The trope of the gung-ho greenhorn in the wilds of urban public education can trace its roots back to popular classics like To Sir, With Love(1967) and contemporary films like Dangerous Minds (1995). In each, a novice teacher is able to overcome and succeed where others have failed. The stories entertain movie audiences, but it is the way in which these tales have shaped the discourse about teaching and urban schooling that is of rising concern among some critics in the education world.
There is a questionable subtext to the many teacher stories—be it in books or on film—that perpetuate the image of the lone teacher who doesn’t need experience, sleep, or support from other adults in his or her school, said Roxanna Elden, a National Board Certified high-school teacher in Miami and the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. “In real life, that’s not a recipe for great teaching,” she said. “That’s a recipe for a teacher whose emotional rubber band is almost always stretched to its breaking point.”
Elden admits that these stories have the elements of a good Hollywood plot, but fall short as a guide for real teachers who “fall into the trap of comparing their unedited footage to other people’s highlight reels.” The maverick teacher “has become the only acceptable story to tell about our experiences as educators,” said Elden, adding that it creates a dynamic where beginning teachers are afraid to admit they’re struggling and soon are exhausted from trying to keep up with a false ideal.
“It’s discouraging when the version of the story playing in real time in your classroom doesn't contain these same plot points,” she said. “What I needed most [that first year] was to hear from someone who kept teaching in spite of the low points and became a successful teacher over time.”
Loyola University’s Royal agrees, noting that in urban schools there are always veteran educators—both those who share racial identities and cultural experiences with their students and those who don't—who work hard to meet students' academic, social, and emotional needs. Yet they are “mostly overlooked or villainized” in literature and movies, she said, with an alarming effect on education policy. She pointed to the overreliance on standardized testing and the push for immediate results as a byproduct of a trope that feeds into the idea of educators as martyrs.
“This makes it difficult for education policymakers to understand that educators are whole people with whole lives, who can be developed into excellent educators over time instead of having to be excellent from day one … Savior narratives are sexier and easier to digest.” While the mythology surrounding the teaching profession is strong and pervasive, most striking may be the messages that are amplified about white teachers in predominately non-white schools—and the qualities that are necessary to educate children in urban school districts.