushing, complaining in the lounge, grading papers, planning field trips, developing curriculum—is because I love who I am the most when I am teaching. I become my “best self” when I’m in my classroom (Ayers, 1993).

I worked hard to earn the title of “teacher” and I want to live up to it. I feel that in order to live up to the title, I must work hard for the students. It is essential that I continue to drive the progress, humor, purpose, and communication as it exists within my classroom. I started the profession wanting something important to do with my life. I continue the profession knowing that it is more important than anything else I could do.

Now, that takes care of my personal motivation, but how does that manifest in the day-to-day practice? To entertain that question, I developed a project to examine my own perceptions of myself as a teacher, but also to examine how mainstream media perceives the teaching profession overall. As I began to research and ask questions, I quickly began to realize that it was necessary to problematize the media’s perception as it can result in damaging misunderstandings and rifts between different races, ages, and socio-economic standings. In addition, I felt that it was important to consider my students’ input in offering up their perception of me as their teacher, their perception of teachers overall, and how they see themselves as students. What became fascinating about this project is the significant disjoint I discovered through what I believe to be true of teaching vs. what the media believes to be true of teaching vs. what my students believe to be good teaching.

I consider this project a work in progress considering that perspectives can change over time. Even with the possibility that media will always use the same tropes and generalizations in their depictions of teaching, what I believe and what my students believe can change, is what makes this profession worthwhile, even if those who live outside of it are never able to see it for themselves.

In starting this effort, I committed to watching all the films where the routine is the same: difficult, cynical students (most often minority and many of whom have given up on their education) are inspired by their teacher and his/her eccentric practices—best referred to as the “Superteacher.” In this, I am attempting to pinpoint how they’ve affected my own psyche and see if I’m able to extend myself into figuring out why they are appealing on a broader scale. My plan involved watching one film after another where I am constantly reminded that a school’s primary purpose is to save its students (Burnaford, 2001). I already knew I was entering this task with some cynicism as it is my belief that there is danger involved in these films, even if it is unintentional—it’s through this inquiry that I’m out to see if these beliefs can be validated.

After many hours of film review, I decided to take this perception on the road and get a sense of what non-teachers think of these films. I asked friends, family members, a bartender or two—and their responses were remarkable in their consistency: the general population is genuinely inspired by these films. In a few cases, people were even able to cite a college friend who decided to teach after seeing Dangerous Minds. Validation.

But with that validation comes a scary realization: it’s not just the entertainment of a general audience that is at stake here. Teachers and students are entering into extremely treacherous territory here. Movies such as Dangerous Minds are deeply rooted in the assumption that low-income, minority students are hopeless and require a Superteacher in order to even have a remote chance of success. These movies continue to enforce the reputation of low-income minority students as being unruly and “unteachable.” Using Jean Baudrillard’s theory of hyper-reality, media is not necessarily a mirror of culture, but rather the model of how reality should be—that is, the unrealistic world into which one decides to shape their life (Farhi, 1999). When speaking of the general population, watching a film such as Dangerous Minds can be catastrophic in that the overall consensus can become that low-income, minority students are inherently ill-natured. I have to assume minorities are well aware of their representation in the media when it comes to stereotypes and caricatures, but when it comes to minority students and their dramatic representation in film, I would contend that the stereotypes do not come across as bothersome in comparison to the dippier, obviously unflattering caricatures in sitcoms. It must be noted, that these representations are no less dangerous to minorities, but are perhaps more accepted due to the fact that they are not meant to be humorous. The students in Dangerous Minds are meant to be realistic—tough, cynical, presumably burdened by the white “culture of power” (Delpit, 1988). The problem with this representation is that it may not be necessarily inaccurate in all cases, but its existence as a universal representation can be an exaggeration of minorities if it contains any truth at all (Michie, 1999, p. 97). If a general population believes this hyper-real representation as material, then racism, social stratification, and the belief that the youth of today are dim-witted, will continue to construct our prejudices and inflate the otherness that already exists between races and cultures. In addition, it becomes dangerous for low-income, minority students to take ownership of this hyper-reality because it provides a model of which they are expected to behave.

I once had a student come back to school after a five-day suspension and say “Ms. Kahn, you might as well give me some more work to take home with me right now.”

“Why?”

“I’ll be out on suspension again next week.”

“Did the office tell you that?”

“No, but if they think I’m bad, I’m gonna act bad.”

And thus, a student who had created a hyper-reality for herself. She believed that she should act “bad” to reflect the image and perception of “badness.”

To return to the disturbing matter of a person entering the teaching profession based on the profession’s hyper-reality, this has liability in that a school may end up getting burned in one of two ways: 1) in the media’s hyper-real classroom, the teacher who gets results is a teacher who works against the system. This teacher is deemed a “troublemaker” and ultimately let go at the end of the school year. Thus, this contributes to high turnover, low morale, and perpetuation of the stagnant, ineffective bureaucracy. 2) The teacher enters the profession with passion, urgency, and high expectations that can be swiftly squandered through binders of curriculum pacing charts, teacher contracts, staff development meetings, social committees, parent-teacher conferences, state standards, long evenings of entering grades, and plotting seating charts for the start of a new quarter. Yes, these are all demands of the job, but it also lends itself to the statistic that most teachers leave the profession by their fourth year.

When analyzing teacher images, Gail Burnaford, in her essay, “Teachers as Supporting Actors in Fiction,” brings forth the concept that teachers establish their image through their students (2001, p. 173). As a problem with the material vs. the hyper-real, if students decide to create their own image in the vein of their media trope, then the lens through which a student creates an image of their teacher becomes unstable. If this is the case in creating material images of teachers, then the honesty of the profession has been dissolved and the accuracy of the teacher image is at stake. With students reflecting a media image of themselves and teachers creating their own image from a students’ hyper-real identity, the material world of teaching becomes lost. This only creates further disjoint in schools in that students become prone to believe they are being victimized with the drama depicted on film. When teachers have realized that the teacher image in film is an inaccurate portrayal of the material profession, but still receive identity from their students who are not perceiving themselves materially (i.e. those whole believe they’re perceived as “bad” and therefore will act “bad”), then the potential natural rapport between student and teacher is lost. This ultimately convinces a teacher that the only way to “get through” to students is to demonstrate the Superteacher qualities that inadvertently fuel a contradiction with the profession and further force students to cling to the hyper-real image they have created of themselves. It becomes a large, unavoidable cycle that promotes the same tired tropes and clichés that have done nothing more than encourage the same antiquated thinking.

So what we end up having is a paradox between the reality of a teacher and the Superteacher. General audiences continue to be inspired and motivated by the Superteacher, but will not shy away from elaborate witch hunts when it comes to those boisterous, out-of-the-box types leading our childrens’ futures in direct opposition of our own cultural/community values. It has also been my experience that overtly emotional, progress-driven, creative teachers are continually chased out of classrooms for either 1) the perception of rabble-rousing or 2) their innovation is overshadowed by logistical weakness (i.e. the teachers were not well-organized, didn’t meet deadlines, showed clear adversity of “horse and pony” displays on behalf of administration, board of education, etc). Naturally, one could argue that these teachers cannot be considered in the “Superteacher” model due to these faults and perceptions, but regardless, still end up creating the image of what a “real life” teacher should not be if he/she is planning on career longevity and overall opportunity. Henceforth, the teacher persona which is now encouraged in the classroom becomes the Everyteacher.

In the tradition of the 15th-century morality play Everyman, “Good Deeds” are imperishable—the one thing that literally, every man can take with him into heaven. So, when one has teachers who plan on taking their good deeds into the classroom and are quickly discouraged in demonstrating such good, strong will in their practice, the irony is evident: good deeds will get one into heaven, but they sure as hell better not enter the classroom.

What does all this do to the psyche of the Everyteacher? The Superteacher is not welcome in the classroom and good intentions will inevitably pave the road to hell. The discrepancies between the Superteacher and the Everyteacher become enormous, and although the Everyteacher may learn that lesson very quickly in his/her first year of teaching, it does not register with those who perpetuate the myth of the Superteacher outside of the realm of education and make it their naïve belief that this is what should be in the classroom despite its trouble-making reputation, once hired. Again, there are some clear issues when it comes to the boundaries between the representational and the reality (Fisher, 2008), and many times the only people who recognize this are those in the field of education. It is my contention that administrators desire the “milquetoast”—the “professionals” who will overwork and meet deadlines. Students want to be able to do their work to get a good grade. Teachers frequently become the characters who desire to change the system most—identifying problems, concerns, and pressing issues. However, the preference for the paper-pushing “professional” reduces the desire of teachers to mere complaints in the lounge. Now, this is not to say that every complaint of a teacher is a diluted call to arms, but as a teacher, the ones who seem dissatisfied most with the system of teaching are the teachers.

I must believe because so many teachers become the job, we have been so psychologically convinced that “Superteacher” is obtainable without consequence. Teachers believe that good deeds have a place, but understand that professionalism and political neutrality are essential in maintaining their career. Hyper-reality becomes a significant issue in that the boundaries become clear to teachers who over time fall prey to the “burnout” epidemic and become part of the statistic that teachers only stay in the profession for an average of four years. All desire for change is eventually squelched as teachers realize the boundary between the representational teacher and the material teacher (Fisher, 2008). Thus, the bittersweet mutation of the Everyteacher commences—society has another person in the classroom whose desire is to change the world, but who maintains their job security by sticking strictly to the script.

What makes the trope of the Superteacher even that much more dangerous is the general public, referred to henceforth in this act as “The Outsider.” The Outsider is one who views teachers as doing genuinely good deeds in an effort to change the world. The Outsider is not privy to the politics of education and creates the character of “teacher” as the doting nurturer—one who “does God’s work.” This is immensely harmful in that it assumes that communities served by teachers are always adversarial and that the business of being a teacher comes down to the quantity of appreciation they receive. When the general consensus is that teachers are underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated, a teacher’s motivation for entering the field is never mentioned, for it is assumed that even with so many miserable aspects to teaching, the teacher enters the profession to make a difference—this isn’t necessarily the biggest issue concerning the Outsider as it is how an Outsider must perceive the community and its children in order to believe the teacher-as-saint (Ayers, 2001, p.201).

On vacation in South Carolina in the summer of 2008, I was on a fishing charter. As the afternoon wore on, the conversation turned to the respective occupations of those of us on board. When prompted I said “teacher.” This is the exchange that followed:

Captain: “What do you teach?”

Me: “8th grade language arts…er…uh, English. Middle School.”

First Mate: “Whoa, that’s a hard age. You got any Blacks?”

Me: “Uh…(pause) Yeah. They’re all Black.”

First Mate: “Well, God Bless ya.”

The mere act of believing that I am of higher caliber based on my profession is the foundation of Superteacher myth. That my students are of a minority and low-income demographic plays into the myth that an Outsider will choose to believe is evidence that teaching is difficult work. It becomes exploitative of my students in that they are placed as the cause to which my effect as a teacher serves purpose (Michie, 1999, p. 95). The demographic make-up of my students is the only element that puts me in a place of “sainthood” (Ayers, 2001, p.201). What is important to acknowledge about my exchange on the fishing charter, is that both teachers and students allow themselves to be mythologized by the Outsider. The Outsider creates the significance of my profession and creates the trope of the low-income minority as “trouble.” In turn, what becomes troubling is that the people who are stake—that is, the teachers and the students—are allowing the Outsider to create the trope and in turn, living within it to serve each other. Even when an Everyteacher has understanding of the Superteacher myth, he/she will still be aware that it exists and begin to form his/her worth against its (il)legitimacy.

I am of the belief that my students do not need a Superteacher in order to learn. That the trope of the Superteacher entering a classroom of minority, at-risk students and immediately getting results out of students who have been academically low-performing for all their preceding school years is a tremendous falsehood. To generalize my students as their similar demographic as depicted in popular media would be inaccurate. However, on the other side of this argument, there is the statistically-proven achievement gap—which many of my students reflect. So determining where my teaching practice exists within these poles is where I have taken concern.

I had already been told by the Outsider that my work is difficult. I had already compared myself to the tropes in film who also teach low-income, minority students. I know I live in fear of being perceived as a Superteacher Wannabe. Now, with all of this pre-existing information, theory, and perception, I decided to take the next logical step and sought to discover how my students perceive me.

Previously I had mentioned that the way a student perceives his/her teacher may become dependent on whether that student has played into the student trope. That is to say, if a student has decided to act “bad” because he/she has already been perceived as “bad,” then the perception is inherently skewed and faulty. Unsure of how my students perceive themselves and “act” within the framework of their trope, I decided to conduct an informal survey of my students to get a sense of how my students perceive me. Despite whether or not my students act as their trope or not, I still believe that they will be the best source in determining my own function as their teacher and as someone who has the potential to develop their academic progress and further their educational endeavors (with no super powers required).

I wonder if race will surface in this survey but decide not to mention in it within the survey questions. I didn’t know if race would be a factor at all, and even with the results of the survey submitted, I still wonder if race is an issue in that the possibility of a “culture of power” bearing on my students makes them believe that a highly-dedicated, motivated, white teacher doesn’t fit. With this said, I’m afraid that my survey results may have complicated the race issue more than it has addressed it, but I will maintain the results of the survey as they may likely span all theories that affect my students’ perception of their place within my classroom and to their learning overall. Whether it is through their perceived role in a classroom as it is reflected in popular media or their functioning under the belief of a “culture of power,” it must be noted that these students have had exposure to a variety of different resources well before I became their teacher. Therefore, their make-up as they enter my room is as authentic as they believe it to be, thus giving their own perception of their teacher and their classroom experience complete legitimacy with the understanding that 13 and 14-year old students may not realize how these theories play into their consciousness.

The survey questions are centered on how the students perceive my role as their teacher. Regarding the survey results, I found that students did not allude to race in any of their answers. Instead, I found that my students are alarmingly aware of their school’s foibles and the deficiencies that may exist within in their own knowledge base. I also find that my students have a very realistic view of their role within the learning process. Their judgments on my performance were largely positive and very constructive. Many of the students took the opportunity to be immensely complimentary of my performance as their teacher and provided very insightful, emotionally-charged responses to the survey questions.

The reason I am concerned with the notion of a “culture of power” is because of the overwhelming number of students who advised me that the best thing I could do to improve my service as a teacher was to “leave this school.” When I asked the class about the intention of that advice, they were very open in explaining to me that they believed I was “too good to be here.” Naturally, the heartbreaking element of this comment is realizing that if I do, indeed, “leave this school” because “I’m too good,” my students will remain at this school and anticipate having a “bad” teacher because that’s what they feel they deserve. This also goes back to the concern of how my students view themselves and whether they believe if they get “bad” teachers because they are “bad” students.

Qualifying “bad” and “good” was initially an issue for me in going into this portion of the project. Does “good” mean that I demonstrate Superteacher qualities? Does it mean that I don’t demonstrate Superteacher qualities (i.e. I’m not trying to “save” them or act as the teacher who “gets” them). I mulled over this for quite a while before I realized that defining those terms isn’t the issue—the issue is that my students have an understanding of “good” and “bad” and they believe that whatever those two terms mean to them personally, they are certain that whatever “good” is, they don’t deserve it. One student wrote in his/her survey: “Ms. Kahn is nothing like my other teachers. Ms. Kahn is a teacher that loves and cares about you getting your education. There are some teacher that won’t even let you come after school to get help, but Ms. Kahn dose. Ms. Kahn is a mother. The backbone of my life. I love the things she do that helps me get through [sic].” Now, I would perceive myself as having a good rapport with my students, but would never have presumed that response (and as an English teacher, still hoped for better grammar). A few thoughts entered my mind as I read this; I never would deliberately play the role of a mother-figure to my students in fear of falling prey to the Superteacher trope. Is it possible that this student is just being dramatic? Does he/she want to believe that I have this much of an impact on his/her life even though I’m not doing much more outside of the standard duties of a teacher? When thinking about the films, and the Outsider, and my own perception—where does this leave me? What kind of clarity have I gained? Upon reflecting on this response for quite some time, I came to the conclusion that I will never know the implications of that survey response and its relation to my overall study on perception. For all intents and purposes, I should feel nothing more than proud at the mere prospect of having this large of an impact on a single student’s life.

I think I’ve heard something like this before:

“If you can affect just one child’s life…”

Then have I been successful?

I don’t know if I’m ready to conquer that issue yet.

References:

Ayers, W. (1993). To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ayers. W. (2001). A Teacher Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hero: Teachers and Teaching in Film. P.B. Joseph & G.E. Burnaford (Eds.), Images of Schoolteachers in America. 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Burnaford. G. (2001). And the Oscar Goes To…: Teachers as Supporting Actors in Fiction for Young Adults. P.B. Joseph & G.E. Burnaford (Eds.), Images of Schoolteachers in America. 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Farhi, A. (1999). Recognizing the Superteacher Myth in Film. Clearinghouse, 72, 157-159.

Joseph. P.B. (2001). One Hundred Years of Schoolteaching: An Invented Interview. P.B. Joseph & G.E. Burnaford (Eds.), Images of Schoolteachers in America. 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Michie, G. (1999). Holler if You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher & His Students. New York: Teachers College Press.

Schultz, B.D. (2007). Problematizing Race: Complicating Good Liberal Intentions. S. Leafgren, B.D. Schultz, M.P. O’Malley, A. Mahdi, J. Brady, & A. Dentith. (Eds.), The Articulation of Curriculum and Pedagogy for a Just Society: Advocacy, Artistry, and Activism. Troy, NY: Educators International Press.

Author Information

Sara Kahn, MA, teacher at Lindop Elementary, District 92, Illinois. She graduated from Concordia University Chicago in 2009. She can be contacted at skahn@lindop92.net.

Tags: , , , ,