Saturday, July 09, 2011

Why Superman Would Suck As a Teacher

by John T. Spencer

Some people are waiting for Superman and that's fine.  (I have my own thoughts on why Clark Kent wouldn't choose to become a teacher) But for what it's worth, I hope Superman doesn't become a teacher. Here's why:

  • Superman has x-ray vision, but he is unwilling to be even remotely transparent himself. I'm not suggesting that teachers bare all, but a complete lack of vulnerability prevents students from trusting a classroom leader. 
  • Superman is strong, but rarely gentle.  The Flaming Lips ask the question, "Is it getting heavy to use a crane to crush a fly?" Perhaps kids need more strong men, but it seems even more powerful when a strong man can gently say, "I care about your pain.  I care about your story." 
  • Superman is always composed, always honorable, always doing the right thing.  But in the process, he doesn't get a chance to be humble and apologize.  Perhaps he's perfect and maybe kids need perfection.
  • Superman is too nice.  My favorite teachers (Jesus, Socrates, my AP Government teacher) often broke social norms and used language that provoked thought rather than maintaining the status quo.  
  • Superman might be great preventing destruction, but he is rarely seen creating anything.  Preservation can't be the bottom line. 
  • Superman saves the day, but in the process he doesn't allow the citizens to help.  He doesn't come alongside them and say, "let's serve together."  There's a touch of imperialism in flying down and fixing a mess without empowering people to get to the root of the issue.  
For eight years, I've taught in a low-income school and I've noticed that kids don't want to be saved.  They don't want to be someone's project.  They don't want to exist in order to validate someone else's savior complex.  They want to learn.  They want to think deeply.  Superman can't do that. Clark Kent, perhaps, but not Superman.  However, I've met a ton of teachers who use quality strategies with students who society has written off as "underprivileged" and the results are way more impressive than a flying man in tights.

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink.  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer


  1. I wouldn't call what he does a savior complex. His reason for being Superman is because it is simply the right thing to do (I'd go with the whole great power, etc. thing but that's the other company).

    The thing about the "Waiting for Superman" thing is that nobody really waits around for Superman to save them. And nobody should. In fact, isn't there some story I used to hear in sermons or Sunday school lessons about a guy who is in a flood and passes up a car, boat, and helicopter b/c "God will save me" and when he finally faces God and wonders where he was, God tells him ... "Uh, I sent a car, a boat, and a helicopter."

    I haven't seen that movie, btw, but the more I hear about it and the more I think about this reform being some sort of crusade, the less I want to see it.

    But I digress.

    As for Superman, you might be interested in reading the Superman of the mid-1980s up until a little after the Death and Return in 1993-1994. There was a lot of vulnerability given to the character and it was obvious that Superman was the mask while Clark Kent was the real person in the whole thing.

    That being said, Supes can't take down supervillains when he has to teach bell to bell. I mean, Peter Parker had a hard enough time of it when he taught chemistry.

  2. John,

    I'm troubled at the use of Superman as a symbol for education reformers and have written about it, too--but your list gave me a few more thoughts to consider.

    Since his introduction into American pop culture, Superman reflects our cultural self concept of the ultimate "American good" at war with the incomprehensible evils in the world. Harkening back to this World War II version of the Superhero is a weak attempt to tap into a part of our country's cultural pride and equate education reform with America's role in stopping Hitler and the Nazi party.

    The bigger question for me is why do some education reformers choose to evoke 1940s America (World War II) or 1960s America ("Sputnik moment") rather than look to the future? Looking back seems counter to their agenda.

  3. Dear Tom,
    Love your response. I actually enjoyed Superman of the eighties (I grew up with those). My frame of reference was more Superman movies and t.v. shows. I actually think there are some valid points graphic novels bring up that could inform our teaching practices. Seriously. I don't write that in jest.

    Dear jl8910,
    I've never thought about it that way, but it's true. Why are we using nostalgia to try and drive innovation?


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