Superman and Clark Kent: Teaching’s Symbolic Superhero

Depending on who you talk to–and depending upon who is listening, teachers are either the laziest, dumbest, backward-thinking, status-quo-worshipping, bottom-feeders of society, or self-sacrificing heroes, model citizens, and our nation’s most precious treasure.

President Obama, in his State of the Union address said:

Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect. We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones. And over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

In fact, to every young person listening tonight who’s contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child – become a teacher. Your country needs you.


Read more of the President’s speech

Though this sounds hollow when compared to the anti-teacher narrative pervading our country. We’re supposed to feel better about it when someone tells us they admire us and could “never do” what we do. It’s also supposed to make us feel better when someone reminds us we work such short days and get to take the summer off.

Still, so few people know what goes on in our nations’ classrooms. Education reformers believe they’ve found the secret to shedding more light on what happens through standardized testing, but nearly every classroom teacher distrusts the method and its impact on learning. In the tug-of-war for the profession and purpose of education, teachers find themselves at a loss for good ways to explain what we do and how we know when it works. There’s a battle for the soul of education and the camps are lining up on two sides of the issue.

Unfortunately, teachers have often been as quiet about their successes as they have been about their struggles. In the absence of our story, one has been written for us.

Waiting for “Superman”

In searching for a metaphor or symbol to identify the new reformers and contrast them with the teaching establishment, Davis Guggenheim selected an image offered by Geoffrey Canada. It’s a moving story. A boy looks to the heavens for a powerful, benevolent figure to swoop down and right the world’s wrongs, defend the weak, and protect the innocent. A boy waits for Superman.

In the comic books, Superman is an alien, an outsider from another planet. A benevolent interloper who comes to the rescue when opponents with similar levels of power and evil intent threaten to destroy Metropolis. Since his introduction in the 1930s, Superman’s personality, identity, and mission have shifted to reflect current events and cultural perceptions. Our culture sees in Superman the magic answer to the problems we can’t solve for ourselves–the ones that seem to big or overwhelming.

Superman’s powers are impressive. He is strong in many ways, leaping over immense obstacles, outrunning bullets or trains; he can “change the course of rivers” and “bend steel bars in his bare hands.” In education reform, don’t we need someone who isn’t daunted in the face of significant obstacles and can prove their clout?The problem with Superman, is that in order to “change the course of rivers” or “bend steel” his strength turns to destruction.

Superman is single-minded: do the right thing–but his single-mindedness combined with his strength can lead to unintended collateral damage in the name of doing what is “right.” He shows up to save the day, but Metropolis is left to pick up the pieces and sweep up the mess after he has defeated the bad guys and hung up his cape for the day. As a hero, he is loved by his fans, hated by his enemies, and truly known by no one.

If education reformers are Superman, then what role do teachers play? Are we the citizens of Metropolis, passively waiting to be saved along with our schools, or are we the union villains to be defeated in the name of “truth, justice, and the American way”? Teachers must refuse to be cast in either of these roles.

Despite these concerns, Superman still may be the right symbol for education reform–and a symbol teachers can embrace, despite his unintended flaws. Not just because many teachers have claimed there’s no need to wait for Superman or Superwoman. Those of us in the profession see many examples of strong leaders who are making a difference in the lives of their students and in their communities. They are often unassuming, yet they are visionary leaders bringing change to their schools through their own actions without carrot-and-stick measures. No, Superman makes a good symbol because he’s actually Clark Kent in disguise. Clark, who chooses to hide his dual identity in order to lead a normal life while stepping up to save the day when called upon. Clark, the quiet, unassuming reporter may not garner the same amount of attention or recognition, but still has all of Superman’s strength and abilities. He chooses to work behind the scenes instead of making headlines and getting the credit.

Maybe it’s time for our inner Clark Kent to stop hiding our strengths and make sure our communities, our states, and our nation know there is no need to wait for Superman when Clark Kent is already on the case.

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One thought on “Superman and Clark Kent: Teaching’s Symbolic Superhero

  1. Pingback: Comments ‘Round the Web, July 3-9 | The Art and Science of Teaching

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