My favorite superhero—Batman—is a failure. And if young educators take Batman as our role model, we’re likely to fail, too.
You see, every Batman comic and movie starts the same way: Gotham is back in turmoil and Batman needs to save them. But when Batman thinks that he is the answer to all the city’s problems, Gotham ends up worse off than it started. Then Batman starts asking himself his favorite question: Should I stop being Batman?
The parallel with urban education, especially in the charter school movement, is obvious. Younger educators come in with a blinding fire and fury, but then they quickly burn out and leave the school or the work altogether. They are Batmen. They come into urban schools with the conviction that they are capable of making a life-altering change in the lives of their students in a very short period of time.
Like Bruce Wayne and myself, many of these educators come from more privileged backgrounds than their students. Often, either consciously or not, these young educators believe their relative privilege is enough to “save” the communities they work in. Just like Batman believes he can use his unrivaled opportunities and talents to “save” all of Gotham.
This mindset can be destructive. When we engage with those we work with through the lens of giver and receiver, we’re blinded to the inherent capabilities of those you think you are helping. Thus, we are unable to form true, meaningful relationships which are essential to the success of our work. This mindset often perpetuates the social, racial, economic and class-based historical injustices that created a gap in privilege in the first place.
Batman Wouldn’t Make It in an Urban School
The other problem is that Batmen don’t survive in urban schools.
A tough pill to swallow is that you aren’t going to change the world in a lesson, a week, or a school year. But if you come in with the mindset that you can, then you will surely take off the Bat-suit and return to Wayne Manor defeated. Having a Batman mindset will put walls between you, your students and their families.
Additionally, you will constantly feel inadequate. When you are told you can make transformational change in a short period of time and then you see that you aren’t, you are bound to feel like a failure. This feeling of not being enough for your students will erode at your self-esteem and eventually become a cyclical pain where you blame yourself, your students, or the community for the reality not meeting the expectations.
What we need are not Batmen, but Harvey Dents. Perhaps the most enlightening moment of all Batman moments comes in the movie, “The Dark Knight.” Here, Batman is ready to hang up his cape because there’s a man who can enact more widespread change: Harvey Dent.
Harvey Dent is less sexy and flashy than Batman; he isn’t running up and throwing bat-shaped daggers at his political opponents. But he is someone who is trying to enact long-term, systemic change over time. And Batman realizes that’s just what Gotham needs. Bruce Wayne would have been wise to disperse his talents and opportunities by cultivating the seeds that lay dormant in Gotham.
Commitment Creates Lasting Change
In urban education, what creates lasting change is a lasting commitment. The best educators I’ve seen in urban schools have been those who make the difficult, right decisions day after day. Often, these decisions are not miraculous. It won’t get you on TV or make you the star of a comic book series.
These decisions are small and tedious. It’s the decision to ask a student, “what’s wrong?” when they act up, instead of telling them, “you’re wrong.” It’s staying after school late to tutor a student on that one algebra problem that they can’t seem to grasp. When students come into class rowdy, it’s having all of them leave the classroom, line up, and enter again. When you notice a student is having a bad day, it’s giving them a pat on the back and a warm smile. None of these acts will create change immediately, but over time they add up. When you have a community of educators in a school acting similarly, it can cultivate and empower students whose light was always there but just needed illumination.
I’m not above viewing myself as a Batman. I’ve certainly done it before, especially when I was a younger educator. But, fundamentally, like all of us, Batman’s dark side is his ego.
I know that if I want to constantly grow as an educator I have to put my ego aside and clear the road for more wise decisions. Ego makes the world about you, but when you’re in education, and moving through life generally, you need to constantly consider how your decisions impact others and what the implications of that impact are.
When working in an impoverished community, you need to question your motives. We don’t need any more Batmen coming in, burning themselves out, and presenting themselves as the answer. We need more Harvey Dents who want to come in to help cultivate the power and beauty that is already in our students. This will take consistency, patience, and time. It takes a series of decisions that no one will write home about. But, in the end it will be worth it.
Don’t be Batman. We all know how Gotham turned out.