The Real Problem with Passion

“I am not letting you fail. Even if that means coming to your house every night until you finish the work. I see who you are. Do you understand me? I can see you. And you are not failing.” — Freedom Writers

Yeah, right.

Dan has some knifing things to say about teacher portrayal in film along these lines: that the heart-attack-inducing martyrdom of the protagonists is merely a sob story excuse for the absence of what real teaching should be: intelligence, ruthless truth-telling, and rigor.

Chris Lehmann agrees last week on his blog, but with a twist. To him, the application of this same rhetoric is what excuses our schools from improving themselves. He asks in turn: why haven’t our best and brightest figured out how to solve the horror of our working conditions already? His answer is to cite this dreadful survey (reading it feels a bit like rubbernecking at a car wreck) as a snapshot of a energy-sucking system that doesn’t leave practitioners enough time to eat and sleep, much less think critically about change.

Myself, I keep going back in my mind to this article by Linda Darling-Hammond in February’s Time magazine on the way teachers are supported in Singapore, and wondering why the edublogosphere didn’t go crazy over it.

Is it indeed because teachers prefer a mythology which camouflages their incompetence? It is because we have no mental or physical resources left to combat the mythology?

Or is there something else in the mix?

I wonder if we are looking at the birth of a new psychological evil. We might call it the Plymouth Syndrome.

A hybrid of the famous Stockholm Syndrome and the against-all-odds, paradigm-resistant Protestant work ethic which carved out our country in the first place, the Plymouth Syndrome causes teachers to make the day-to-day decisions that align ourselves with our “captors,” swallow the global rhetoric of “whatever it takes,” and enable our broken system: in otherwords, to welcome, not challenge, the teacher-martyr mythology.


For the simple reason that fighting not to change the dysfunctional system, but fighting within the dysfunction, is what actually gives us a sense of purpose. In this scheme of things, if there is no dysfunction—even if the dysfunction is being actively replaced with health— there is no sense of purpose.

Thus the expending of one’s energy running the gauntlet of public education is, in the end, more immediately satisfying, and therefore more desirable, than expending energy to get rid of the overarching dysfunction itself.

I’m not proposing that this is a conscious decision—after all, who says to themselves, “I’d rather teach 165 kids at a pop, thanks”? I mean rather that an educator who cannot find meaning within the system might instead, at a subconscious, bedrock level, embrace her microcosmic struggle itself as the meaning of what she does. Once she does this, she needs only the struggle—not the resolution of the struggle.

The means becomes the end. So why bother with real change?

I have no data for this (and actually find solid sociological research on teacher culture pretty scarce anyway. Ideas, anyone?) So my theory is a conjecture, based on informal observations and the vaguaries of my own heart. But I wonder very much about its prevalence.

For example, the first reaction of my own heart is not to congratulate, but condemn, every time I forgo a completely unmanageable assignment such as weekly dialogue journals. (These would require me to spend five minutes minimum responding to each of my 88 kids every week, for a whopping total of over seven hours of grading. If I spend a thoughtful ten minutes on each journal? Fifteen hours.) Yet why do I react this way? Because I find that partially lose my bearings, my sense of meaning, if I am not mightily struggling with something related to school.

This same heart can feel deeply uneasy without the exhaustion of an 11+ hour work day. It elevates me—indeed, in my silliest moments, elevates me above my own co-workers. (“Where are they at 6:00 in the morning? I must be doing something right.” Insane, isn’t it?) Such toil gives me purpose. It is a symbol of my worth.

I’m not saying this attitude is healthy, or (on the flip side) my entire motivation. But it does exist.

So I find myself shaking my head a bit when it comes to both Dan and Chris’ assessments. Can they be right, and not entirely right? I wonder if they might be missing the Plymouth Syndrome, a much more subtle sociological dynamic than either fatigue or fatuousness– and one to which intelligent and motivated individuals might be particularly susceptible.

I remember a conversation I had with a colleague last year. We were discussing the working conditions of a private school in a neighboring town, where teachers have weekly half-days dedicated to reflection and collaboration, adequate pay, and no teacher load over twelve students.

“Cushy,” she said, disparagingly.

And I agreed.

9 thoughts on “The Real Problem with Passion

  1. Interesting rhetoric as ever, Dina, but the suggestion hangs over the whole post that I wouldn’t be happier with, pick one, thirty fewer students, two extra hours for prep, or $20,000 more annually, when, in reality, any one of those would keep me in the game through my thirtieth birthday, at which point we’d have to renegotiate the terms again.

    I’m interested in what others have to say here, but I don’t identify.

  2. I got you, friend. But I do see a difference between having your three conditions offered to you from on high (the implication of your comment) versus doing the hard work to help *make* those things happen, the absence of which is the idea I’m mucking around with in the post. (Heck, I’d take an extra $20,000 in a heartbeat too, if it were merely offered to me. Lobbying my Congressman in person to increase public educators’ salaries, or throwing myself in with a local charter school, is a whole other ball game.)

    The question I’m wrestling with is ultimately Chris’: Why *haven’t* we turned things around? He thinks we don’t have the energy, and you think there are too many of us who actually want the shadows to hide in, and I think there’s a third possibility: that bright, involved, skilled, caring teachers may have decided deep down– and maybe long before they became teachers– that a struggle gives them all the sense of worth they require, so no activism outside of their microcosm makes much sense.

  3. Is it possible all three of you are right? That you are all describing phenomena that are at work in our schools?

    For me personally, I tend to see Chris’ theory and Dina’s in myself. However, I buy Dan’s in regard to a handful of teachers I’ve known.

    If and when we sort this all out, what happens next?

  4. they are too busy struggling to be super-human in the classroom (thus there is no time left for serious political involvement or activism. . .)

    also, most of these superhuman teachers have a distaste for teachers’ unions, on some level, because they [rightly] perceive these unions as protecting shitty teachers. it is usually difficult to navigate the local or statewide political waters that are related to teaching and teachers without joining forces with unions.

    there ought to be another teacher’s advocacy group. one that is composed of master teachers who have high standards for their peers.

  5. Of interest to you might be Mike Apple’s take on these issues in chapter 2 of his book Teachers and Texts (1986)

  6. Thus the expending of one’s energy running the gauntlet of public education is, in the end, more immediately satisfying, and therefore more desirable, than expending energy to get rid of the overarching dysfunction itself.

    Maybe some kinds of motivation for a narrow focus on the own classroom can aptly be classified as bordering on pathological, as you are suggesting, but it’s also worth noting that a certain degree of disinterest in school wide or district wide reform seems – as a matter of empirical fact – to be a psychological trait of teachers who are capable of working in high poverty schools for an extended period of time. At least, Martin Haberman claims that “Star Teachers” typically are apolitical and non-judgmental, and that individuals who tend to be spurred to action against dysfunctional bureaucracies will simply tend to be crushed by large urban school districts, burning out within few years without accomplishing much good. The assumption is, I guess, that the internal dynamics of such bureaucracies leaves individuals little chance of changing things, so that only those who are content with limiting their attention to the immediate needs of their students can get anything done.

    Conceivably, the political situation now, with the public focus on school quality, may allow more good to be effected by those who can not and will not shut their classroom door and expend all their energies there. Whatever else one may say about TFA, I suppose they have increased the incidence of vocal, talented teachers who both care deeply about their students and who can never stop thinking in political terms. While TMAO and others dissect his reasons for leaving, and TMAO frets a little about his dependence on a functional administration to deliver stellar teaching (“Like, it doesn’t say much about you, maybe, if you only bring it at high levels if those around do so as well — especially when you consider how many there are out there who bring it at high levels while surrounded by just barren, lightless acres of nothing”) I’m thinking that this kind of discontent with private overexertion in the absence of a functional structure is just the antidote to your Plymouth syndrome.

    I struggled with these kinds of questions last year, while working in a charter school that was an unlawful mess, a scam. I found that the teachers who were the most effective in enabling their students to learn and grow under those chaotic conditions were also the teachers who were the least inclined to work to change the place. I did my part toward the latter, with the result that the school was closed – and then defected to a Catholic school. I am not proud, but I also do not think that it would have been better to just concentrate on classroom teaching and allowing the illegal activities continue. What I do think is that if we want to talk about teacher typologies in moral terms, then we will quickly need the concept of moral luck, because what kind of psychological makeup that ends up serving students best will depend greatly on time and political circumstance.

  7. @Jenorr: Have to agree, and don’t mean to imply that there’s a one size fits all theory that works here; in fact, it’s the opposite.

    @Leyla: I have something to say about unions in my latest post…

    @Kate: Dude, my sympathies– I had an hour’s work chewed up by someone’s blog recently. Lesson: Microsoft Word drafts! 😉

    @Kim and H: Thanks for the text references.
    Ever more reading…

    H, To your other points: I have to agree. While I’m positing Plymouth Sydrome as a type of myopic personal predilection, its characteristics also may be simply what one has to do to survive, as in your charter school. I went surfing for some Martin Haberman stuff and I’m fascinated– I attended a lecture by Gloria Ladson-Billings last year and she quoted his “Pedagogy of Poverty” liberally.

    TMAO’s quote is particularly telling, I think, as an example of the tension that results from being too aware to completely succumb to one’s own tendencies towards Plymouth Syndrome. It breaks my heart a little, for example, to hear him criticize dependency on functional system, as if this was some kind of failing. The more and more I study the lives of teachers who overcome a system within the microcosm of their classrooms, the more I see what Herculean choices they make– and/or what resources they personally bring to bear. Broken marriages. Often they have no children of their own. Hundreds of hours of work a week. Hundreds of thousands of dollars from private sources or their own pockets. The list goes on. They are of the kind that should be the exception: not glitzed up, beribboned and presented as what should be the norm.

    As for moral luck, this is the kind of new-to-me philsophical realm that will addict me and suck me down a black hole this summer, so thanks a lot. 😉

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