Dear students: We are not the wind beneath your wings

In the story I’ve often told about myself, teachers rescued me. It’s a poignant narrative that includes strains of Mister Rogers, Judy Blume, and To Sir With Love. There I am as a grubby youngster, shy as a sore tooth, and later as a brooding teen and dilettante undergrad, struggling to find safe landing spots. Teachers and professors saved me, I’ve often said, but as a professor myself who has worked for decades with both slickly prepared and teetering students, I know it isn’t true. No one saved me. No one could have.

It is not surprising that my narrative depends on the intervention of someone else’s enthusiasm and apparent enlightenment, for these are the models I’ve been steeped in: the idealistic white music teacher who braves urban chaos to save the local youth with tubas and flutes, and plucky Christy who disappears into the hills of Appalachia, wielding only soap, reading primers and good cheer. The fact that movies and tv shows based on such tropes are so enduring is a reminder of how desperately we cling to these narratives of pedagogical redemption. Paradoxically, though, such tales can also undermine agency, create false reassurance about personal tragedy, and inure us to gross social inequity.

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When we indulge in the image of the almost supernaturally charismatic, energetic teacher, we nourish hope of the magically happy ending, a fable in which an angel touches one’s cheek in the bleakest moment of the darkest night of the soul. In a flash of insight, one is born anew, with fresh purpose and passion. It is romantic, quick and clean, like being baptized or unlocking a secret code. It’s nothing at all like picketing damn Betsy DeVos, dreary day after dreary day. And it is a much more uplifting story than the one about Shakespeare’s sister or Einstein’s first wife.

On her way out of my office last week, a former student paused as she shifted her backpack, “You have changed my life,” she said, eyes shining. I thanked her for her kind words and told her, just as sincerely, how working with her had been meaningful to me. But I also found myself recalling that, to a marathon runner in late August, the guy handing out waxy paper cups of tap water is a savior. I know because I have been that runner. And I also know that grateful, meaning-starved people have built elaborate religions over lesser gestures. I get it. Isn’t it delicious to believe that when things fall apart, someone — a very special someone — might come along and save the day?

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If we want to believe in pedagogical salvation, then fine. Let us strive to be like Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society, or Dumbledore with his piercing eyes and immortal phoenix.* We can certainly leverage the trope of redemption or enlightenment to nudge our students into accessing their own resources. But I think we should be careful how, in our most self-scrutinizing, honest moments, we actually conceive of what we are doing. It is my job to challenge, encourage, and support students, and to do so in a way that is caring, consistent, and reflective of my commitment to social justice. At my very best, this is all I have ever had to offer.

I want students to be aware of whatever social support they have, to be sure, but I never want them to forget that their success is largely due to their own motive power. Being legitimately appreciative of help from others certainly does not require imposing a mystical, romantic salvation narrative that may cheapen their own sense of agency. And the sheer fact that so many teachers and professors become addicted to the savior/guru schtick should give us all pause. Haven’t we all known professors who cultivate loyal mini-herds of rapt students who traipse after them year after year? These are small cults, yes, and they sometimes have positive results, but they are still cults, with much of the creepiness that that entails.

It is not, then, mere humility that has me deflecting over-the-top praise. It’s nice to know that I have sometimes been assigned a powerfully symbolic role in others’ stories. But I also know what can happen when the aura dims and they see that I am, like them, nothing more than an utterly regular person. That’s when our fans and acolytes will blame us for their disappointment and disillusionment, and why not? If they see us as the wind beneath their wings, then it becomes our fault when they crash land, just as K-12 teachers are blamed for the systemic failures of public education. And then what? I guess I will be replaced by another savior, a fire-eyed guru with the power to entertain and inspire, the real deal this time, someone who will never ever let them down.

*And then there’s the dearth of examples featuring women and people of color; a white male teacher might be seen as a savior, while others’ teaching work is made invisible by sexist and racist stereotypes about mothering and emotional labor. How many talented, engaging teachers are overlooked entirely because certain qualities are simply expected and devalued in women and people of color?

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