All Articles Education Educational Leadership Theater of envy: Challenging the culture of comparison in teaching

Theater of envy: Challenging the culture of comparison in teaching

"We must not diminish the accomplishments of exceptional teachers, but it's time we recognize the efforts and resilience of all educators," writes Jason McKenna, who advises teachers to avoid feeling envious of those who seem to meet impossible standards.

5 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

3 tan blocks - two in the back with frownie faces, one in the front with smiley face for article on comparison in teachers

(Nora Carol Photography via Getty Images)

Last month, Jason McKenna wrote the companion piece to this one: “Embracing the teaching marathon with joy and well-being.”

In the profession of teaching, we are sadly familiar with the detrimental effects of poverty on our students. Wealth equates to better health outcomes, while poverty limits access to necessities like proper nutrition, safe neighborhoods and clean air and water. Strikingly, poverty also takes a toll on mental health. Nancy Adler, Ph.D., and her team at the University of California, San Francisco, unveiled an unsettling correlation: One’s health can be influenced not just by their objective circumstances, such as income level, but also by their self-perception in relation to others. In other words, the feeling that you’re poor can be as detrimental as actually being poor.  

Perception needn’t be reality

It’s intriguing how this dynamic moves beyond socioeconomic status and seeps into all walks of life. Let’s examine two of actor Brian Cox’s most renowned characters: Logan Roy, the CEO of Waystar RoCo in the TV show “Succession” and Shakespeare’s legendary King Lear. Despite their immense wealth and power, these characters, and all of the characters around them, are ensnared in a relentless cycle of envy and desire for what they cannot have. They live in a world where their self-worth is perpetually under scrutiny. They are not poor, but they always feel impoverished.  

Unfortunately, we also see this phenomenon playing out in education.  

Crafting compelling lesson plans, managing diverse classrooms and ensuring curriculum standards are met — these are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the daily challenges teachers face. Yet, what amplifies these challenges isn’t just the task at hand but the burden of comparison that casts an oppressive shadow on their professional and personal lives.

EAST LOS ANGELES, CA - 1988: Actor Edward James Olmos (left) poses with East Los Angeles High School teacher Jaime Escalante during a 1988 East Los Angeles, California, photo portrait session. Olmos won an Academy Award nomination for his portrayl of Escalante in the movie "Stand And Deliver." (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images) for article on comparison among teachers
Actor Edward James Olmos (left) portrayed teacher Jaime Escalante (right) in “Stand and Deliver” in 1988. (George Rose/Getty Images)

Comparison can mean inspiration instead of competition

The media, with its glossy portrayals of teaching, adds fuel to the fire. Films like “Stand and Deliver,” “Dangerous Minds” and “Freedom Writers” champion the idealized image of educators, subtly setting an unreachable bar of expectation. This narrative, while inspiring, can be both unrealistic and destructive. The theater of comparison on social media adds to this burden.

Still, there is inspiration to be found, even amid competition. Paul McCartney’s admiration for Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys spurred him to create some of his most cherished work. 

He once told an interviewer: “ ‘God Only Knows’ ” is one of the few songs that reduces me to tears every time I hear it. It’s really just a love song, but it’s brilliantly done. It shows the genius of Brian.” 

“I’ve actually performed it with him, and I’m afraid to say that during the soundcheck, I broke down. It was just too much to stand there singing this song that does my head in and to stand there singing it with Brian,” McCartney said.

But what distinguishes inspiration from destructive competition? This is where we can return to and learn from Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” In the world of Lear, Shakespeare presents a potent cautionary tale. Lear, only when all his power is taken from him, finally understands the value of a genuine relationship with his daughter Cordelia. The tragedy lies in their late realization. 

The parallel to our educators is found in the understanding that the trappings of success, as defined by societal comparisons, can blind us and others to the inherent value of our profession. It’s when we step outside the theater of envy, that we can truly connect with our role as educators.

The exceptional value of a teacher

If you’re a teacher who’s navigated the tumultuous landscape of the past few years — with pandemics and school closures — know that you are doing an exceptional job. When I was teaching, all of my colleagues entered the profession to make an impact. That reality still holds true today as I travel all over the country and the world meeting educators. 

But the harsh reality is that, for various reasons, we may not always meet our own expectations, and that can be heartbreaking — heartbreaking because our expectations are centered on children, not financial forecasts. What exacerbates this heartbreak is the constant reminder of the teacher who seemingly can do it all.

We must not diminish the accomplishments of exceptional teachers, but it’s time we recognize the efforts and resilience of all educators. School administrators need to understand that teaching is as much of an art as it is a science. Thus, quantifying success can be a counterproductive exercise. We should celebrate the less tangible but equally vital aspects of education — nurturing curiosity, fostering empathy, developing critical thinking — over an unyielding pursuit of quantifiable success. 

In the grand scheme of things, it’s important we revisit our initial exploration of poverty, recognizing that teachers too can feel poor in their professional accomplishments when subjected to relentless comparison and scrutiny. It’s time we confronted this culture of envy and recognized our educators for the intricate, complex and crucial roles they play in molding the minds of the future. 

We may not remember what we had for lunch yesterday, but we remember a teacher — no matter how long ago we sat in that classroom. 

Ultimately, teaching is an art, not a competition. It’s time we shift our focus from quantitative achievements to the qualitative impacts teachers make daily. Let’s leave the culture of envy behind and wholeheartedly appreciate our educators for their invaluable contribution to shaping the future.


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