Based in Long Beach, California, "Teach Me Mr. West" is a blog by Jason West. His posts explore the rewards and challenges of being a highly effective 21st century educator.

The Myth of the 1.5% Savior

The Myth of the 1.5% Savior

We’ve all seen a version of the same movie about a crotchety, sinful man who, overnight, turns into a caring, philanthropic, Christmas-loving person with the help of a divine entity (like an angel, spirit, or Ewok). We’ve also seen a version of the same movie about an amazing teacher who overcame the odds (and an awful school culture) to have a significant, lifelong impact on each and every one of his or her students.

Any comparisons we can draw between these two movies? Overly sappy dialogue? Check. Heartwarming ending? Check. But what else…

Oh, I know…


Somewhere deep inside (or maybe not so deeply), we all know this. Teachers are not the great saviors that Hollywood pretends we are. Are these movies inspirational? Sure. Are they aspirational? Absolutely. Do they glamorize the teaching profession? Yes. Buuuut I would also go as far as saying these movies actually do a tremendous disservice to our profession. Teachers can certainly have a significantly positive impact on many students, but it’s unrealistic (and unfair, even) to expect one teacher to impact every student by themselves. Don't believe me? I'll prove it with math (unrelated, “I'll prove it with math” is the magic phrase you can say to make any English teacher instantly run away, screaming with horrorcome back, English teachers!):

In most states, schools are legally required to be in session for a minimum of 180 of the 365 days in a single calendar year. Or, more specifically, schools are legally required to be in session for a minimum of 1,260 of the 8,760 hours in a single calendar year. That means if I have a student who comes to school for every minute of every school day, they will spend a little over 14% of their year in my school. For context (and for the English teachers reading this), I’m talking about 14 percent out of a hundred. Now, if I taught at a middle or high school, teaching 90-minute blocks (which, like my actual school, rotates every day by odd and even periods), the amount of time I would see this student in a year dwindles alllll the way down to 1.5%.

One and a half percent of an entire year.

Imagine you're a kid for a moment. You have (not by choice) a big bowl of rancid oatmeal as your only source of food—and it takes a hundred spoonfuls to finish the bowl (and be given your next bowl). How miserable and hopeless would you feel? Almost as miserable and hopeless as someone who’s been stuck in an IKEA labyrinth for the better part of an hour (“How many times am I going to walk by these goddamned Knutstorps? Where is the exit?? For the love of God, someone help me escape this M.C. Escher hellscape!!”), not that I would know [*ahem*]. Don’t worry, though (he said, with sarcasm), there’s hope! Out of those hundred spoonfuls of rancid oatmeal, 1.5 of them are going to taste soooo delicious! How great is that???

As I’m sure you’re realizing by now, this awful hypothetical is actually an allegory (or maybe it’s more of a parablecan it be both? A parallegory?). Some students will see their limited time with you as their saving grace. To these students, you are the one person who makes them believe that they can have a better life (and that you're rooting for them) if they are willing to spend years working for it. Other students, however, will be (justifiably so) more focused on trying to cope with the other 98.5% of their bleak and toxic lives. These kids don't even notice (let alone appreciate) all the hope and love you're trying to pack into 1.5 spoonfuls of otherwise rancid oatmeal.

So what do we do? Throw our hands in the air and say, “Teaching isn’t a movie! We can’t reach every kid, so don’t even try!” Of course not, obviously…what kind of blog do you think I’m running, here? You have to try and try and try until the school year is over. And every time you see that kid (those kids) in the hallways the next year, you still have to try. Maybe it will all mean nothing in the end. Maybe (probably) the sum of the external factors in this kid’s life is too much for one teacher to overcome. But maybe that’s the problem. Just like in the movies, there are too many instances where only one teacher (two, at best) is trying to really connect with these kids.

I have a colleague-friend who always says, “Teamwork makes the dream work!” Seriously, she always says this—with the biggest grin (even at 7am when I haven’t had any caffeine and can’t handle all the perkiness). And no matter how severely I roll my eyes every time she (almost every day) says this, there is actually plenty of merit in this idea, especially when it comes to building a support system for students (btw, my friend is probably dying over the fact that I used this phrase in a blog post). So one teacher can’t make a significant, lifelong impact on each and every one of his or her students…but a group of teachers, or (dare to dream) a whole school’s worth of adults (working as a team), can. Teamwork makes the dream work.

Trying to live up to the Hollywood myth of the savior teacher hasn’t helped anyone. In fact, new teachers who enter the profession often burn out quickly because of how frustrated they feel when the reality of “1.5%” decimates their savior complex (but that’s a topic for another post). I’ll leave you now with a question and a final thought:

If every adult at your school made a collective effort to leave no student ignored and unsupported—or, more significantly, if every student in your school felt recognized and championed by nearly every adult in your school—do you think the impact that a teacher (or a school) could have on a student would be greater? I certainly do. I think that if we stop trying to accomplish the impossible by ourselves (fighting to make 1.5% greater/more powerful than 98.5%), and start creating the right kind of team-based culture in our schools, we would never have to worry about this kind of math again (you’re welcome, English teachers).

What do you think about the Myth of the 1.5% Savior? Do you work in a school where “teamwork makes the dream work?” What are some impactful ways your school supports students? Ask any lingering questions or add your thoughts in the comments section below!

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