Helper or Servant- How we view others and ourselves

I heard a story from a traveler, who made a cross-country journey from Louisiana to Chicago with some friends by train. On the trains there are workers that manage the linens and maneuvering of the seats/beds into their positions in the passenger cars. They also maintain the cleanliness of the common areas, such as the observation and dining cars. The man in my story was from New Orleans, and he recognized a fellow accent in the woman attending their train. They chatted and felt the bond of their shared hometown. He looked on her as a friend, and her task as that of a helper. Others on the train spoke to her as to an inferior, a servant to their desires- with no patience for less than immediate response to their requests. When she made an overhead announcement asking the travelers to respect the common area by not leaving personal items in the seats, some of the passengers mocked her and bad-mouthed her behind her back. He wondered aloud, during the re-telling of the story, about the source of their contempt for her. It caused him to ponder the issues of privilege and the informal “caste” system we have in America. After hearing the story it made me think of its application to situations I see in education between teachers and students, teachers and parents, and even teachers and other teachers- often due to a perceived social status and ones personal identification on the social stratum.


As teachers, do we see ourselves, the students, the parents, as helpers or servants? There is a three part dynamic in our social interactions, with two extremes: “tyrant” and “servant”, with “equals” being the intermediary form.


We all have our own personal anecdotes of all three types personified in school faculty. The “tyrant” teacher that yelled, demanded perfection, and was quick to mark an “F” as if it was a comment about our individual character. The joy of learning was frequently beaten out of us in this environment. As a parent, my fondness for this type of educator is no less than it was as a student. These teachers have no respect for time outside of school- demanding hours spent on homework to the detriment of family activities, and even sleep. This environment causes the stress and extreme anxiety often displayed in our children. Their contempt for the parents, the students themselves, and their fellow educators is palpable. They feel that it is their duty and privilege to be the enforcer, causing suffering to others. There is no time or patience for excuses, no empathy.


At the other extreme are those educators who view themselves as the servants. They are obsequious to the parents to the point of quaking in fear at the thought of a parent conference. They internalize student failures as entirely their own. They are apologetic for not being perfect and will work themselves to the point of exhaustion and nervous breakdown trying to be perfect. They allow students free reign in their classroom- fearing that enforcing class discipline or academic failure will cause the students to not like them, or themselves.


The healthy middle we should be striving for is that of equal partner in education- collaborators with parents, students, and colleagues as well. This relationship takes into account both sides exerting effort and personal accountability. Allied in taking responsibility for students’ learning, without blaming or harshly critiquing the other. Recognizing that public education should be a partnership, not an authoritarian regime in place by the school, or a service where the parents and students treat the teacher as a subordinate.


This idea of classifying oneself and others as superior or inferior is not a bad thought to carry and use as a lens to examine our interactions with people as we go through life, in any circumstance. Are we viewing others we interact with as equals or inferior? Are we viewing ourselves as inferior? The truth is that society is a mental construct often based on our prejudices and skewed perceptions.


“We are what we think.

All that we are arises with our thoughts.

With our thoughts we make the world.”

  • excerpt from the Dhammapada


All lives are precious. We all want to be happy, to live in safety and joy, to be loved, to feel useful and inherently valuable. We are all equals and partners traveling through this life. The journey is more enjoyable for everyone when we see one another and ourselves as helpers, dividing the burden and being kind to each other.

people travelling


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