2014 Resolution: Stop Watching Feel-Good Teacher Movies

Films like Freedom Writers and Stand and Deliver perpetuate destructive stereotypes about inner-city schools.

Paramount Pictures

2014 promises to be a banner year for education in the news. New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, will likely reverse some of his predecessor’s reform-minded policies. States are moving forward with implementing the Common Core standards despite increasing opposition.  And a number of closely watched court cases around tenure rules will have rulings handed down—with potentially wide-ranging effects.

How will Americans process education news in the coming year? How will they decide which policies they support and which ones they oppose? How will they determine not only what’s best for their own children, but for children from other, less advantaged backgrounds? Unfortunately, many Americans’ experience with failing schools and struggling students comes from what they  see in films such as Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, and Lean on Me. These movies are popular: Dangerous Minds made more than $80 million at the box office in 1995, and the star of Stand and Deliver was nominated for an Oscar. But inspirational teacher films do not offer a realistic portrait of what it’s like to be a teacher or a student in an underserved school. Here's why.

In the Movies, a Happy Ending Is Guaranteed 

Idealistic young teacher enters classroom that is out of control. Young teacher tries his or her best to assert authority. Minority Student A responds with inner-city wisecrack and entire class laughs.  Minority Student B makes aggressive comments about Minority Student A and fistfight ensues.  Teacher goes home in tears.  Yet through indefatigable large-heartedness and real talk with students, young teacher eventually makes astonishing progress with these overlooked kids in the face of an unsupportive bureaucracy.  Heroic efforts are employed.  Life paths are forever altered.  Various obstacles, personal and academic, are overcome.  Happy ending.  Roll credits.

In real teaching, the outcome isn’t known.   Little Raquan might make enormous gains once he starts meeting with you for tutoring after school.  Little Jimmy might excel once he starts using a behavior tracker.  But the more common reality is that Gabriela will still show agonizingly slow progress despite various interventions.

This holds true not only for individual students but also for the educational fads that periodically sweep through the profession.  Even initiatives backed by substantial research, like the Common Core, have an intimidating number of question marks surrounding their effectiveness—especially when you talk about scalability.  45 states cutting across enormous cultural, economic, and demographic lines have adopted the standards. If there’s one thing to expect, it’s the unexpected.  Certainly not any magic bullets.

Stereotypes—Stereotypes Everywhere!

There is a lot of uncomfortable racial imagery going on in the corridors of onscreen schools. Dead Poets’ Society leaves me feeling like punching every prep school graduate I see for being as twee and lily-white as a Belle & Sebastian concert.

Oh man, but those inner-city ones.  I have worked in urban schools for my whole adult career, including at a high school where assaults on students and teachers did happen with some frequency.   But, really, classes full of gun-brandishing thugs ready to fistfight at the drop of a hat?  Freedom Writers opens with a shoot-out between students on the way to school.  A student checks his gun beneath a desk within the first two minutes of Lean on Me.  Even 1955’s Blackboard Jungle depicts a student pulling a switchblade on a teacher.

It would be a huge step forward if we could conceive of the people in our education system—students, teachers, families, administrators—as human rather than cartoonish media representations or, perhaps worse, mere data points. Policies not only have human consequences but they are also implemented by humans—invariably flawed, often self-seeking, sometimes incompetent humans.   It’s humans all the way down.  The language we use should reflect this and not carelessly cede ground to abstractions like “African-American males” or “the lowest-third percentile” or even “teachers unions.”  This is an acknowledgment that idealized categories, run amok, can in fact short-circuit the hard work of ensuring each individual student, in their individual family context, neighborhood, and cultural background, receives a high-quality education.

They Obscure Important Issues

By focusing so narrowly on the inspirational teacher-overlooked student dynamic, the genre of movie teaching implicitly sends the message: All kids need is somebody to believe in them.  Think of Gabourey Sidibe’s character in Precious.  Or the “Dungeon Kids” in Take the Lead.  Almost every teacher movie follows the same dramatic arc: previously overlooked children have their potential unleashed only through the benevolent intervention of a charismatic adult.

This is largely hokum.  Kids need food, shelter, loving and stable families, health care, and a decent education in order to best fulfill their potential.  To pretend otherwise is to watch these movies as a sort of absolution of guilt, a vicarious purging of our responsibility to our fellow citizens and community members.  Poverty, crime, the collapse of family life, moral norms: one really good teacher— even one really good Harvard-educated teacher—can’t bear the burden of all of this.  As tempting as it is, you can’t expiate an entire community’s responsibility onto the people who teach your children (or your neighbors’ children) for most of the working day.

They Make Teachers Out to Be Superheroes…

I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked me what I do for a living and responded with something akin to: “Teaching!  I don’t know if I could do it, man.”  Well, maybe that’s because you’ve been led to believe that we all put on capes before work and have freakishly large inner emotional reserves with which to cope with the daily insanity that is a group of thirty children.

Take Hilary Swank’s character in Freedom Writers.  She gets a second job to pay for books and supplies, stays impeccably dressed while never once losing her temper, and gives up most of her relationships including divorcing her husband—all for the children under her care.

The reality is that teachers snap at students and have bad days just like anybody else.  We spend a lot of our time grading, proctoring exams, trying to implement standards, and, well, teaching.  (Note the distinct lack of 30-second inspirational Oscar-bait speeches in the above list.)  There are amazing teachers and mediocre teachers—but the great majority are, frankly, average at what they do.  Just like any other profession.

But in just about every teaching movie, effective teaching is only ever presented as an all-consuming passion, devouring boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, free time and hobbies.  And it’s true: most good teachers do work long hours and sacrifice their time in the evenings and weekends. But consider the cost of this messaging:  If you have to be somewhere between a saint and a superhero pulling investment banking hours for a fraction of the salary, then what kind of sane person would want to sign up to be a teacher?  And that’s a problem for a profession with 7.2 million members that sees 46 percent of new teachers leave within five years.

…Except When They’re Not

Of course, there is another cluster of movies that show teachers as alcoholics, lazy, and completely irresponsible—when they’re not outright hitting on the hot young charges under their care.  Bad Teacher plays this for laughs.  Notes on a Scandal and A Teacher dramatize sexual scandals between students and teachers.  Wild Things revels in the salaciousness of faculty misconduct.

Have I met some Elisabeth Halseys in my years in education?  Yes.

But they are a vanishingly small percentage out of the whole.  Most “bad” teachers are bad for much more mundane reasons: lack of experience, low awareness, poor social skills, inability to relate to children.  Some of this can be ameliorated by mentoring and training and time.  Some of it can’t.  It is fair to expect a system that can differentiate between those who are improving and those who are not—and encourage the latter to find another profession.

Teaching isn’t like the movies.  It’s a lot more boring than what you see in Hollywood. Breakthroughs come a lot slower.  And guess what?  That’s a good thing.  The classroom reflects so much of the human experience: a struggle to make progress and meaning and inspiration out of the raw quotidian material of everyday life.

Bill DeBlasio’s changes to New York City’s education system will not transform public education overnight. The Common Core roll out will continue to be slow, painful, and sometimes haphazardly implemented.  Teacher tenure will persist in roiling the courts and opinion pages.  And in the midst of it all the unglamorous daily faithfulness demanded by the teaching profession will necessarily continue.  In 2014 it would help a lot if we all remembered that.