One of my favorite moments in the cycle of our lives in the Urban Teacher Education Program at the University of Chicago came during orientation week when we devoted an afternoon to introducing our students to a series of clips from a variety of teacher movies – domestic and foreign, documentary and fiction. The idea was to generate a conversation about how the media portrays teachers and how that affects the general public’s views of the profession.
This is an issue that has become even more significant in recent years as the perception of the teaching profession has taken a darker turn. As the narrative of public school failure has been promoted by advocates for privatization, it is teachers and the unions that represent them that have been targeted as the source of the problem. Teachers look out for their own interests and convenience over what benefits children, so this tale goes. It’s not a new angle. In a movie from the 80s called Teacher, Nick Nolte plays a teacher who is also his school’s union rep. He bursts into the teacher’s room one morning with the exciting announcement that the union has won a great victory, moving the time teachers report for work from 7:36 to 7:42. Attacks on teachers have intensified during the era of high-stakes testing, the flat-lined test results and the low position of American schools on the international education totem pole. Blaming teachers for those turns the spotlight away from the more obvious sources of the problem, namely poverty and its crippling effects on every aspect of the lives of children and their families – jobs, housing, health care, the constriction of social services. Targeting teachers is a lot cheaper than investing in solutions to these very real problems.
The prevailing negative image of teachers has made this career choice an even less desirable option than ever. At the same time, the emphasis on testing has constricted the autonomy of teachers. Their ability to make decisions about their classrooms that address their children’s needs rather than the dictates of the bean counters has diminished. Testing pressures and the negative image of teachers have been major factors in the precipitous decline of applicants to teacher education programs across the country. Fewer people want to invest money in being prepared for a career that is disrespected and that offers limited opportunities for creativity and innovation.
When Teacher for America was at the peak of its popularity, it helped promote the myth of [the] superhero teachers, who by virtue of their dedication and brilliance could overcome the burdens of poverty and trauma that crippled their students. The list of superhero movies that peaked during this period is long: Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, Stand and Deliver, Mr. Holland’s Opus. I’m sure you can add several in this genre that are among your favorites. Freedom Writers, one of the more egregious of the films on this list was skewered by Madtv in a piece called Nice White Lady, which is still worth 2 minutes and 40 seconds of your time on YouTube. Truth to tell, these movies are still able to make me tear up, despite the false impression of the joys and challenges they promote about the realities of teaching and the profound impact teachers can have on the lives of children.
I’m not sure that there will ever be a movie capable of representing the real complexities of our work. My novelist wife bemoans the simplistic way in which writers are represented in film, made even more difficult with the demise of the typewriter. No longer can writers rip pages from their machines and fling them into the wastebasket or out the window in frustration. As is the case for teachers, so much of what goes into the craft is invisible, lacking a visual analog. Several readers of my earlier postings about the work of Alex and Kimberly, two very gifted and very different teachers, have commented in ways that can be paraphrased “I had no idea how complicated a teacher’s work is – all the planning and organizing and exploring.”
Yes, there are intoxicating moments of success in every teacher’s life – great breakthroughs and epiphanies. Those are so much easier to portray on film than the more mundane and necessarily repetitious aspects of classroom life, what I call the “dailiness” of teaching. And there are the embarrassing miscalculations and missteps – openings not exploited, exchanges with students that go south, presentations that don’t spark engagement. With this in mind, I want to spotlight two films, one semi-fictional and one documentary, which come closer to depicting teaching as it is experienced by real teachers than, say, The Dead Poet’s Society. I have so far not had the opportunity to whisper “Carpe Diem” in a student’s ear.
To Be and to Have (Etre et Avoir) follows a teacher in his penultimate year teaching in a small school in a farming community in rural France. He is an engagingly pleasant and gentle man who knows his children and their families well and is committed to imparting in his students the skills they will need to be successful in the lives that await them. There is absolutely nothing remarkable or innovative in his instruction. His successes are rooted in the relationships he has built with the children over years of steady interactions with them that are the bedrock of trust building. There’s no charisma, just a lot of caring and patience. The film ends with a poignant scene similar to ones I have experienced in very different settings. It is the last day of the school year and the children are streaming out of the building heading toward whatever summer has to offer. The teacher stands on the front steps waving goodbye until the last child is out of sight and he is all alone. He has invested so much of himself in these children and now they are gone. This is the separation that every teacher must endure every single year of their teaching lives.
I am not particularly a Francophile, but it happens that the second film I wanted to highlight is also French. The Class (Entre Les Murs) is based on the experience of a teacher-turned-filmmaker. It is set in a high school in a banlieu populated largely by immigrant families from many parts of the world. The teacher is white and middle class and stands in the same relation to his students as many white teachers in the US do to their students of color. What is remarkable about the depiction of the teacher in this movie is its painful honesty about all his missteps and poor decisions. He engages in confrontations with his sometimes defiant students which veteran teachers learn to avoid, particularly in front of an audience where the student is forced to engage in face-saving that could be [avoided] in a 1:1 hallway conversation. The movie is rewarding to watch partly because of the vibrant and engaging students who live “within the walls” as the French title states, but it’s painful watching. So many times in my teaching years I was grateful that there were no witnesses (other than the students, which was bad enough) to the bonehead actions and decisions I made. The great thing about teaching is that it’s like baseball. You can make three errors in a game, but tomorrow you can come back on the field with a fresh start. In the case of The Class, the film encases those blunders in amber, forever available to critics who have “never been in the trenches,” as teachers like to say, to dissect and critique.
I love movies and I love teachers and teaching. I will forever be on the lookout for films that marry the two in ways that capture honestly the truth of how difficult and rewarding the profession can be. We need realistic portrayals of our work in order to dispel false impressions held by the general public and replace them with respect for teachers who have chosen to live their lives between the walls.