On the morning of my first day of teaching, I remember almost erupting into a fit of laughter during homeroom. As I introduced the schedule and procedures that we would be practicing in the next few weeks, I watched students’ puzzled faces as I tried desperately to keep a straight face. I was 23. How in the world had I been deemed qualified enough to stand in front of 130 6th graders to teach math? I could barely balance my bank account and keep my apartment clean, and these middle school students’ math development now depended on me.
Although I was laughing at the absurdity of it on that first day, I took my responsibility seriously. I wanted to save my students, and by saving my students I wanted to transform their communities. But savior complexes are dangerous – for students and teachers alike.
SAVING WHO FROM WHAT
The root of the word savior is save, which is problematic for several reasons. First of all, in education the term is often invoked only when speaking about students of color or low-income students. They are the ones who need to be saved – but saved from what? What are the assumptions that we are making when we talk about needing to save these students? What are we saying about their families? About their communities? About their peers?
For all of the public narrative surrounding poor communities and communities of color – that they are destitute, destroyed, suffering, everyone wants to get out – when I think about my former students student by student, I am hard-pressed to remember any parents who did not love their children or who weren’t proud of or concerned about their children. When I think back to families who I was concerned about, I can think of 2 or 3 families – out of over 300 students who I taught in my short-lived teaching career – about whom I had substance-use concerns, and these parents still came to school when I called. That is less than 1% of my students’ families. I taught in Oakland, y’all. Poor communities and communities of color in Oakland face a lot of challenges – but love for each other isn’t one of them. So what are we trying to save them from – a loving community? Check what you think you know about our students’ families and communities.
This isn’t to say that many students’ communities don’t need attention and improvement, but another issue with the teacher savior complex is that it ignores the systematic oppression taking place in many of the communities where we teach. Communities of color and low-income communities have been deliberately and continuously disenfranchised and me killing myself over students’ mastery of fractions is not going to change that. I am not saying that teaching isn’t important. It simply can’t be the only thing. Me in my classroom is not going to change the fact that my students’ parents aren’t earning a living wage and thus couldn’t pay the light bill this month. I can impact that – by working with the community, not on it.
WHEN YOU NEED TO SAVE YOURSELF
The savior complex also has major implications for the teacher. The idea that one must “save” their students is a big cross to bear and can lead to burnout if you’re not attuned to what’s going and engaging in regular self-care. If my students’ futures rest solely with me, then I will work myself to the bone to make sure that they get what they need. But the truth is, I actually have very little power in the grand scheme of things. I am one teacher in a line of dozens of teachers who my students will have. I am one adult among dozens if not hundreds of adults and peers my students will know throughout their lifetime. And I am but one moment in a large system of oppression.
Obviously, it is important for me to take responsibility for students’ learning. However, to place my student success solely on my shoulders ignores the attention that we must give to all of the other issues facing children – everything from hunger to homelessness to living wages for their parents and immigration issues. Without attention to these issues, no one is doing any saving. What’s more, by burning myself out, I’m not doing anyone any favors – because I become just one more teacher who left the profession.
I did burn out.
I had moments my first year – at that age of 23 – where I seriously thought about having one of my 6th graders come to live with me. I had two roommates and commuted 40 minutes each way. I think this student’s mother would have let me take him to live with me, but I was twenty-three. I barely had my own life together. And was that that long-term solution? Was I simply going to bring all of my students to live with me?
This emotional responsibility can quickly drain teachers. Teachers have got to take care of themselves, and the teacher savior complex makes that nearly impossible.
ALL TEACHERS ARE SUSCEPTIBLE
Although the teacher savior complex is often invoked when talking about teachers who serve students of color, you’ll notice that I haven’t brought up anything about the teacher’s race yet. I’ve purposely avoided inserting it into this conversation because I think that all teachers, regardless of race, are susceptible to this type of thinking. I’m Latina, and I definitely fell for this. I’ve heard Black colleagues use savior language, and I’ve heard it from White and Asian colleagues, too. Anyone can fall into this trap. It’s feels like a nice moral justification for our work.
But it’s actually immoral. The teacher savior complex prevents us from moving past assumptions about our students to truly getting to know them, and it hurts teachers and students in the process.
(c) Monica Candal Rahim
Monica Candal Rahim is a former teacher who has worked in education policy and advocacy. She now works as a consultant with Education Research Solutions, where she helps nonprofits, schools, and school districts to improve educational outcomes for all children.