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The Myth of the Super Teacher Archetype is a Reality



By J. Scott Plaster


I meet amazing teachers everywhere I go. That is why it disgusts me that on the political “pendulum” we have swung completely to the blame-the-teacher side of things. The education system should not have to be so politically charged, and it is a sad reality that it is. Our society and children are fortunate, though, that excellent teachers forge onward regardless of what is hurled their way.

One such teacher is John Williams at Northern Vance High School in Henderson, NC. It is odd how I came to meet him. Years ago I learned about this school, and it resembles one where I used teach. The “disadvantaged” student is the norm, the ones who came to school not reading, the ones who might go home from school and instead of doing their homework like good, little children, might be hanging out with friends in the neighborhood or be up to much worse. We’d like to think that they have equal educational opportunity, but the harsh reality is that they do not. Instead of being encouraged and empowered, they have actual concerns of personal safety and well being to worry about; they might not eat until they get to school the next morning. I know this reality because I’ve taught children who lived under those circumstances. Try to ask them why they didn’t do their homework, and they might tell you they were home caring for their little sister or their electricity was turned off.



So, when I was registering my chess team this year for the state tournament, I was a little shocked to see twelve students registered from Northern Vance HS–not that I assumed that poor children aren’t capable of playing chess. Don’t get me wrong, but I just know from experience that it is typically our more advantaged children in more metropolitan areas who might get the chance to learn this enriching, lifelong game. As I planned to take my team from Atkins HS to Raleigh in March, I envisioned that somewhere at Northern Vance, there was this amazing teacher transforming the school through something as simple as a chess board. In my mind, I replayed scenes from movies like Dangerous Minds and Lean on Me. Teachers and administrators in movies throughout the last few decades seem to prove the point that all it takes is a single person to make a difference in the lives of our children. That single person can turn a whole school around and truly make a difference in the world. After seeing that registration list, I tried to research this school with such an active chess team but I got nowhere. So, when we arrived in Raleigh at the convention center I held hopes that somewhere at the tournament I would meet a remarkable man transforming the lives of children. It turned out that I was not wrong.

John Williams is his name, a math teacher who had previously retired from that school system. I met him in the coach/parent area of that big ballroom full of chess players and through the course of those two days I learned that my vision of the story was not far from the truth. Coach Williams was called upon to cover another teacher’s class one day and the students were done with their lesson for the day. He assembled a chess board on a table in front of the room, and within minutes he held the rapt attention of those children from Northern Vance in their first chess lesson. I’ve seen the same effect on students at my last two schools as their chess coach. Chess is like a great equalizer that transcends boundaries of economics, language, and age, and it is no surprise that it was Williams’ transformational tool at NVHS.

I also saw Williams’ approach first-hand with his students. They finished in the top five in the state in this championship weekend, but they didn’t win every game. They won some and lost some, and with unerring constance, they would approach their coach after their games to receive praise and reassurance, but never a look of disappointment. In those students’ faces, I saw their looks of pride and accomplishment. It is these moments that I know can last a person a lifetime. I hope we all have had them, and I know that it just takes one special moment to fuel a student’s interest in school, whether it is being a part of a team, or having that one class or special teacher who will make a difference in our lives.

For me, I’ve had a few of those teachers, whether it was Ann Newber who improved my writing, or my AP Calculus teacher who told me, “I knew you could do it,” or Ann Cook, who challenged me to pursue my own interests in Art, or Dr. Booth, who inspired my love of poetry, or my own father who I had for history, who treated me just like any other student and taught us all way more lessons than could fit within the covers of a book.


That chess weekend, Mr. Williams told me how he found creative ways to finance the trip despite not really having a school budget for it. I’m sure there were equal difficulties in scheduling, practice, and other logistics in getting his team ready for the competition; however, teachers like Mr. Williams don’t hear the word “No” when they have a vision and plans for their students. They simply find a way to get it done. I don’t know the rest of Mr. Williams’ “story,” but I heard and saw enough to know that those twelve students (and likely many more) in Raleigh that weekend will remember that event the rest of their lives, and that one experience could be the difference between a lifetime of poverty and disappointment, or a world where their dreams become fulfilled and a reality. All it takes is a single teacher.

Just Saturday, I had a similar experience with another man who is having a similar impact on the lives of the students he touches. Coach John V. Wood teaches Journalism and Creative Writing at Cleveland High School in Johnson County, NC. Saturday, he brought his writing team to compete in the NCASA Quill on-demand writing competition. At the end of the day, we each had an individual champion, and my team finished second in the state, and his finished third. What was remarkable is that this year was the first year his team had even competed. I had the pleasure of getting to know him that day in the judging room. I could tell from talking to him about his journalism program that one key to his success is the way he empowers his students. Outside after the awards ceremony, I saw his team chatting in the lobby, where we each congratulated each other on our finishes. I congratulated his individual champion who was definitely aglow with pride as she stood with her teacher and coach. I’m sure nothing could have been more valuable to her at that moment.

When I was walking to my car I saw Mr. Wood and his team gathered in a circle in the field beside our school spirit rock. I couldn’t help but think of Robin Williams’ famous teacher role in Dead Poet’s Society at that moment. I’m sure that Mr. Wood will continue to positively influence the lives of many more students during his career. I’m sure that many teachers out there in our schools are doing the same thing–making a profound difference in the lives of children. What is this impact worth? Can it even be measured?

It quickly gets interesting when you stop to analyze the myth and reality of the “Super Teacher” archetype. I’m sure many first year teachers march into the classroom hoping to live out this dream, and anyone who has taught before will tell you that it takes about one day…one period…(hmmmph…one hour) to realize that the real classroom is not exactly like the ones you see in movies. Teenagers do not always hang on every word that a teacher says, and the effective classroom does not exactly follow the Socratic pattern of illumination when the students seem to beam with insight from having received the teacher’s wisdom. Good teachers have to learn to appreciate the “smaller” moments. Sometimes Johnny might say “Yes, Sir” for the first time at school, or finally learn the difference between “your” and “you’re.” Students advance and learn and grow but it usually doesn’t look like the scene out of a movie. Students will not always do their homework.

But sometimes, as in the case of John Williams and John Wood, those A-Hah movie moments are trivial in comparison to putting entire programs into place like these men have done. They haven’t just taught a single good lesson, but have inspired entire groups of children to follow their lead. The Super Teacher archetype is still alive and well because it must hold a valid truth. The idea that single moments can embody “magic” in the lives of children is enticing; it’s the stuff that teachers’ dreams are made of. I read an article not long ago saying that the archetype is just a myth. Well, it is a Myth, but Myth with a capital M. A single teacher can make a difference, and don’t let anyone tell you any different–and definitely not politicians or lawmakers. There might be a Super Teacher in your child’s school you haven’t yet met; he or she might be the teacher of your child’s next class, or even someone your child just meets in the hall. You just never know.



In this politically charged climate, some schools are likely desperately grasping for data-driven solutions and the latest education trends. I’ve seen administration use supposed data to implement questionable practices and utterly destroy schools. But numbers don’t lie, right? Which data? Whose data? What to do with the data? What this school “improvement” process can do is create a climate that is virtually impossible for teachers, and ultimately students, to feel empowered. This type of regime would have forced or scolded a teacher like John Williams into sticking with the “curriculum,” and his twelve eager students would have never seen a championship chess tournament.

In the hands of some schools, the teacher “accountability” model our state is putting into place does nothing to recognize or reward truly effective teaching. Numbers and “data” don’t really capture the impact that John Williams and John Wood are having in and out of the classroom. I think I know, though, that their schools must also be special places. Excellence thrives where it is acknowledged and championed.

The pendulum needs to swing back in the opposite direction before these oases of greatness in our schools dry up for good. We try to answer the question, “Where will the money come from?” to give our schools what they truly need. We don’t know for sure how many teachers are leaving the profession because they feel undervalued, or how many promising college students are choosing different majors because they know their prospects in education are limited.

Teachers are sometimes not only not rewarded for taking extra initiative, but may actually be slapped on the hand, or worse. Our Super Teachers are still out there, I know, but maybe most of them in this political climate are in hiding or on hiatus. We say we can’t afford to more adequately fund public education. I say we can’t afford not to.


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