Research Paper By Hannah Harrold
(Dual Language Instructional Coach, UNITED STATES)
In 1933, a Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung introduced a previously unidentified characteristic of a person’s unconscious. He referred to it as “a complex”, or a deep pattern of perceptions, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes that organize around a specific theme or concept. Jung asserted that complexes are a normal part of human life born from relationships and experiences. Though common, complexes eventually result in negative consequences. (1)
Many complexes are given names of literary characters they exemplify, like Oedipus or Medusa. Even Superman has an assigned complex. Tanya J. Peterson, a Nationally Certified Counselor and author on the topic of mental health, describes a Superman or Superwoman Complex as “feeling a desire or a pressure to be perfect; indeed, they’re both an extreme form of perfectionism in which someone believes he/she must do it all and do all of it perfectly without fail. The Superman or Superwoman believes the failure to be anything that isn’t 500 percent beyond what is required of a “normal” human being.” (2)
Peterson goes on to describe a person who may suffer from a Superman Complex as someone who:
- Is high-achieving
- Adheres to unrealistically high standards for him or herself
- Can’t or won’t acknowledge a need for rest and breaks
- Is a workaholic
- Beliefs he or she must be “on” all the time
- Does whatever it takes to provide for and take care of everyone he or she feels responsible for
- Measures his or her self-worth in terms of productivity
- Believes he or she can be superhuman or in that idea that though others may not be able to “handle it”, he or she can and must
- Has an unhealthy sense of responsibility
- Experiences these tendencies in all realms of life: work, relationships, parenting, volunteering, running the household, etc.
- Holds the irrational belief that trying to be superhuman is not creating problems
In my 10 years as a teacher, and specifically within the context of Bilingual and Dual Language Education, I have witnessed hundreds of educators who would identify with the items on this list. For most of my teaching years, I could have checked every box and, if I am honest, this complex is something I still have to keep an eye on in my own life today. These behaviors and beliefs are so common in education that I hypothesize American teachers, as a community, are fed an unhealthy narrative that leads them to adopt a collective Superhero Complex.
What contributes to this collective teacher Superhero Complex? Unattainable expectations. Teachers are expected to meet demands put into place by a large number of stakeholders. Sanctions are handed down to teachers from the national and state level. Policies are put into place by district leaders. Most departments have their own specific set of rules. Building specific mandates change with each new building administrator. Each class of parents brings a variety of requests. It’s no wonder teachers feel the pressure to do it all. Doing it “all” is society’s expectation of teachers.
A few summers ago I served on a curriculum writing committee. Our team was charged with the task of embedding language standards and the use of language acquisition strategies into a recently revised curriculum map. Although all of these components were required by the Dual Language department, our district, and the law, the team quickly determined there were not enough minutes in the school day for all the expectations to be met. We modified units to “hit” multiple standards through integrated, multidisciplinary teaching. We removed every ounce of chaff from the plans, massaging the schedule before eventually tearing it apart and starting from scratch. In the end, it wasn’t possible, even on paper. Taking into consideration the assemblies, picture days, class parties, emergency drills, field trips, and other unexpected occurrences that happen in elementary schools, the expectations were entirely unachievable. Even so, we were responsible to meet them. We straightened our metaphorical capes and did our best, working through lunch, planning through evenings or weekends, smiling for our students, but rarely believing we were doing our jobs well.
Monica Myrmo who teaches kindergarten in Chula Vista California provides another example of a common unattainable expectation. In her district, collaboration is a stated directive, but a collaboration structure is not provided for teachers to engage it. “We’re expected to collaborate, but we’re not really given time to collaborate…” Instead, Monica and her team began meeting at least once a week over the summer, during unpaid, non-contract hours to plan and prepare materials. (3) To meet the unachievable expectations, they, like many teachers across the nation, don metaphorical capes and find a different way to “handle it”.
Time isn’t the only resource that teachers are expected to manifest with their superpowers. The average American teacher spends $479 on his or her classroom each year. (4) Although teachers may receive an Educator Expense Deduction when filing taxes, this credit only offsets a maximum amount of $250.
What they cannot cover out of pocket, many teachers take upon themselves to crowdsource. DonorsChoose is a website that allows teachers to post needs their schools are not meeting. Since the organization’s inception in the year 2000, nearly two million teachers’ projects have been funded and almost one billion dollars have been donated to America’s schools via teachers’ requests. In theory, this solution may seem effective. But in most cases, teachers are not searching for funds to cover supplementary or superfluous materials. The requests are for basic learning materials needed for teachers to meet expectations. From 2018-2019, 33,000 cubbies and bins were supplied for students to store backpacks and supplies. Pencils, pens, and books are some of the most commonly requested supplies. Currently, multiple projects are posted requesting cleaning supplies to disinfect classrooms against COVID-19. One teacher is requesting a purified water cooler because hallway water fountains are now off-limits to students. Teachers are relying on donations, rather than districts, to provide basic school and safety supplies. (5)
The situation extends to curricular resources, too. Teachers Pay Teachers (TPT) is an online marketplace where teachers post self-made resources to sell or give away to other teachers. Last year, five million teachers purchased TPT resources accounting for more than two-thirds of America’s educators. (6) At first glance, sites like TPT may seem to be a viable solution to the problem of the weak or non-existent curriculum; but, as teachers continue to pay out of pocket in money, time, and energy to supplement what ought to be provided by an improved education system, these options prove to be band-aids over hemorrhaging wounds. Expectations remain.
Regardless, to mitigate the bleeding, teachers continue to create solutions where they can. For most, this does not happen during the school day. Quickbooks conducted a study from the years 2015 – 2018. They found that teachers consistently worked 11.2 unpaid overtime hours per week. Another survey conducted in partnership with Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had similar findings with teachers working an average of 53 hours per week. Taking into account the number of hours worked without compensation and average teacher salaries, approximately 13% of American teachers make less than minimum wage. (7)
With this reality in mind, a Superhero Complex can be understood as a coping mechanism used by many teachers to ensure their students’ success and their professional reputations. They resort to the proposed belief that if they work a little harder, give a little more if they just “handle it”, the students they serve will succeed and the expectations placed upon them will be met. Schools promote this mentality by allowing systems to fail to meet needs while encouraging teachers to independently meet them instead.
Sometimes, the message is subtle, but often it is not. On the first day of staff meetings three years ago, each teacher in my building was given a literal, physical superhero cape, stamped in blue with the school’s logo. Staff t-shirts were printed with the words “I teach. What’s your superpower?”. We were asked to wear both on the first day of school and for all-school assemblies. Many of us felt strangled by the cape’s cord tied around our necks, both an ironic and accurate representation of the Superhero Complex we were encouraged to accept.
My school is not the only one to explicitly push this superhero narrative on teachers. A simple Google Shopping search of the phrase “teachers are superheroes t-shirts” results in 12 pages of merchandise available for purchase. Some may wonder what harm will come from these superhero-teacher comparisons. After all, is it not quite a compliment to be considered heroic? But this viewpoint ignores the risks associated with the pressures that lead to a Superhero complex. Remember, all complexes come with a cost. An unchecked Superhero complex results in high levels of anxiety and America’s teachers are anxious.
In 2017, a survey presented 80 questions to more than 30,000 teachers and school support staff (psychologists, nurses, counselors, etc.). In it, the American Federation of Teachers found that 58% of those surveyed noted a decline in their mental health as a consequence of workplace and classroom factors. (8) Gallup survey results showed that 46% of teachers experience high levels of stress daily. This rate of stress is the highest recorded in the nation for any occupational group other than nurses, with whom teachers are tied. (9) No one does their best work, especially as it pertains to healing complex, broken systems while experiencing unrelenting stress.
Consider the implications of the challenges teachers face and the stress and anxiety make sense. Students who cannot read at the level by the third grade are four times more likely not to graduate high school. (10) Broken academic and discipline systems contribute to the school to prison pipeline for our nation’s students of color. A lack of advocacy for and understanding of language acquisition leads to language learners being misidentified as learning disabled. Each year, children who suffer from mental illness “slip through the cracks” and commit suicide or bring guns to school. The Superhero Complex is deeper than overwork or burnt out from a lack of supplies, curriculum, energy, or even time. It is all that and the compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma naturally occurring out of the lie that individual teachers can heal the brokenness of entrenched systems and societal injustices.
Unable or unwilling to continue under the pressure, teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Forty-four percent of new teachers are expected to leave the profession within their first five years. No other profession in America experiences such a mass exodus of employees. In the school year 20-21, while many teachers are expected to teach students face to face with limited pandemic precautions in place, that number will increase. Before the pandemic, only 89% of teachers reported a high unlikelihood of not returning to their positions in the fall. That percentage has since dropped to 61%. (11)
So, what can be done? Real system change is necessary to repair the underlying issues, but of course, no system change will occur overnight. In the interim, schools need a way to mitigate the risk. So far, coaching is the most viable solution.
From 2000 – 2015, the number of coach positions available to support teachers in US schools has doubled. These coaches serve teachers through a blended coach/consultant model. Most offer ongoing training, co-plan, and co-teach, model, observe and provide feedback and advocate on behalf of teachers on district and building committees. (12) Within specialized programming, such as Dual Language and Bilingual education, coaches add an extra voice to advocate for the specific needs of marginalized subgroups and the teachers who serve them. The coaching relationship also offers support and new perspectives, poses questions, shines a light on unachievable expectations, challenges teachers’ beliefs, and can aid in lifting the burden of a Superhero Complex. Furthermore, coaches often serve as a conduit between teachers and administration, putting them in an optimal position to challenge leaders’ beliefs about and actions toward teachers as well.
The research varies on the degree to which the use of teacher-coaches correlates to high levels of academic achievement. But there is qualitative evidence that teacher-coaches lead to more effective school-wide instructional practice and reform. Additionally, Anne Gregory’s research concludes that teacher coaching can close the racial discipline gap. In her study, all students in the classes of coached teachers were found to be more engaged and black students no longer received disciplinary action at a higher rate than their peers.
In regards to teacher turnover, coaching may be a short-term golden ticket. The three most highly correlated conditions to ensuring teachers remain in their schools are instructional support from leaders, collaboration among colleagues, and job-embedded professional development. When BetterLesson Coaching polled their coached teachers, 94% of them reported they were more likely to remain in the teaching profession as a result of the coaching partnership. An investment in teacher coaches is an investment in schools. (13)
But coaching is not automatically guaranteed to be effective in schools. There is currently no requirement for teacher-coaches to be trained or certified as professional coaches. Most coaches are veteran teachers who are ready to take on a new leadership role, but most lack formal coaching training. (14)
Additionally, there is no consistent definition for the role of an instructional coach. This means that the definition of “coach” is left up to district or building administrators. If the administrator is familiar with the role and responsibilities of an effective coach, this will not cause a problem, but it is extremely dangerous if the administrator misunderstands or misuses the coaching role. I once heard of a coach in a school who was asked to observe in a teacher’s classroom to see if she was “telling the truth” about a students’ behaviors. When administrators do not fully understand the role of the coach, they risk deploying coaches as expectation enforcers rather than partners in success. Schools will see the greatest results from their coaching program when they design a clear and attainable definition for the work of the coach as well as prioritize training for coaches and administration in professional coaching practices.
Coaching for Change: A Playbook for School and District Leaders suggests also that a framework and model of coaching being put into place before coaches are dispersed to work in schools. Specifically, they recommend a tiered approach in which teachers receive either ‘Facilitative’, ‘Flexible’, or ‘Intensive’ coaching based on their current level of need. As situations arise or resolve, teachers move fluidly across the tiers, accessing the intensity of coaching most appropriate for them. This approach gives teachers autonomy in the coaching partnership. It also protects coaches from serving high numbers of teachers through intensive models of coaching all at once. Keeping the coaching workload manageable is of utmost importance to ensure that coaches do not also inherit an unrealistic expectation of “fixing” all problems related to instruction and thus, further develop or promote a Superhero complex for themselves or others.
Coaching will not entirely fix the problem of a Superhero Complex in our schools, but it is a definite step toward mitigating the risks. Tanya Peterson recommends a series of visualization strategies to those hoping to overcome a Superhero complex. The last in the series is this: “Take off your cape (because you don’t need it) and put on your walking shoes”. (15) Perhaps the greatest benefit of having teacher coaches in schools is the way they can offer us a partnership. With a coach, the expectations to solve broken systems and societal injustice does not have to sit on only the teachers’ shoulders. Coaches can hold up a mirror for teachers to look into, inviting us to see if or how tightly a cape might be tied around our necks. And then gently, if we are ready to untie it, they can hand us a pair of walking shoes to put on instead.
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Will, M. (2018, October 23). 5 Things to Know About Today’s Teaching Force. Education Week – Teacher Beat.
Quintero, D. (2019, January 25). Instructional coaching holds promise as a method to improve teachers’ impact. Brookings.
(n.d.). If Instructional Coaching Works, Why Isn’t It Working? Educationalleadership-Digital.Com.
(2017b, September 21). Stay Grounded: No More Superwoman Syndrome, Superman Complex | HealthyPlace. Healthyplace.Com.