Educators, Be Neither Martyrs, Nor Missionaries

While discussing with a colleague strategies for responding to first-year students’ essays, I stressed the importance of giving students feedback, but only when students are required to respond to that feedback in some way—such as revising essays.

My standard line on this is: “Don’t be a martyr.”

In other words, too often educators work long and hard just to work long and hard—without monitoring if and how that work translates into student learning.

Teaching writing and handling the paper-load are incredibly demanding teaching tasks even when done efficiently.

Earlier that same day in my foundations class, a student raised a question about Teach For America—leading to my pointed criticisms and rejection of TFA. Much of my concerns about TFA are grounded in the program’s attracting young, smart, and idealistic college graduates and then using their “missionary zeal” in dehumanizing ways that negatively impact TFA recruits and their students.

Just this morning, I noticed Walt Gardner treading on the same topics, asking Is Martyrdom Necessary to Improve Schools?

Historically and currently, teaching cannot be separated from the broader sexism and misogyny in the U.S. Most K-12 teachers continue to be women, and in many subtle and blunt ways, teaching is burdened by sexist stereotypes and expectations.

While women labor under social pressures to be subservient wives and sacrificial mothers, teachers also feel compelled—and often perpetuate themselves—the twin burdens of martyrdom and missionary zeal.

Paradoxically, TFA as a non-traditional source of teachers is the most extreme example of why all educators must resist being martyrs or missionaries.

Two excellent works of scholarship—one by Sarah Matsui and one edited by T. Jameson Brewer and Kathleen deMarrais—investigate how TFA exploits the idealism of recruits (often framed positively by TFA as “missionary zeal”) and then demands martyrdom from these young and idealistic candidates, made even more disturbing since the program depends on only 2 years of service, thus creating an expendable revolving door of teachers in the field.

Despite the warranted criticisms of TFA by traditional teacher education and critical scholars, we must not ignore that these demands of TFA core members are disturbingly common among traditional teachers as well—some from the norms of teaching, and some among teachers themselves. And demands that teachers be martyrs and missionaries have been intensified over the past thirty years of accountability as political and public discourse has increasingly blamed teachers for low test scores among impoverished and minority students.

Let’s consider, then, why both martyrdom and missionary zeal are the wrong poses of any educators.

Broadly, crisis discourse about school and teacher quality that marginalizes and ignores social factors—such as poverty—driving measurable learning outcomes works to justify extreme and impossible expectations for teachers. However, education is not in crisis, but is an incremental process over a long period of time.

Yes, ER doctors often work in crisis conditions, and having extreme expectations for their profession may be appropriate, but education requires patience and the fostering of relationship over time.

Impoverished and minority students are being mis-served far more significantly from cumulative neglect—limited access to challenge courses and experienced/certified teachers—than from urgent harm (although, regretfully, some students still are exposed to such harms).

That cumulative neglect does not need martyrdom nor missionary zeal—both of which, ultimately, are damaging, psychologically and physically, for teachers directly and then their students indirectly (see Matsui).

While many with professions identify themselves strongly with their professions, especially teachers, allowing your profession to consume you (martyrdom) is self-defeating—just as missionary zeal as extreme idealism will ultimately be deflating.

Having idealism and lofty goals are powerful. And while fatalism is corrosive, having unattainable and unrealistic goals-as-demands is just as destructive.

Both martyrdom and missionary zeal are often grounded in good intentions, but as Paul Gorski explains, good intentions cannot justify harmful and misguided practices.

And finally, missionary zeal like colonialism ultimately fails students because, Gorski argues, “despite overwhelmingly good intentions, most of what passes for intercultural education practice, particularly in the US, accentuates rather than undermines existing social and political hierarchies.”

As I offer my beginning and early teachers, teaching is an evolving practice—it is about baby steps.

Ultimately, educators must resist martyrdom—working long and hard just to show we are working long and hard—and must reject missionary zeal, particularly in our work with vulnerable populations of students.

Our profession and our students will be better served if we are fully and richly human, diverse in who we are and how we be. To teach is to more forward carefully, with purpose, and intentionally.

Let us leave martyrdom to the mythologies and missionary zeal to a history we have learned to rise above.


7 thoughts on “Educators, Be Neither Martyrs, Nor Missionaries”

  1. Excellent message. I have “only” been a public school educator for 10 years; however, I began my undergrad studies back in 1980. I raised my own children through the 1980’s and 1990’s, carefully observing pendulum swings, as well as “silent” themes in the field of education. I was so sad to see various problems when I finally certified I’m 2004; but I thought, ” The pendulum can only swing back now” Boy, was I wrong. I love what I do, but I do NOT put in too many extra hours or let the climate of my ‘IR” school get me down. I just keep being a human to the children I cross paths with. Thank you for the insightful and refreshing commentary.

  2. but education requires patience and the fostering of relationship over time- I think this is the best part of your mesage, i appreciated your class, what i learned i use now even though im not a traditional educator

  3. “Teaching is a evolving practice”–What a refreshing reminder in a teaching culture that pressures us to be master teachers immediately and effect instantaneous solutions to the educational gaps that are the result of our students’ cumulative neglect.

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