In Memory Of The Martyrs


I follow a Facebook group that shares pictures and cartoons associated with teaching. A week or so ago the picture at the top of this blog appeared on the group. At first I just rolled my eyes and continued to scroll down, but then I came back to it. And I thought about it. Just how messed up is this picture? Just how messed up is the view of teaching that it presents to us as teachers? Just how messed up do we have to be if we simply nod our heads in agreement?

This picture speaks of a self-image for teachers that goes way beyond a sense of professionalism and a sense of social value. We are deep into Martyr Complex territory here. The notion that a ‘good teacher’ should consume herself - or allow her professional duties to consume her - in fostering the development of young minds is not a matter of professional self-respect or self value, but of self-flagellation. It communicates to teachers the idea that if they are not martyring themselves to their profession - if they are not giving their all, if they are not sacrificing evenings, weekends, holidays and work-life balance - then they are not ‘good teachers’; that they are not ‘good enough’.

Worse, we infect each other with this Martyr Complex. We make a virtue of working long hours. Too often I have heard colleagues speak of daily arriving at school at 7:30 in the morning and not getting home until twelve hours later as if this were something normal, something to be expected, something that comes with the territory. Too often I have seen ‘inspirational’ memes circulate between teachers that preach the principle of self-denial but have dripped with moral blackmail. One of the best-known insists that one hundred years from now it will not matter how much money was in my bank account or what car I drove or how large my house was, but that the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child. Senior managers - for the best of reasons and the best of intentions - tell their staff that they ‘know’ that they work well beyond their contractual hours and go above and beyond the call of duty for the sake of the kids. This, though, serves only to perpetuate the pathology; to communicate the notion that if you are not doing that you are not a ‘real’ teacher.

For some teachers this leads to leaving the profession. A few weeks ago I read the following tweet from a young teacher; “Slowly approaching the point where I walk away now. I’m reaching tipping point where I literally cannot give anymore of my time. I work 6 days a week. From waking up until I go back to sleep. I have no spare time at all. Why is this not enough?” How on Earth has he come to the conclusion that this is ‘not enough’ rather than that it is too much - way, way too much? Take a look back at the picture at the top of this piece. It reflects a culture present in some of our schools. Another tweet came from a young woman who said that she was leaving a profession for the sake of her own children.

For other teachers, who stay in the profession, the result is burnout or the breakdown of family relationships. I have known examples over my nearly four decades in teaching. Too many People - friends and colleagues - who have tried to meet the unassuageable demand to do more because they are ‘building the next generation’ or ‘inspiring young minds’ or ‘weaving the future’. They have staggered to the end of their careers worn out, burned out, cynical or just plain scunnered. It is in memory of these martyrs that I write this piece.

And the tragedy is that there is, in my experience, not a shred of evidence to show that all these long hours of work, all the self-denial, all the ‘self-consumption’ makes a sliver of difference to the quality of education in our schools. The truth is that children do not especially benefit from knackered teachers. They do not especially benefit from teachers who have no life outwith the walls of their institutions. They do not especially benefit from teachers who have been made to believe that the life chances of their charges depend solely on the hours spent marking their work.

We need, as a profession, to start looking after each other. We need to remind each other our own wellbeing, and that of our families, comes first. We need to teach other the necessity of boundaries and of work-life balance; to tell each other “You are enough.” We need to remind each other that the true mark of a vocation is not that we are consumed but that we are fulfilled.