Hollywood's Reductive Narratives About School

“Popular teaching storylines thwart the call for systemic change by suggesting a few superstars can fix the system’s problems single-handedly.”

An actress stands in a red skirt and blazer at the front of a classroom. "Misogyny and Mayhem in Gangster Rap" is written on the chalkboard behind her.
Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers (Paramount Pictures)

Most teachers I know hate the movie Freedom Writers, in which a Long Beach, California, teacher leverages writing to convert apathetic students into crusaders for justice. Though it had not yet been filmed in 2003, when I was a first-year teacher in South Central Los Angeles, I had absorbed enough teacher-savior narratives to reject their simplicity but internalize their winning idealism. These storylines can infiltrate schools, tainting a teacher’s expectations of both her power and her complicated students—like T, my 10th-grader who toted a pink teddy bear with a safety pin jammed through its ear. Trying to teach T confirmed for me the perils of these simplified narratives.

The bear, like the pick tucked in T’s afro, seemed a vaguely punk statement of insouciance. Other boys respected his I’ll-go-crazy-on-your-ass aura, maintained through spontaneous outbursts of kicking, shouting, and cursing. Afterwards, he would sink, sighing, into the nearest chair, cross his legs, and pat his hair. When cheerful, T asked to borrow things from the girls in a loud stage whisper: “Can I see your mirror? Mirror!” He spoke in either a breathy falsetto or a rumbly roar. When once I told him to speak in his real voice, he snapped, “This is my voice!” My description so far, while true, caricatures T as a problem student, impossibly alien. I don’t know what to do with T on the page any more than I did in the classroom.

Though I left his school a decade ago, in my mind, T is still refusing to slide out through the gym doors in his borrowed graduation robe. Now as a teacher in North Carolina of mostly white students, whose parents mostly watch Fox News, I teach “The Danger of a Single Story,” a TED talk in which the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie asserts that single stories are created when people are shown to be “only one thing” until “that is what they become.” My limited understanding of T was partly a result of the single story I’d heard about kids like him. The story of low-income, urban students of color has been told too often by white, middle-class people like me who are cast as main characters in pat, triumphant narratives endorsing the redemptive single story of teaching.

These simplified stories distance teachers from their students, reinforcing the power imbalance created when a teacher arrives thinking she already knows who her students are and what miracles she should perform. The caricatures—so tempting and easy to create in the shadow of Hollywood's teacher-savior plot line—ultimately act as a barrier to meaningful classroom interaction. Both popular teaching narratives and inexperienced teachers give in to the temptation to simplify the roles of teacher and student. Effective teachers, though, begin to understand the complexity of their role, and its power, by remembering how complicated their students are. Only then can teachers see what their students lose in a classroom that reflects and reinforces the power structure that exists outside schoolhouse walls, and especially in popular culture.

In the opening shots of Dangerous Minds, a 1995 drama about another white teacher transforming her disaffected students into scholars, the camera lingers on students dancing in the quad and hanging out bus windows. Coolio’s voice thrums. The students—bedecked with hoop earrings, high-gelled bangs, tight jeans, and tattoos—laugh and smoke. No one reads or studies. The camera’s gaze initiates us into this world by highlighting differences between Us, the viewers, and Them, the students. Although the film does capture how it feels to address vulgar and violent students, this distance corroborates lurid stereotypes about these students’ wild, unpredictable energy, their connection to a gritty street culture that white America is forever trying to co-opt, from style to slang.

These films retell the optimistic single story of teaching: an idealistic young teacher confronts the soul-crushing reality of public schools but perseveres to learn lessons about herself, her students, and the world. Dangerous Minds: The ex-Marine in a leather jacket transforms her students through karate, candy, and Bob Dylan lyrics. Freedom Writers: Erin Gruwell, in pearls and a blazer, flies in a Bosnian refugee to connect the injustice her students face to injustices around the world. The teacher is both converter and converted. Empathy as the catalyst for such a conversion becomes a cheap literary device, a deus ex machina, rather than something that must be practiced. This oversimplification suggests real-life teachers can, and should, perform similar transformations.

As the sociologist Robert Bulman notes in his paper “Teachers in the ‘Hood: Hollywood’s middle-class fantasy,” such films assume students succeed or fail because of their values, and specifically the middle-class values they either do or do not adopt from their empathetic teacher-savior, not because of “deep social structural processes also at work.” These popular teaching storylines thwart the call for systemic change by suggesting a few superstars can fix the system’s problems single-handedly. The implicit criticism—that schools fail because teachers are not working hard enough—may be why so many teachers dislike these films. Or maybe off-screen teachers hate Freedom Writers because students also absorb these narratives and  ask, as one of mine did, “Why can’t we do fun stuff, like in Freedom Writers? That movie’s banging! We always just sitting in desks, doing work.”

The notion that teachers must show students, in Bulman’s words, “how to overcome their culture of poverty” sets up unrealistic expectations for an individual teacher’s efficacy, especially given that many teachers who quit cite systemic problems—such as school leadership, poorly implemented programs, or a lack of creativity and control—as reasons for leaving. But perhaps even more damaging to teachers, not to mention their real-life students, are the implications that impoverished students are unsuccessful in school because they have “the wrong values and the wrong attitudes about school, work, and family.” Bulman argues these films are popular because they bolster the middle-class fantasy that holds individuals accountable for low-income students’ successes or failures, while conveniently absolving viewers of any responsibility to lobby for system-wide change. And they are popular: Dangerous Minds grossed almost $85 million, Freedom Writers over $36.5 million.

Scorning these clichés, though, was easier before I began writing about T. I too found myself  tempted to chronicle a conversion that ends with me as newly compassionate teacher. But empathy is too easy to claim, both for Hollywood and for new teachers eager to connect with and inspire their students. I first thought I felt compassion for T when he mentioned in class that he had almost been kidnapped by his father on a trip to Six Flags. Looking back, though, I think what I felt then was not so much empathy, but what Adichie calls “a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity.” I felt sorry for him.

Weeks later, his behavior still incorrigible, I called T’s mother only to have the school counselor admonish me: His mother was to have no contact with him or his school, per court order. That day, T announced his entrance by throwing a book against the wall.

“Why the hell did you call my mother?” he yelled.

“I didn’t know you had limited contact with her, and I’m sorry, but—”

“You should have asked me!” he shouted, then sat with his bear, blinking back tears.

I handed him tissues, resisting the impulse to defend myself. It seemed everyone had been yelling at me all day, blaming me for things I couldn’t help. It occurred to me T probably felt the same. I could not think of an appropriate way to communicate this, though I stood by his desk for a minute, trying. That day, for a moment, we were on the same side. He dabbed his eyes and said haughtily, “Thank you for the Kleenex.”

I said you’re welcome and meant it. Ultimately, my rejection of the single story expected of me by these storylines—why can’t you just turn T into a scholar?!—helped me understand my complicity in the single story told about him. If I hated the story told about “inner-city teachers,” surely T hated the story told about “inner-city students.” There it was, briefly—empathy’s slippery tail.

The simplified story offers comfort and complacency. It requires no revision, no changing the narrative to accommodate new information. Middle-class teachers don’t have to think too much about power or privilege or how they participate in a system that by and large serves their interests. Practicing compassion, on the other hand, means holding multiple, often contradictory stories in mind. It is a process of continual revision. I am a better teacher when I remember how much I do not know about my students.

Real-life teachers may chafe against the popular narratives, but they tell plenty of stories. Through these stories, teachers recast their ideas about their students and the job itself. Before having children, I spent Friday afternoons in an Irish pub with my colleagues. The first beer drew out the horror stories, about fights, or a class’s response to the boy who wore high heels and a trench coat. Some teachers left after these stories.

The second-beer stories complicated our ideas about our students, who were sometimes maddening but also earnest and fragile and human. These stories all followed the same trajectory, the opener something like: Well, she lives with her grandparents. Both on heroin. Or: This kid, you’d never know it, has a 2-year-old. The story’s crescendo might be a vulnerable detail revealed in the student’s writing, or sometimes a moment of connection, like the time my mentor-teacher and I, at lunch, asked a drug dealer to tell us about his life. Before long, tears dripped onto his Styrofoam tray and he said, “I don’t know why I’m like this.” His attitude toward school seemed less a function of personal choices than a result of the life he had been born into. After that day, he called us Mama 1 and Mama 2—but we never claimed we saved him.

Pity means I tell students who I think they are; empathy means I ask them, again and again, to tell me who they are. Such a shift resets a power imbalance. Classrooms where teachers and students actively work against the narratives and misconceptions that batter them are places where real learning happens. When teachers revise their ideas of who students are, they also revise their ideas of who they, as teachers, can be. Adichie observes that subscribing only to “a single story” makes it hard to recognize “our equal humanity.” The challenge of holding this equal humanity in mind despite the power structures of the classroom is both the test for teachers and the prize. T didn’t teach me how to do this—that has come later, in fits and starts—but he taught me that I should.

Yet even this tidy moral feels suspect. As T’s teacher, and especially after leaving his school, I was neither martyr nor hero, just implicated in the problems of an American education system that did right by me and wrong by him—less than perpetrator, more than bystander. The writer Elisa Gabbert names her main grievance with memoir as “a false finality to the analysis,” an insight which crystallizes my discomfort with this now-I-know pattern: I didn’t know then to check for a restraining order on a student’s mom, but now I know. I didn’t know then never to tell a student to speak in his real voice, but now I know.

My students, whether urban or suburban, crave false finality. They want characters to die or get married or shut up about it. When we watch Bopha!, a film set in apartheid-era South Africa, students boo the final shot of police lorries breaking up the forbidden funerals of resistance fighters, which suggests a cycle of violence that begins again. They want a coda assuring them that everything worked out once Nelson Mandela became president. Such conversations remind me of my responsibility to help students see and appreciate complexity, both in stories that upend their expectations, and in our incomplete grasping of each other.

If popular teaching tropes reduce students’ complexity, so do ineffective classrooms. The gulf between teachers’ expectations for themselves and the challenges of public schools is dispiriting. Yet both teachers and writers have the power to shift the narrative. As I’ve remembered T, he has become increasingly vivid, perched for weeks on the sofa behind my desk, legs crossed, pouting, in his Outkast T-shirt. His hold on me is another kind of power. He made me question the kind of teacher I am, the kind of teacher I want to be. But so do my current, more affluent students, who are harder to pity but not necessarily easier to empathize with, even though many of them look more like me and have had experiences I more readily relate to. At school, I witness all kinds of stories. Some help me glimpse the unknowable terrain of another’s experience. Others help me see how much work I must do to become a more compassionate teacher. All remind me that no one in my classroom is fixed or finished.