Tearing Teachers Down

There is an old Greek story about a herald seeking advice for his master on how to rule a city. Instead of offering verbal advice he walked through a field where he cut the tops off the tallest and healthiest plants. The herald returned to his master explaining what had transpired. The master took this to mean the advice was to cut down those in his city who stood above the others in order to maintain control. This story has been retold in many spaces and the idea behind has been called Tall Poppy Syndrome. Essentially it shows how to keep people in “check” or under control, you cut down anyone who stands out or is perceived as above others.

This concept of the Tall Poppy Syndrome is something I have thought a great deal about over the past few years. In 2012, I was selected as the Teacher of the Year for the state of Illinois. I traveled the country, met the president, gave keynotes to packed conferences, published a book, and even got to stand on the mound at Wrigley Field and throw out the first pitch. It was the worst year of my teaching career.

Let me explain.

As a teacher, when you get recognized, there are a few things that happen which I think plays into the Greek story about the poppy field.

Teachers will be jealous of you. This is a natural reaction and one that is difficult to deal with. Many won’t admit it but jealousy is alive and well among the teacher ranks. I will admit that I was insanely jealous when I saw a fellow teacher keynote a conference where the actress who played Winnie Cooper was also speaking. Sorry, it’s true. 🙂 For me, I can understand the jealousy when it comes to teacher recognition. In some cases, being recognized comes with greater opportunities. I was able to do consulting and speaking which helped my family in a financial way which I would not have been without the award. Who wouldn’t be jealous of being able to create more financial stability for their family?

Some teachers will cut you down behind your back with rumors, lies, and just not nice comments. They will talk about how you didn’t deserve whatever recognition you received. Some will go so far as to justify why they are a better teacher than you and therefore should have been honored in your place. It’s true. A peer of mine accused me of stealing teaching ideas from them and that is why I was awarded the honor of teacher of the year. Some will literally try to cut you down like a plant in that Greek field in order to make themselves feel better.

Another inevitable element of being recognized as a teacher is survivor guilt. Or at least it was a thing for me. I felt bad about being recognized which lead to many great opportunities because I did feel there were better teachers out there, and many of which were in my own building. The year I won teacher of the year I could name at least five teachers in my building that year who I felt were better teachers than I was. If you are a teacher, you are typically programmed to be humble and modest. Being honored and held up on any pedestal is typically not comfortable.

So what?

Is this post a pity party or an attempt to get sympathy? No, that is not my intent. Rather, I want teachers to know it’s ok to be celebrated and recognized for the work you are doing. If you are nominated for an award, be proud. There will never be enough awards or recognition for all the deserving teachers in the world. So, if you are lucky enough to be recognized, enjoy it. Yet, be aware of the backlash that you will likely get. There will always be those wanting to cut successful people down in an effort to make themselves feel better. At the end of the day, as long as we stay focused on the work we do with kids, the rest is truly irrelevant.