How Pop Culture Misrepresents Educators

The new documentary Teacher of the Year pushes against Hollywood’s hack-or-hero portrayals of the profession.

Angie Scioli holds a megaphone and a poster that reads "teacher demonstration in progress"
Angie Scioli, the star of "Teacher of the Year" (Teacher of the Year / Facebook)

On a family vacation to the woods, Angie Scioli can only spend a few days swigging Lime-A-Ritas and strumming her ukulele before the compulsion to plan lessons pulls her back to her profession. As an award-winning social-studies teacher at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh, North Carolina, Scioli dresses in goofy costumes for video lectures that have replaced the textbooks her school’s budget can no longer provide. Charismatic, intelligent, and droll, she organizes endearingly overly ambitious community-building events and slaps red tape over her mouth at Red4EdNC demonstrations. And so, when Scioli’s teacher colleagues Rob Phillips and Jay Korreck decided to make Teacher of the Year, a documentary about teaching, they saw her as a logical star.

Following Scioli as she navigates the challenges of the 2013-14 school year, Teacher of the Year offers an authentic portrait of a teacher’s life in the context of an academic appraisal of Hollywood’s familiar model: that of the heroic teacher performer, usually an untrained outsider who, encountering the resistance of skeptical peers, gets inspiring results. With its premiere set for March 2 at the Teachers, Teaching, and Media Conference at Wake Forest University and wider release to follow (after post-production costs are covered by a NEA Foundation grant and a Kickstarter campaign), I spoke with Scioli, Phillips, and Korreck to learn more about the film.* The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Andrew Simmons: The movie may critique the Hollywood hero-teacher narrative, but doesn’t Angie come across as the kind of teacher that a teacher should emulate?

Angie Scioli: To suck the public in, you give them that narrative, which establishes my moral authority as a “good” teacher. Then in the second part of the movie, you learn that half my fourth-period class is failing, my value-added test scores are terrible, and the event I organized, Pridefest, is not a success. You think, “Wait, I thought she was a good teacher.” The public has been fed a media narrative that a good teacher is the hero teacher. Once that’s established, it’s more powerful to find out it’s not going all that well in some aspects. The audience hopefully realizes it’s more complicated.

Simmons: Movies about teachers also don’t show teachers grading papers—as Angie does—for six hours on a family road trip. But that’s part of a real teacher’s life. The second half of the movie even shows Angie constantly reflecting on those challenging and disappointing experiences and trying to think of new approaches. Will non-teachers just see this as the humanizing of a hero? Or will they see it and think, “Wait, she is a great teacher, and not in spite of the stumbles, but because of how she responds to them?”

Rob Phillips: I’m hoping it creates dialogue in which people question the monolithic, unrealistic expectations of the hero and the “hack narratives” and instead have a nuanced discussion about what teaching is. Angie is, on any day, both successful and unsuccessful. It is one thing to say and another to see. That makes it hard to ignore.

Simmons: What is the “hack narrative?”

Phillips: In film, Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Someone who knows the material but not how to perform. Someone who doesn’t care. Someone invested in a union or a teacher group, which are maligned in films. They are always a barrier, like with [Erin] Gruwell’s department head in Freedom Writers. Or when Jaime Escalante is trying to teach calculus [in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver].

Jay Korreck: In movies, the veteran is always the hack and the new teacher, in contrast, is a hero.

Scioli: There’s another kind of hack in real teaching. Teaching gives you a stage and some people are egotistical and want attention. So those people just talk about their lives [when they’re at the front of the classroom].

Simmons: In a sense, that egotistical performer hack looks a little similar to the Hollywood version of a teacher-hero giving inspirational speeches. Kids in groups and a teacher working in learning teams wouldn’t play well on a movie screen. It has to be performance. So how do you teach America what good teaching really is? Has there been a mainstream representation of teaching that captures that?

Phillips: A few episodes in the first season of Boston Public, [a show about high-school faculty members], felt like my lived experience. We all love Half Nelson, [a 2006 film focusing on an inner-city teacher and drug user]. Obviously, [Dan] Dunne, [the movie’s main character], takes bad turns, but his heart is in the right place. It felt raw and real–the exhaustion, boredom, and slog.

Korreck: Teacher Man, [a memoir] by Frank McCourt. Even the first couple of years of [the 1970s comedy] Welcome Back, Kotter. But you don’t see craft in any of those representations. I’d add The Wire’s fourth season, in which the former homicide detective goes into a public school to teach math. [The Wire-co-creator] Ed Burns was an infantryman in Vietnam, a homicide detective in Baltimore, and later a middle-school social-studies teacher. He said his experience in Vietnam was the closest preparation he had for teaching.

Simmons: As Angie encounters challenges, the camera doesn’t run away—even when she gets emotional. Angie, you’re candid about how the work invades your independent life. Your pastor tells you that the way you live is not sustainable. How can teaching well also be sustainable? How can you be a great teacher improving the lives of students and not neglect your own life?

Scioli: Other countries, like Finland and Singapore, have figured this out. Look at how much time during the day American teachers interface with students at the expense of planning and grading. We are exceptional in how we run teachers into the ground. Teachers have no bandwidth for anything else. We’d attract higher-caliber people [to the profession] if we addressed that. We all know it comes down to will and resources. Today we run schools efficiently at the expense of sustainability and the profession of teaching. A high percentage of teachers leave after four or five years, when I don’t think you don’t become great until 10 years. We’re eating our seed corn. That doesn’t work in farming, and it doesn’t work in education.

Simmons: As the movie progresses, Angie, you seem to embrace the identity of activist. What has been happening in North Carolina and nationally that has affected the work of public-school teachers?

Scioli: When I was in high school, North Carolina identified me as someone who’d be a great teacher. I had a college fellowship. The state encouraged me to get a master’s degree by compensating me once I attained one. The state paid for me to get National Board-certified, which helped me conceptualize teaching better. While I didn’t have an income like my peers in private industry, I was helping the world and I had greater job security. I had due-process rights and guaranteed employment unless I broke one of 15 rules and it was documented.

Every single thing I just mentioned no longer exists in North Carolina. Now we have teachers evaluated based on value-added measurements of how students do on end-of-course exams. Such policies have demoralized teachers. I’m one of the most privileged teachers in North Carolina because of the way the state invested in me, but new teachers have none of these benefits and not the same resources. I went with a flipped-classroom model because I had no textbooks. Dial that back to a five-year teacher with a master’s she had to pay for, and no due process or college fellowship. Her value has been reduced to a statistical measure. The policies are regressive. Meanwhile, North Carolina is handing out vouchers for kids to attend private schools and lifting the cap on charters, which have proliferated with mixed performance results.

Phillips: We’ve been dealing with [this expansion of school choice in North Carolina] for about four years. We are about to see it on the national level, and I’m sad about it.

Simmons: Angie, in the movie, when you look at your low test scores, you talk about what scores don’t show, what a teacher knows about her students that’s never visible on a sheet of numbers: the student raising her siblings, the student whose mother has cancer.

Scioli: I had no idea why [my students’] scores were so bad. I had no secret weapon I wasn’t using. The next year, I had the same student population. I did what I’d already done because I didn’t know what else to do. I thought my scores were going to be the same. Turns out I’m one of the best teachers in the state according to the data. One year, one of the worst, according to the value-added measure, and now one of best, all without changing a thing.

Simmons: What did you learn from making the movie?

Korreck: Knocking down the hero myth is part of the story. But that’s also reductive. We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can try not to fall into narratives but we’re going to. They’re fairly inescapable, especially that of the individual making an impact. What’s important is that we consider the context as well and not just think of a hero on white horse making all the changes.

Scioli: I feel like a fish that has been swimming in water my whole life, and someone says, “Hey, you know what’s really interesting about the water you’re in?” And I say, “What water?” As the teacher in this movie, I finally saw the water.

* This article originally misstated the film was funded by the NEA. We regret the error.