The heroism of a teacher: At once unfathomable and the most sensible thing in the world

Why would a teacher lay down her life for her students? At one level, such bravery is unfathomable. At another, it’s the most sensible thing in the world.

Liviu Librescu was a prominent engineering researcher who also happened to be a Holocaust survivor. He was shot to death in the Virginia Tech massacre. At age 76, Librescu was able to hold off the gunman long enough at his classroom door for all but one of his students to escape. It was a horrible death, but also such a heroic and meaningful one. Such heroism was sadly repeated by Victoria Soto and by several others in Connecticut protecting little children three days ago.

At one level, I cannot fathom the sacrificial heroism these men and women displayed. I hope I would display one tiny speck of such bravery, were I myself to confront such a horrifying moment. At another level, though–as a fellow teacher–I have some inkling of what may have motivated people to risk their lives. Scripture tells us: There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend. Many of us don’t actually think about it all too often, but we do love our students.

Of course they aren’t our children. But there are analogies. Most of us–particularly those of us who don’t make the annual buzz for Nobel prizes—will make our greatest impact through our students. However we personally age, every year we see our students’ young beautiful faces enter our classrooms, a new crop of people who will inherit our skills and carry on where we leave off. Whether we like it or not–whether we earn it or not—many will look to us for leadership, knowledge, for our personal example. We will live on, professionally, through them. In different ways, this is true at every level from your local pre-school to the most prestigious Harvard doctoral degree. It’s a huge responsibility, and a huge privilege, too.

I was thinking about this today at my daughter’s annual holiday choral concert at Homewood-Flossmoor high school. It has a great tradition. At the end of the concert, performers from previous years are invited to join in the Hallelujah chorus. Dozens of alumni ascend the stage. It’s an amazing sight and a wonderful performance.

I captured the moment and the transcendent music from my seat in the audience with my fancy new camera. My lack of a tripod or any semblance of videographic skill produced pretty much what you would expect: crummy, vertigo-inducing production values. But you get the point.

The choral conductor has been doing this for awhile now. Everyone on that stage, from the freshman choir to the paunchy middle-aged guy, has been touched in some way by this work. Watching that performance, scanning the sea of singing faces, one catches a glimpse of a good life’s work teaching young people the value of music, while providing many occasions of joy for a larger community.

As Handel’s music reaches its peak, the idea that you might be willing to put your life on the line for your students didn’t seem so strange. It seemed, in fact, for that moment, the most logical thing in the world.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

9 thoughts on “The heroism of a teacher: At once unfathomable and the most sensible thing in the world”

  1. Strange confluence. Tonight I attended a concert in which my adult daughter performed choral music with other women, almost all of whom were also graduates of an elite girls chorus. She is also a gifted teacher of pre-school special ed students in a high poverty school. After the concert my husband and I took my daughter and her husband to dinner, and I raised my glass to toast the brave teachers. I meant to toast the teachers at Newtown, but also my daughter and her colleagues. Her school has had two lockdowns so far this year (children reported seeing men with guns at the edge of the school grounds). She makes a salary that barely covers her monthly living expenses in the expensive SF Bay area. She started her new teaching job in an empty classroom and had to obtain all the curriculum materials herself, through her savings, through Donors Choose projects, and from her parents. Her school frequently doesn’t get substitutes when special ed teachers are ill. She has been left to deal with her own class and her colleague’s severe autism class on the spur of the moment because of this. Yet she loves all her students and they make enormous strides in her class. But the same low-life politicians that refuse to address gun safety also berate teachers and their unions. It makes me sick.

    1. My sister does the same thing in Michigan. Slowly, slowly over the past several years, the funding gets cut. And cut again. Last year she was – soon a PhD with 23 years in teaching – wiping the counters and the sink because her assistant was done away with. This year the brownshirts in the MI Lege decided special ed kids under 6 in MI weren’t getting any funding, so my sister will be out of a job. Presumably the poor and the weak will move out of state. The fabric of our society is getting threadbare.

      Nevertheless, another fine essay Harold, thank you. And thank you for sharing your video.

      1. Wow. I’ve been under the impression that the federal special ed law mandated educational services for ages 3-21, but I guess I was wrong. Nothing coming out of Michigan these days should surprise us though.

        1. Not exactly sure of the laws, OhMom, just know what she told me briefly. What’s worse is I sent her an e-mail several days before asking what’s happening in that state? and she should be careful because they’ll be firing teachers soon. She’ll get work again, likely much farther away, for much less pay. They won’t lose the house or anything, just a large lifestyle change. :o\

  2. Harold,

    Stephen Jay Gould’s essay, “Madame Jeanette” (in Bully for Brontosaurus, originally published as “Strike Up the Choir” in the New York Times) is about his experience singing under Peter Wilhousky in the NYCPS honor choir. This choir (and many others) has a similar tradition that alumni join in for the final number of the concert.

    This is something I envy my vocal colleagues about. I am primarily an instrumentalist, and hauling a trombone around to play Stars and Stripes Forever (or whatever the final number might be) is impractical. And yet, I feel a sense of connection with ensembles I have been a part of in my past. Attending a concert when I’m lucky enough to be in the area when a concert is scheduled is a nostalgic experience.

    The love cuts both ways, at least in the arts.

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