By Teachers, For Teachers
Several of my classes are currently watching the film Freedom Writers as part of an end of the year writing assignment. The film stars Hillary Swank as Erin Gruwell, a young teacher who challenges a group of inner-city students to document their struggles in journals. Based on a true story, Gruwell eventually compiled their writing into a book, The Freedom Writers Diary, which received national attention and, obviously, inspired the film. It is a heart-breaking, gripping, and inspiring movie to watch and, as a teacher, I can’t help but love it. Freedom Writers and it’s brother and sister films in the genre - Dead Poets Society, Stand and Deliver, To Sir With Love, Lean on Me, Dangerous Minds, and so many others - echo educators’ belief that we can and do make a difference in the lives of our students. They reinforce our notion that, if we show our pupils that we care about them and respect them, they will begin to see the value in what we are trying to teach them. The movies support our strongly held conviction that one dedicated educator can change the lives of his or her students. And that is why I love them.
[TeachHUB recommends: Top 12 Must See Teacher Movies]
But I would be lying if I said that I didn’t also hate the “dedicated teacher saves his/her students through hard work, caring, and bribery” cliché and what I feel are the negative stereotypes it presents about our profession. I know I’m not the only teacher who gets teary when the boys stand on their desks and proudly shout, “O Captain! My Captain!” at the end of Dead Poets Society, but I sometimes feel like I’m alone when I wonder if this genre of film harms as much as it inspires.
Making Montages out of Months
My first problem with these films is that they often compress months (if not years) of teaching into a montage that takes minutes. Jaime Escalante, the teacher whose work inspired Stand and Deliver admitted that the film showed students making progress in a few months that, in reality, took several years. While I understand the limitations of a 90-minute film, I still can’t help but find it somewhat dangerous to imply that miracles can happen in one marking period…if only the teacher is talented enough. Yes, sometimes remarkable results happen quickly, but often progress is slow. In Freedom Writers, there is a montage of all of the months of terrible lessons Erin Gruwell taught before striking upon the lessons that inspired her class. My students chuckled as the movie quickly flashed through scenes of dwindling attendance, sleeping students, and fights without stopping long enough on anything to show us how she dealt with these struggles, how they made her feel, and what made her keep coming back despite the challenges. By downplaying these moments, by squeezing them all into a nice, neat 1-minute review, it minimizes the challenges we all face in our classrooms, how frightening and alone it can feel to be a teacher during these moments, and how skilled educators deal with them and move on.
Focusing on a Few
Another issue I have with these films is their tendency to focus on three or four students while the other 25 students in the class all serve as background - extras to fill the space while we observe what a monumental difference the teacher makes in the lives of these few kids. Similarly, we often only see one class period of students (Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, Stand and Deliver) and only a few minutes of actual teaching time during that class period. I don’t know about you, but I come into direct contact with over 100 students a day (indirectly, I interact with several hundred). I teach six periods each day and those classes are each approximately 50 minutes long. If you are not a teacher and you watch these films what, I wonder, is the impression you are given of our profession? That we have all the time in the world to devote to a few students? That teaching is as easy as coming up with an interesting 10-minute lesson involving song lyrics that will be so entertaining that even the most troubled students will be won over and suddenly become model students? That teaching is about those things and not about balancing numerous classes, all with different lesson plans, with numerous students who all have individualized needs and complications, with 50-minute or longer class periods that must be filled every day with lessons based on the curriculum – and not all of the curriculum lends itself to high-interest lessons involving music lyrics or taking walks around the school? Yes, I know they are just movies – but these movies also represent what people think of when they think of education. Are they a fair, honest depiction?
I didn’t note this particular trope until watching Freedom Writers this time around with my classes but, once I did, I saw it everywhere. While the protagonist of these wonderful, inspirational films is a wonderful, inspirational teacher, the antagonists often are many, if not all, of the other educators in the school where the protagonist works. While many of these stories are based on actual events, and many of the real educators did go through struggles with their colleagues and administration, I can’t help but be bothered by the depictions of any educator with a disagreeing opinion as bad. Part of what makes good teaching hard to quantify is because teaching is, in many ways, an art. A teacher who can make a difference in the life of one student may not be able to reach another – but hopefully another teacher, with a different teaching style can and will. In these movies, the other teachers are more often than not portrayed as tired and burned out. They don’t like kids anymore. They don’t believe that the challenging students can succeed. While I’m not denying that we do have people like this in our profession, I am not willing to suspend disbelief completely by saying that, other than the protagonist in these films, every other teacher had simply given up. That’s just not realistic. Most schools are filled with teachers who, even if they are tired and overworked, still believe that every child is worthwhile and can learn. And because of that, I don’t think it’s healthy to send the message to an audience that it’s possible to have an entire school filled with incompetent educators who dislike children and are simply hanging around to collect a paycheck. It is possible to not want to use Tupac Shakur to teach poetry, it’s possible to not want your students to stand on their desks and rip books apart, and still care about providing your students with the best possible education you can.
I think most of us with real-life experience would admit that it is somewhat convenient that none of the students in these movies seems to have a learning disability that can’t be “cured” with an interesting book choice or a few inspirational words. None of them have emotional support needs that make getting them to trust the teacher a painstakingly slow process with many speed bumps and setbacks along the way. No one ever seems to need to be kicked out of the teacher’s classroom for being too disruptive and dangerous – because that teacher can always find a way to turn the behavior into a teachable moment. No student ever seems to simply not care, regardless of how interesting the teacher makes the lesson. After all, it’s Hollywood, and Hollywood doesn’t want to ruin the narrative by admitting that some students made a nice amount of progress – but continued to struggle. Just like Hollywood didn’t want to tell the audience of Stand and Deliver, for example, that, in reality, none of the students who arrived in Escalante’s class not knowing their multiplication tables or without an understanding of fractions passed calculus in one year. Similarly, Hollywood doesn’t want the audience of several of these films to dwell on the fact that these inspirational teachers often don’t seem to stay in the classroom for very long. Both Erin Gruwell (Freedom Writers) and LouAnne Johnson (Dangerous Minds) left the classrooms they wrote about after less than four years. Again, I wonder how Hollywood’s perception of our profession influences the public’s ideas of what our job truly entails.
All or Nothing
In all of these films, the teachers are not just dedicated educators who work diligently during the school day and take some work home each night and on the weekends. They work until the wee hours of the morning…all the time. They take an additional job or two in order to buy supplies for their classes. They hold classes on Saturdays. They take their students on trips, again, at their own personal expense. They go into dangerous neighborhoods alone to meet with parents and reach out to their students. They bring students into their homes. Even if it is shown to be hurting their personal lives and relationships, these movies send the very obvious and clear message that “good” teachers give everything to their students. They buy them things. They come early and stay late; they ignore their own families’ needs so they can help their pupils. And, those evil teachers I mentioned earlier? Well, let’s just say we never see them staying late, giving their classes candy, or taking them on trips. That’s just another way moviemakers send the message that they aren’t as talented as the protagonist. A “real” teacher should give everything; sacrifice everything (even, in the case of Freedom Writers, her marriage) for her job. In our current political climate, where even discussing things like salary, healthcare, pensions, classroom authority, teacher assessment, and other hot topics can get you branded as a teacher who “isn’t in it for the kids,” I am uncomfortable with the message Hollywood seems to be selling in these films. I became an educator because I loved showing young people that they could learn and I want to foster a life-long love of learning in as many students as I can. But most teachers have families who need them, too, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the implied message that, unless you’re willing to stay at school until 8PM to tutor your students, unless you buy them books, feed them candy, and take them on fascinating and fun field trips, you aren’t “in it for the kids.”
My favorite moment in Lean on Me is when the boys surprise Mr. Clark by singing the school song beautifully for him when he wasn’t expecting it. I love the look of pride that appears on their faces when they surprise their principal with their beautiful harmonies. My favorite moment during School of Rock is when the parents see their children at the concert at the end of the movie. Through admittedly unusual means, the teacher has helped them really see their kids for the unique, special people they are. I love when John Keating tells his students that, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” in Dead Poets Society. I am a teacher, and these movies inspire me to be the best teacher I can be - to try one more time to reach that student who I’m not connecting with, to take another look at a lesson I know is a bit boring and strive to make it memorable. But when movies become clichés, done so many times that everyone knows the plot without even seeing the movie, we have to ask – what are these movies saying about our profession? And do we like what is being said? While I think there are many reasons much to recommend these films, there are also many issues that give me pause. And I wonder, is it possible to show the daily realities of our classrooms, the triumphs and the heartaches, without needing to fall back on these stereotypes?