I had a student once who hated math. That is, 12 of the 13 years of his schooling, he hated math.
He loved it the year he had me for Algebra. I know because he told me so. He told me then. He came back the next school year to tell. And after he graduated.
His mother emailed me endlessly, thanking me. Praising me. At one point, she called me “some sort of superhero.”
There’s a narrative that exists on social media and the web: teacher as superhero.
Scan any teacher in-service and you’ll find this on a t-shirt, “I’m a teacher, what’s your superpower?” Fictional superheroes are fueled by things like the sun, nuclear accidents, spinach, and “I don’t know how you do it’s.”
I get that last one a lot. “You teach middle school? I don’t know how you do it.”
Wait a second, does that mean I included Teacherman in the fictional category of superhero?
I was a superhero to the student I told you about above. Probably a few more over my nearly-quarter century of teaching.
But not all of them. Not even close.
Supergirl saves everybody. Always. I don’t think I’ve ever watched an episode in which she didn’t eventually save the day. Now that’s a superhero.
Was I a superhero to all the students who passed through my class and have no recollection of it? To those who were bored to sleep? To those who struggled with their homework every night?
Or what about the student with the overbearing father I once taught. The student was a selective mute, and a selective worker as well. The accepted strategy with her was to not force her to do any work. Just allow her to work when she wanted to, and not when she wasn’t comfortable.
One day, I encouraged her to try a worksheet. I knew she could do the work, and I thought it would give her some confidence. I was right.
I told this story in a subsequent meeting with the father. He launched a wagging finger across the table at me. “I told you not to push her. She can’t handle that!”
I apologized. I said it wouldn’t happen again.
And it didn’t. I left her alone with regards to her work. Even in the wake of the small connection we made over the worksheet that day, I still backed off.
Was I a superhero to her? Clearly, she was controlling when she talked and when she did school work because her father had control of everything else at home.
I didn’t see it at the time. I should have. I should have acted on it.
“But Mr. Middlesworth,” you say, “don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re only human.”
And how about the kid who didn’t fit the mold of school and now has a manual labor job? How do you think he feels when he hears that teachers are superheroes? Forgotten? Left out? Villified?
We’re not superheroes. We’re teachers. We work with children. We make connections that last a lifetime (some of those connections may be negative). But not with every kid. Not even close.
When you don’t feel like a superhero, don’t beat yourself up. It’s fine. The best we can do is do our best.
Want to do something heroic? Treat every single kid with kindness. No matter what. You don’t even need to wear a cape to do it.
I’m just a regular old teacher. No cape, no eye patch. I have no synonyms for innovation but I do want to do my job as best as I can.