The Myth of the One Hero Teacher

Experiment: Connect the media discourse to current events.

About three years ago, I read this article from the Atlantic about how Hollywood movies are actually very right-wing leaning although it is usually assumed that Hollywood is fiercely left-wing. The movie industry is heavily controlled by unions, movies push the envelope in socially liberal ways, and Hollywood elites often give tons of money to Democratic political figures. But, the underlying discourse of Hollywood is quite right-wing. I would use the term “neoliberal” (AKA economically liberal, but the term means much more than that!) to describe Hollywood’s perceptions of individuals, of money, and business.

As the article from The Atlantic points out, neoliberalism is a main theme of Hollywood because Hollywood runs on the idea that the value of something can be determined by how much money it makes. But, even further, that Hollywood movies are often about a single hero; That individual people matter the most and that the worth of some people is much greater than many others. The allure of empowerment in the system of individualization is incredible and makes for some great movies! But, the perception that individuals matter most is detrimental to society, especially in the case of education.

In education, this same Hollywood-style discourse in prevalent. Teachers as a group are vilified, but individual teachers are glorified. I’ll admit, I loved all of those movies about single hero teachers; Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver. But the message is wrong. Teachers are not successful alone and no one is “saved” by a single teacher. Each student is bound to have a favorite teacher but if we really want to “save” students, we need more than just one single hero. I would argue that, for students in severe poverty or with extreme needs, many years of excellent teachers are needed. Even before a child goes to school, they have pre-requisites needs of access to clean water, healthy food, health care, mental health care, creative activities, access to nature, and a safe neighborhood. Those do not come from one hero teacher. They come from a society of people working together for the needs of future generations. So, will I blame Hollywood? Nope, I think it is much bigger than that.

For example, here is the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2016. I thought it was just publicized in Dubai, but it is a pretty big deal! This year Kevin Spacey was on the selection committee and Steven Hawkins read out the names of the finalists. Bill Gates and Ban Ki-moon gave statements in the official press release about the finalists. Last year, former US president Bill Clinton and Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed gave out the award. The overt message of giving a huge monetary prize to an outstanding teacher is that we should value teachers and education in a highly visible, star-studded, and celebrated way. But the fact that only individual teachers are recognized continues the myth of the one hero teacher. The covert message becomes one of the individual struggling against a broken system. The messages that Hollywood sends are even fodder for the academic world and Robert Heilman wrote a significant analysis of the character played by Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, as a single voice fighting against the system. Heilman (1991) suggests that the “One Great Teacher, as it were, redeems the place otherwise thought to be too much in the hands of routinists and dullards often asserted to be indifferent to student interests and needs. The Keating dissonance becomes a symbol that all is, if not well, at least not lost” (p. 421). Although the character loses his job, this isn’t seen as a loss, it means that heroic warriors are still fighting the old system. A prize competition like the Global Teacher Prize furthers the discourse that education is failing and that extreme measures must be taken to support the lone warriors. Of course, this fits perfectly with the origins of the Varkey Foundation, GEMS Education, one of the largest providers of for-profit education in the world. In the interest of full disclosure, they are my former employer. A group like GEMS literally capitalizes on the discourse that education is broken and the idea that we kind find the very best teacher just for your child.

I would argue that it is the sustained, group effort of regular, everyday teachers that creates excellence in education. Articles like this one about a school district in Missouri tell a little bit more of the story. Even though NPR started from the same neoliberal, individual hero story, the subject of their article did not allow the hero worship to be the message. The district superintendent, Tiffany Anderson recognized the necessity of group action.”Anderson is quick to give credit to the entire community for the improvement. ‘No one person can do this,’ she says. ‘The staff, the teachers, the board … have worked together collectively to demonstrate that our kids can exceed at very high levels’ (The Superintendent Who Turned Around A School District, 2016). The radical changes in her district were not due to increasing the accountability of teachers, using new curriculum, or increasing the technological capabilities of the school. She brought in heath care, food banks, and a slough of community resources to improve the overall well-being of everyone in the community. All of those advancements have had the effect of improving test scores, but that was not her focus. It is incredible work by dedicated groups of professionals doing what they do best! What an amazing story!

But maybe it’s not such a bad thing for great work to often go unrecognized. Heilman (1991) continued his discussion of the one hero teacher in Dead Poet’s Society to include the “Keating”s in real life. “A faculty friend of mine once said to another colleague, a distinguished scientist, ‘But these people in the city, the Keating-worshipers— they have no idea at all who our really good professionals are.’ My friend said that the scientist replied, ‘But it is better that way.’ Perhaps he meant that genuine intellectual merit does not lead to popular esteem, or that the meritorious are saved from the perils of adulation” (p. 420). I think there is a lot of truth to that. Maybe the best work goes unrecognized but staying out of the limelight allows great work to continue without being hijacked by the press or the neoliberal discourse. I guess I’m just sad that we can’t give an award or make a movie about the hundreds of people who make a real difference everyday.


Heilman, R. B.. (1991). Movies: The Great-Teacher Myth. The American Scholar, 60(3), 417–423. Retrieved from

Isquith, E. (2013). Hollywood’s Real Bias Is Conservative (but Not in the Way Liberals Often Say). The Atlantic. Retrieved from

The Superintendent Who Turned Around A School District. (2016). NPR. Retrieved from




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