Teach Like a Superhero: Part 1

It always comes up: At a dinner party, meeting the neighbors, any time you’re meeting someone new.  “So what do you do for work?”

I teach in the public school system.

“Oh wow.”  And then you get one of a few responses: “You’re a saint”, or “that must be really hard”, “I’d never have the patience”, “oh God, I could never do it”.  They’re all code for the same idea: “well thank God YOU’RE doing it so that I don’t have to.”

Teaching is not easy, and it’s true that not everyone is cut out for the job.  You’re tasked with convincing fives classes of thirty to thirty-five conscripted youth (in each class) that they should work extremely hard to learn some things that are not always immediately relevant on a daily basis.  These young people regularly bring in a myriad of issues and concerns that impede the teacher’s ability to work effectively.  The schedule is extremely fixed and teachers regularly work extended hours in order to do a quality job.  Some teachers work in extremely hostile environments that prevent them from working to their maximum potential.  Additionally brand new teachers are required to complete the same tasks as veteran teachers with a very steep learning curve and relatively little support most of the time.

To be a good teacher you need a great deal of tenacity, skill, and patience, but you don’t need to be a saint, and the implied self-sacrifice should not be your goal.  Instead aim to be a superhero.

Superheroes do things that ordinary humans believe to be impossible.  They reject standard logic and attempt the impossible with dedication and idealism.  Superheroes believe that they can make a difference and they put that belief into action no matter what others tell them.  Great teachers do the same.

There are however a myriad of superheroes all with their diverse abilities and missions and worldviews.  Who then should the novice teacher seek to emulate?


Let’s begin with the most obvious choices:  Superman and Wonder Woman

Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 12.41.15 PM

Image from http://www.wecanbeheroes.com A project of DC Entertainment to support Save the Children, IRC and Mercy Corps

These two are not a good choice.  Sure, they’re both full of positive idealism and they push themselves to the limit in pursuit of their goals, but both Superman and Wonder Woman solve most their problems by punching them.  They’re fantastic at getting the job done, but if teachers start trying to solve all their problems by punching we’re going to have issues.  Kal’El and Diana are also, frankly, an impossible standard.  Superman is an alien and Wonder Woman is a clay statue that’s been given immortal life by the gods.  They’re not even human.  Do not try to make yourself like these two.  You’ll just end up disappointing yourself.  (Neither of these two are examples of good work/life balance either.  They both put in insane hours working two jobs and I’m sure they never get enough sleep.  Remember: they’re not human.  You are.)

Ok, so how about Batman then?  He’s a regular human, incredibly intelligent, highly skilled, and extremely successful in a dangerous poverty-impacted urban center.  Slam dunk! (Right?) Not really.

Batman is another impossible standard.  We need to remember that Batman’s origin is as billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne.  He’s the definition of throwing money at the problem.  The Batman teacher would buy his students every possible resources or gadget, and if those didn’t work he’d invent something tailored to the precise need.  Not a viable solution.  Batman is also primarily driven by revenge and personal vendetta.  This is not a sustainable model for successful teaching.  (Batman has some serious mental health issues that would need resolution before he should be interacting with students on a regular basis.  Pretty much everyone who works in Gotham City is out.)

Spiderman?  Not serious enough, terrible classroom management.  Good rapport with students, but low rigor.

Jean Grey?  She’d probably turn into the phoenix and destroy the whole school.  Let’s just avoid major explosions and reconstruction.

Captain America?  Also solves problems with punching, and he’d probably revert back to his 1940’s upbringing and teach solely with direct instruction, silent study hall, and corporeal punishment.

“Ok…. but you said teach like a superhero!  Who do I emulate then?”

You’ll have to check back in part 2.  (What’s a superhero story without a cliffhanger ending?)

  1. Great article and very creative illustration of all the skills that a superhero teacher must possess! I’d say it’s somewhere between the tenacity of Superman/Wonderwoman, the resourcefulness of Batman, the youthful energy of Spiderman, and the strength of Captain America : ) Much respect for teachers! Thank you for what you do!

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