A Few Educators 'Going the Extra Mile' Cannot Save the Education System

Opinion | Teaching and Learning

A Few Educators 'Going the Extra Mile' Cannot Save the Education System

By Jennifer Yoo-Brannon     Feb 1, 2023

A Few Educators 'Going the Extra Mile' Cannot Save the Education System

After gorging ourselves on Chinese takeout, my husband opened his fortune cookie and read the following line: “It is never crowded along the extra mile.”

I had a visceral response to this seemingly harmless message. It took me a while to figure out why this banal comment evoked such anger.

The phrase “going the extra mile” turns up frequently in schools. There’s always talk about teachers who go above and beyond the call of duty. You might say that the phrase is ubiquitous across sectors — that it’s just a catch phrase for talking about “good employees” — but I would argue that it causes harm in the teaching profession because public discourse suggests that all teachers should be going the extra mile and that, in fact, going the extra mile is what defines being a “good teacher.” But that’s a dangerous misconception.

How This Phrase Shows Up

Let me explain. This phrase and the message behind it shows up in many ways. From shoutouts during staff meetings to spotlights by administrators in newsletters, these acknowledgements and other examples of public praise shape how we perceive and talk about teachers.

Here’s a look at how this plays out in the minds of educators. The week before the official start of the school year, I was sitting in a full-day professional development session led by a presenter who was flown many miles to my school in California to teach us the ways of a branded educator training program (that I will leave nameless) purporting itself to be a culture-changer and a vehicle for building genuine connections between staff and students.

A key image appearing on the materials used in the session was a graphic of a pyramid with three labeled sections. The base of the pyramid was labeled “Whatever” and represented a group of teachers and school staff who had a “whatever” attitude. The facilitator explained that this group of employees did not care about initiatives or improvement plans, but were simply there to clock in, clock out and collect a paycheck. The middle of the pyramid was labeled “Whatever you say,” and the presenter told us this represented the segment of a school’s staff that will go along with whatever plans are given to them by administrators, but will not have any real enthusiasm for the work. Then, the top of the pyramid is labeled (as you have probably guessed) “Whatever it takes,” representing a cadre of highly-motivated individuals who do whatever it takes to move the school forward. The presenter was exhorting us all to be the kind of educator who would breathe that rarified air at the top of the pyramid — to be the people who do whatever it takes.

I sat there looking at the pyramid, listening to the presenter’s anecdotes about teachers who went the extra mile. There were stories of teachers who went to every game, teachers who stayed late to tutor students without extra pay, those who made home visits or chaperoned every field trip. I couldn’t help thinking about how the presenter focused on individual educators acting mostly alone, to “save” a situation, club or student, rather than on a school community working together and growing in sustainable ways. I also couldn’t help thinking about the construction of a pyramid. Was it even possible for us all to be at the top? If all educators were in the top category of the pyramid, as the presenter was encouraging us to be, would it even be a pyramid at all?

What Makes a “Good Teacher”

Everyone has a different idea about what defines good teaching, but too often, I hear parents, administrators and even some educators talk about “the good teachers” as the ones who provide quick responses to emails, volunteer to supervise school events or stay late to “help out.” I have been an educator for over 17 years and an instructional coach for nearly 10 years. I have spent my career trying to be a “good teacher” and to help others be “good teachers” and I’ve learned that great teaching isn’t necessarily defined by neat bulletin boards, volunteering for unpaid opportunities to support students or showing up to every school event.

I am not suggesting that these are signs of bad teaching or that great teachers don’t often do these things. I’m pointing out that some of the actions that get praised in school settings don't always indicate strong teaching or effective educational systems.

My experience has taught me that “good teachers” possess specific mindsets and ways of being in the classroom that are evident in every interaction with students. They are reflective about their instructional practices. They frequently check for understanding and they are responsive to their students’ individual assets and learning needs. But they don’t necessarily exhibit the “extra mile” behaviors that get the spotlight. In fact, some "good teacher" traits are expressed quietly and go under the radar.

In my role as a coach, I have worked with every kind of teacher, including the ones who do whatever it takes, and I can tell you that many of these individuals have told me that they feel they must “go the extra mile” because their school lacks the systems or infrastructure needed to meet the needs of all students. So, these caring educators take it upon themselves to fill the gaps with their individual herculean efforts and suddenly, the “Whatever it takes” educators quickly become the “burnt out and ready to quit” educators.

Toxic Discourse

Let’s go back to the pyramid. As I sat in that room with a representative group of my school’s staff, I watched my colleagues’ faces as the presenter talked about the “Whatever it takes” group. Their expressions registered a diverse array of emotions — some expressed defensiveness, others had an air of superiority.

I had conversations with a number of participants after this session and I learned that some were immediately turned off by the presenter’s message and felt judged or compelled to compare themselves to their peers.

One colleague said to me, “I try to go to some of the football games. I was a club adviser for years. I’m available at lunch if students want to see me, but I have to pick up my own kids after school. What am I supposed to do?”

Another shared, “I know some teachers who never go to anything. They’re the ones who should be listening to this speech but, of course, they’re not here.”

As I listened to the presenter, I found myself getting defensive and paranoid. I wondered whether others perceived me as a “Whatever it takes” type of educator, or if my administrators thought I should be more “whatever it takes.”

Many of us became educators because we want to help others, we are community-minded, we are oriented toward public service. We want to do all the things, but it is just not possible.

We cannot operate in the extremes of our capacity for very long, but so many educators have internalized this message that doing so is what makes a “good teacher.”

The “good teacher” vs. “bad teacher” discourse has become toxic. This kind of categorization of teachers leads to defensiveness, comparison and paranoia. We need to stop fixating on whether or not individual teachers “go the extra mile.” Instead, we need to focus on school communities.

Not a Pyramid, But a Garden

Instead of a pyramid, let’s adopt a new image, a more organic one. School communities are webs of complex relationships, like gardens. Imagine if we all understood a school community like a Three Sisters Garden. In this Indigenous agricultural practice, corn, beans and squash grow together to create a sustainable cycle of growth in which the whole garden can thrive. Corn provides the tall stalks for the beans to climb. The large squash plant leaves provide shade so the soil can retain moisture, and the beans provide the nitrogen to fertilize the soil. The garden does not rely on the exploitation of one crop to allow the rest to grow.

When a teacher who has been a club adviser for years finds her plate too full with two small children at home, maybe she passes it on to another teacher who finds himself with more time on his hands as an empty-nester. Perhaps another teacher undergoing treatment for cancer, finds she doesn’t have the capacity to plan the same kind of complex units she has done in the past, so she relies more heavily on her course team for ideas and activities. Maybe a paraeducator who is suddenly financially supporting a family member can take advantage of paid opportunities to supervise after-school events, while other staff members may choose to sit out a few games and there is a common understanding that attendance doesn’t signify our level of commitment to students.

As educators, our roles will change over time. In one season of our life, we might be more like corn, providing a foundation for growth. In another, we might find ourselves more like squash, building stability and sustainability for the entire school community.

That harmless fortune cookie was probably right. It is probably not going to be crowded on the extra mile. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe the goal is not to have a more crowded extra mile, but rather a common, sustainable vision of care, cultivated without judgment.

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