This Is The Problem With Those 'Heartwarming' Teacher Stories

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
LEFT: Robert Goodman/Facebook; RIGHT: NewsChannel WMMT/Facebook

We’ve all heard the stories—teachers spend their nights and weekends cleaning their school because budget cuts mean limited janitorial staff. Or a first-grade teacher is spotted at Target filling three carts with school supplies—purchased with her own money. Or staff comes together to share their vacation days with an expecting mom.

These stories warm our hearts, and the images go viral. The teachers are interviewed and become internet-famous. And everyone feels good for a few days.

But then, nothing else happens. No changes take place to prevent future teachers from having to do these things. And therein lies the problem.

As a former teacher, I have mixed feelings about these stories. I have both an undergraduate and graduate degree in education. I have student loan debt up to my eyeballs and came out of college making enough money to pay rent, the electric bill, and eat ramen noodles for dinner. I worked in several districts with poor funding, one of which ran out of paper in April.

How do you teach high school English without paper? You figure it out. You improvise. You watch for sales, ask for donations, and stand in line at Kinkos making your own photo copies. And you pay for them out of your own meager paycheck.

Yet I did all the things I needed to do for my students, without hesitation. I didn’t have my own children to feed yet, so I may have had slightly more expendable income than my colleagues. As an eager, fresh college graduate, it didn’t bother me to turn down the heat and snuggle up with an extra blanket so I could afford to buy pencils and notebooks for my students. But maybe it should have.

It wasn’t until I had been in the profession for many years that I began to see just how teachers are treated in comparison to any other profession. I began to see the ugly truth—did anyone else I know with two degrees have to purchase their own supplies in order to do their job? Or clean their own workspace because no custodian was coming by? Or have the A/C broken in a building without windows for the entire month of June?


And that, an article on Eclecta Blog says, is what’s wrong with all of these “heartwarming” teacher stories that flood our newsfeed. By glorifying the good deeds teachers do, they have also successfully normalized the fact that in order to do their jobs, teachers all over America are forced to be martyrs and sacrifice their own money and personal time for the sake of their students.

“No other profession is expected to do this kind of thing,” Mitchell Robinson, associate professor at Michigan State University and author of this article says.

One such viral story is about a superintendent spending 90 hours to paint his own school—saving his district $150,000.

And another shares the story of a Florida teacher who is battling cancer and ran out of sick days. So his colleagues pitched in to donate their sick days to him so he wouldn’t lose his much needed income, or worse, is job.

In response, Robinson says, “If you asked the CEO or VP of any small to medium-sized corporation to spend 90 hours per week repainting the company’s offices, that person would laugh in your face–and explain to you that it’s not their job to paint walls; it’s their job to manage the operations of the business. And they’d be right.”

Yet teachers do it all the time, and no one questions it. We celebrate it with responses like, “We love teachers! Teachers are the best!” And even worse, our nation has come to expect grand gestures like this from our educators.

Robinson says that among countless other things, teachers are commonly expected to:

  • paint their own rooms;
  • install their own air conditioners, and mini-fridges, and tv monitors, and speakers, and screens, and projectors, and power strips (if the district approves such “luxuries”)
  • buy the books, posters, tissues and other materials they need for their classrooms out of pocket; and
  • pay for their own plane tickets, and hotel rooms, food, and substitute teachers to cover their classes when attending professional development conferences (if they can even get the time off to do so).

Imagine being a professional and your boss telling you to buy the essentials that you need to perform your job every day. Or that a conference designed to help you do your job better, which is beneficial for the entire company and everyone affected by the company, is on your dime. Would this happen to a doctor or a lawyer or a businessperson? No.

And worse, these teachers are expected to stay upbeat and keep up their morale as they are constantly told that our nation’s schools are failing. They better enter that classroom with a smile on their face every day, even as the budget gets tighter every year, as this administration appoints ill-equipped and inexperienced politicians to “fix” our education system, and as comments like “Stop complaining! You get summers off!” and “You knew what you were getting into when you chose this job!” ring in their ears. And they will. Because they love those kids.

But why can’t teachers still love their students and commit to doing their best work with 100% dedication without sacrificing their own well-being? Is being a martyr what makes a good teacher nowadays? That’s not fair.

“These stories aren’t ‘heartwarming’ and they don’t show ‘dedication,'” the article says. “They demonstrate that we as a society are unwilling to spend our resources on supporting and caring for the schools and teachers that we entrust with the support and care of our children–and refuse to treat the persons we entrust their care to as professionals, or even as human beings deserving of our respect and some basic human dignity.”

And the author goes on to make this valid point about what, in fact, would be truly “heartwarming”: It would be heartwarming if teachers had enough sick days to cover illness and maternity leave. It would be heartwarming if we didn’t have to use our own hard-earned money to keep our classroom going. It would be heartwarming if a principal could hire professional painters to paint his building, as the head of any business or corporation would do.

Most of all, Robinson says, “It would really be heartwarming to start this new school year by treating public school teachers like professionals–or simply as we ourselves would like to be treated, with just a little common decency.”

Listen: it’s FANTASTIC that these individual teachers are so kind and generous — to their schools and to each other — but that’s isn’t the point. They shouldn’t have to do these things to be able to do their job, and we, as a society, are failing them.

And sadly we know this cycle will continue as long as we live in a country that does not prioritize adequate funding for education. Or at least until it stops expecting teachers to just “figure it out” and “make it work” and “improvise” as they take more and more away.

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