Name ten famous teachers. No? Okay, name five. Yeah, me neither.
Jose Luis Vilson just asked the question– what does fame mean for education? It’s one of the continuing ripples spreading out from the NYT piece about the sponsored, branded teacher.
I think we’d have to agree that teaching is generally not the pathway to fame and fortune. I mean, there are small fames of a sort. I mean, there’s Nicholas Ferroni, named America’s Sexiest Teacher by People magazine, which may seem like a frivolous sort of fame, but an awful lot of fame is frivolous and based on no real accomplishment of note.
So that may be one problem with education and fame– not very many people get famous for doing the kind of work that, in the words of Mike Rowe, makes civilized life possible for the rest of us. Nurses, welders, waitpersons, pilots– the world is filled with people who keep things moving in powerful ways that go unrecognized because of the dailiness of it.
Educational fame faces an obstacle of scale. You get to be a famous singer by singing (directly and through recordings) for millions of people. You get to be a famous you-tuber by getting millions of hits. No teacher in the course of her career is going to teach millions of students.
I have taught in the same small town for over thirty-five years (at the same high school I graduated from), so I’m known. Any time I walk into a restaurant or grocery store or church or just walk down the street, I will run into people who know me. But we’re still talking hundreds of people, and just a localized sort of well-knownness. If this is fame, half the people in my town are famous.
Nor do people in general pay that much attention to the field. When you get to a bookstore, look for the “education” section. Test prep books, make your kid smart books, and maybe two or three shelves of books about the actual work, always including books by people who have no business talking about the field.
Since no teacher is going to achieve fame-scale work in the classroom, and since the students in your actual classroom need every piece of heart and soul you can pour out, being famous would have to be a second job. Most of us don’t have time to be famous. To step up onto any sort of national platform, a teacher almost has to take at least one foot out of the classroom. It would be hard, I imagine, to do the job of faming while maintaining your professional balance– I think some really gifted individuals could do it, but it would take mindful concentration. Many famous-ish teachers are too busy building their brand by making a proprietary package out of what thousands of teachers already know, and their students are just props and lab rats.
Beyond the challenge of achieving fame, for teachers there is always the challenge of accepting recognition. As a profession, we tend to be self-effacing, disinclined to stand in the spotlight. If you have a huge ego, teaching probably didn’t call out to you as a way to get that ego fed. And there’s a “why me” factor as well– I consider myself a pretty decent teacher, but there isn’t a thing I could be recognized for that thousands of other teachers aren’t also doing in their classrooms, and some are doing it far better than I am. I’ve been recognized for my work once or twice, and everything I have to say on those occasions starts with this– “There isn’t a thing you can say about me that couldn’t also be said about uncounted other teachers.” Which is why I accept recognition when it comes my way– because I can point out that the community of teachers, the great collection of those of us who work in a classroom– we all deserve the recognition.
Fame requires some ego, some self-promotion. Almost nobody becomes famous because they just sat quietly doing their thing and the great fame machine just descended upon them. I know the teacher-bloggers who put each post on super-blast, pushing it out every way they know how. It’s something I have a hard time doing; it makes me uncomfortable to self-promote. But on this, they are right and I’m wrong. Certainly the rich amateurs who afflict our profession, the policy wonks and thinky tank wise men– they’re all perfectly comfortable saying, “World, I have Important Things to say, and you should listen to me.” We should all be doing that, and when we can’t do it for ourselves, we should be amplifying our fellow teachers. It’s good for all of us– when I pick up a teacher-written book, or see that an actual honest-to-God teacher is going to be featured at a conference about education, I feel good about that.
Fame for educators has some pitfalls. Like the brand-minded teacher in the NYT article (who teaches a grand total of ten kids), it can be easy to make a bad trade– give me recognition and a platform and I’ll use it to promote not our work, but your business. If you get a platform, make sure you know what you’re using it for.
The worst danger of teacher fame is the teacher fame that comes at the expense of students.
Think about it. Every Hero Teacher movie starts from the same place– look at these horrible creatures in this classroom. Every tale of teacher awesomeness is marked not by the qualities of the teacher, but by the deficits of the students. The message is not that it takes a special, capable, devoted, excellent person to teach, but that it takes a special, capable, devoted, excellent person to teach those God-awful kids. Don’t ever step up to your platform by standing on the necks of students.
Well, this turned out to be rambly. Let me try to circle back around–
Can teachers find fame? Man, I wish they could. There are teachers I know who deserve to be widely known, and who would use their platform for good and to elevate the work and the profession. It seems about as likely as a world-famous jazz tuba player. But I have one last thought–
People within a field don’t often become famous at first by being elevated by people outside that field, because those people don’t know what a good job looks like. Jazz cats are the first to know a good jazz tuba player when they hear one. Classroom teachers know a good classroom teacher when they encounter one. If you wait for someone from outside to elevate those people, they’ll probably elevate the wrong one.
What I’m saying is if we want to see more famous teachers, we should make more people within the profession famous. We should hold each other up for accolades (and I mean, rally– why are teachers of the year NOT selected by teachers) and attention. We should amplify names and buy the books and pass on the blog links and make the fuss. If we were a little more actively involved with the engines of fame, perhaps we could feel a little better about where they drive folks.