Philosophy of Education

Q. Consider any media representation of a teacher and discuss critically how the ‘good’ of education is represented. Reflect critically on how this agrees with or goes against your developing ideas of what it is to be an educator. 


The purpose of this reflection is to tease out our own perspective on the ‘good’ of education and what it means to us to be an educator. I have chosen to feature Erin Gruwell from the movie Freedom Writers as my media representation.  I will be drawing on Higgins and his concepts of teacher burn out and self-fulness to aid me in my discussion.

Teacher Burn out

Higgins proposed that the ‘good’ of education came from the teacher’s ability to be self-ful. He believed that all too often teachers came to the profession for altruistic reasons. Altruism being one’s desire to benefit someone else in their goals rather than your own (Batson, 2011). He discovered that many teachers when asked why they joined the profession gave the blanket answer of wanting to make a difference or wanting to help children. Higgins shows us though how being this ‘selfless’ character in the classroom can be detrimental to the teachers own wellbeing and teaching in general. For Higgins the only outcome for self-sacrificing teachers was either teacher burn out, where teachers get to a stage of having to leave the profession from a prolonged period of neglecting oneself for the benefit of others (Santoro, 2011) or teacher burn in, which was the stage he identified after burn out when the teacher continued on the same path of self-sacrifice (Higgins, 2010a). I think that Gruwell in Freedom Writers displays similar traits to those described by Higgins. When watching the movie, it is impossible not to feel inspired by Gruwell’s teaching, she engages the class, she bases her own methods on the needs of the class and she is self-less to the core, however it seems that she is headed on a path towards teacher burn out. Previous to learning about Higgins philosophy I would have nearly base my own teacher aspirations on Gruwell’s inspirational teaching however I can now see how unsustainable it is to be that sacrificing and selfless in the job. One never sees her taking time for herself, she takes up extra jobs to cover costs so she can buy resources for her class, she stays behind in school reading her students work and she neglects her marriage so much throughout the movie that her husband ends up filing for divorce. I think you could almost say she has already reached burn in stage and doesn’t even realise it.

*Start at 1:19* This video shows the extent to which Gruwell put her work above her marriage. It gets to the point that her husband even asks her to chose between himself and her students. Source: Dent (2013)


Higgins believes that many teachers feel a duty to the profession and that if they do put themselves ahead of their students at any stage, they will be judged for being self-centred (Campbell, 2013). He shows us how being the self-sacrificing teacher and basing your own happiness on the happiness and achievements of others is problematic in the long term and presents us with an alternative, the self-ful teacher. Higgins defines the self-ful teacher as one who prioritises their own growth and development and strives to meet their own goals (Campbell, 2013). Higgins believes that teachers who are self ful and intrinsically motivated in their job are less likely to burn out in the long run in comparison to self-sacrificing teachers (Skaalvik, 2010). In Freedom Writers, it seems that the feedback Gruwell receives from her students, particularly the praise she receives from them, is enough to keep her going on the selfless path she maintains throughout, however Higgins points out that there is only so much this can motivate the person if the motivation isn’t actually coming from within (Higgins, 2010b). Higgins believes that there are many benefits to being a self-ful teacher, a significant one being that as the teacher nurtures her own development and needs she is subconsciously teaching the students how important it is to develop their own goals and prioritise their own wellbeing (Higgins, 2010b). In Freedom Writers, it is evident that Gruwell’s style of teaching and selflessness has influenced the relationship she has developed with her students and has led to them being significantly dependent on her. Instead of fostering autonomy and self-development, like the self ful teacher, Gruwell taught the children to rely on her and only her. Again, representing the ideological, self-sacrificing teacher that Higgins described.

This image is a snapshot of one of the lessons we see in Freedom Writers. From this image you can see the joy of students and Gruwell alike. I think this image shows the closeness of the group. Source:

Higgins ideals on the ‘good’ of education and the self ful teacher have shaped the perception I hold of what it means to be an educator. Previously when asked why I wanted to be a teacher, I always would have given the answer of ‘I really want to help kids and make a difference,’ then when I started working in special education and people asked why I enjoyed the work I said how I find it challenging but rewarding. By analysing my answers, you can see that they both centred on the feelings and achievements of others. While I have not yet become a fully realised teacher, going forward I aim to discover my own personal motivations for joining the profession. Self-reflection is something which I have been accustomed to since beginning third level education and I would hope to continue this practice throughout my teaching years. Reflecting on one’s behaviours and attitudes can help with personal development and I would hope that by self-reflecting I would be able to recognise if I was ever struggling with burn out and realise what I needed to do to avoid this.  Reflective practice will also benefit my students as it will allow me to analyse what teaching methodologies work for them, if I need to change anything and if my lessons are engaging (Brookfield, 2017).             

This cartoon shows the essence of self-reflection; taking time to truly look at oneself. Source:


To me being an educator has always meant helping others. While my thinking on this may have changed, seeing how problematic it can be if you give too much of yourself and don’t take the time then for yourself, I do still believe it is important to show a dedicated and helping side in teaching. I feel though that the balance between the ‘self-ful’ and selfless teacher is key. With the use of self-reflection in my daily practice and creating a good work life balance I think it is achievable to be a ‘self ful’ teacher who can still be there for their students and want the best for them. Erin Gruwell may not have been a self ful teacher, to the detriment of herself, but she did foster significant change in her student’s life through her teaching. I hope that my future teacher self can engage students and motivate students the way she did, I will just always strive to nurture my own wellbeing as an individual too.



Batson, C. D. (2011) Altruism in Humans. Oxford University Press.

Brookfield, S.D. (2017) Becoming a critically reflective teacher. 2nd edn. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Campbell, E. (2013) ‘The virtuous, wise and knowledgeable teacher: Living the good life as a professional practitioner’, Educational Theory, 63(4), pp. 413-429.

Higgins, C. (2010a) The good life of teaching: An ethics of professional practice. New Jersey, USA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Higgins, C. (2010b) ‘The Hunger Artist: Pedagogy and the Paradox of Self-Interest’, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 44(2-3), pp. 337-369.

Santoro, D.A. (2011) ‘Good teaching in difficult times: Demoralization in the pursuit of good work’, American Journal of Education, 118(1), pp. 1-23.

Skaalvik, E.M. and Skaalvik, S., (2010) ‘Teacher self-efficacy and teacher burnout: A study of relations’, Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(4), pp.1059-1069.

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