Teachers: Saints or Sinners

Mary Hardin
High School English Teacher

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Yesterday a student asked me a seemly simple question: "Is teaching just your job or is it your life or something?" On the spot, I didn't know exactly how to answer that question. I mean, I know that I probably should answer the question with a resounding, "Yes! Teaching is my life blood and life passion!" but I didn't know if that was entirely accurate. I, of course, love my job, my students, and I feel like this is what I am meant to do for a career, but to say that it is my entire life might be a bit of an overstatement. Yet, when this question was posed to me, why did I not know how to answer?

American society has been conditioned to believe that a teacher is one of two things: saint or sinner. Teachers are either heartless and lazy automatons who clock in and out at contract time and do nothing to better their students' lives. These "sinner" teachers suck up resources, pensions, and public funds as they throw busy needless busy work at their education-starved pupils. Contrastingly, the saint teachers arrive early, stay late, create magical lesson plans, transform students into angels who gain five reading proficiency levels in a year despite living on "the wrong side of the tracks."

And I get it. We all want our children to have the sainted teacher, and we've all had the sinner teacher (I once had a teacher tell me to pray to the Virgin when I struggled with fractions instead of actually helping me). But what terrifies me is when we make the sainted teacher archetype the industry standard. I work everyday towards becoming a teacher, searching Pinterest for ideas, reading professional journals, and seeking out culturally relevant young adult literature, but at what point do we all just need to have a life? When I decide to read that Philippa Gregory novel instead of another Kelly Gallagher professional guide, why do I need to feel guilty? Why do I feel like I am a failing "my kids" when I can't stay after contract hours to help proofread essays because I simply need to take a break?

See any slew of "teacher gifts" and you will see tote bags, picture frames, and coffee mugs smothered in phrases like, "I teach. What's your Superpower?" and "Teachers are angels on earth." Although I appreciate myself a good teacher gift (though high school teachers rarely get them), I don't actually feel that these slogans are helpful. I'm not a super hero and I'm not an angel. I'm just a 30 year-old woman who works hard at her job. Sometimes I am successful, and other days, I fail. Sometimes I come in early and stay late creating masterful lessons and assessments, and other days, I just need to clock in and out according to contract times. Somedays I grade essays until midnight, and other days I'm in leggings and a sweatshirt binge watching Game of Thrones.

I love my students, I love my job, but I also love my husband, my family, my friends, and even my cats. I work tirelessly for my students, but honestly, I hesitate before declaring it my whole life. Sometimes I don't want to be labeled sinner or saint-I just want to be a woman with a job. A job. A normal job. Someone who goes to work and tries hard, but sometimes has an off day. I want to feel free of the societal pressure to constantly be dedicating my every waking hour towards what is, at the end of the day, just my job.

In my opinion, the more we normalize teachers are regular people who have good days and bad days, who are simply working both to better the world and to make their rent, the better our position can be in professional society. We as a workforce are not valued because we are seen as selfless martyrs who eschew financial gain to raise generations of children. It is easy to cast off and mistreat a martyr. It is easy to cut their pay and benefits if you believe in your heart that the martyrs aren't here for any material reason. They are martyrs after all.

I am not a martyr. I am not an angel. I am not a saint. But, conversely, I am not a lazy, selfish automaton. I am not a sinner. I am Ms. Hardin in room G144 who also is a wife, daughter, friend, and neighbor.

So when my student asked me if teaching was my life, after a moment's hesitation, I responded by saying that teaching was part of my life, but not all of it. She nodded understandingly, and went back to reading her copy of Fallen Angels. And I went back to my job.

Mary Hardin
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