Hollywood teachers vs. actual teachers

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by bledsoe on June 12, 2013

I finally got around to watching the movie Freedom Writers the other day, and found it both enjoyable and disturbing. It was enjoyable in the way that many movies are, which is to say that it was entertaining, if predictable. Hillary Swank was great as real life high school teacher Erin Gruwell, a tirelessly dedicated first-year English teacher who finds a way to inspire her inner-city high-school students to overcome their numerous obstacles and become great students. And the story made you want to stand up and cheer for the underdog kids, in the same way you cheered for Jaime Escalante's students in Stand and Deliver.

But it was also disturbing in the way that many teacher movies are, which is to say that the teacher and the situation were portrayed in such a simplistic and overly sentimental way that one suspects it may do more harm than good. Similarities between Freedom Writers and other teacher movies like Stand and Deliver have been noted by many people, but the thing I think is interesting is the messages they send about what it takes to be a good teacher. According to these movies, in order to be a good teacher:

1. You must be willing to sacrifice everything else in your life.

Gruwell took on not one but two part-time jobs in order to pay for books and other things for her students, even when her husband made it clear that he thought this was a bad idea. Eventually, Gruwell and her husband divorced, in part because of his frustration at the amount of time and energy she devoted to her job. Escalante took on so many additional teaching responsibilities that he eventually suffered a heart attack from overwork.

I find it troubling that Hollywood is so anxious to present this ideal of the teacher as superhero. I don't think it does anyone any good to push the idea that the best teachers are the ones who devote every ounce of themselves to their students with such single-minded determination that they damage their health or their marriages, or have no time left to relax and recuperate or spend time with their kids. One of the things that everyone has to learn to do is balance the demands of work and home, and this is no less true for teachers than for those in other professions. If you spend so much of yourself on your job that you have no time for anything else, that's not heroic; that's a recipe for burnout. And that's not going to be good for you or for the students you won't be teaching because you left the profession because you were too exhausted to continue. (According to wikipedia, Gruwell left her high school teaching position after 4 years.)

2. You must "really care" about your students.

In this context, "really care" means that you must have particularly sentimental or loving feelings toward your students. While I think it's great for teachers to care about their students (I certainly care about mine), and while I often have students who I particularly like, this idea that the most important thing a teacher can do is to "feel" a certain way about his or her students is ridiculous. I have to teach all of my students, even the ones who I don't like (and if you've spent much time around teenagers, you know there are plenty who are difficult to like). The most important thing a teacher has to do is to teach, as effectively as possible, all of the students entrusted to him or her. If you happen to like some (or most, or all) of your students in addition, that's a bonus, but that's not why you're there.

Dan Meyer writes eloquently about the "teaching vs. caring" dichotomy:

...MTV will never make a movie about really effective phonics instruction, but there is extraordinary, enduring value in effective phonics instruction, in learning, in breaking life's possibilities wide open for students by teaching. There it is: I have been hired to teach. Any inspiring, difference-making, role-modeling, surrogate-fathering, or dance-partying is strictly incidental.

I don't mean to set up this false dichotomy between teaching and caring. Both happen in the same practice; both are essential. But teachers — or rather, Teachers, by which I mean my union proper, the blogosphere in general, and my co-workers in particular — have emphasized caring over teaching. Teachers continuously fail to differentiate us from well-educated au pairs, as evidenced and perpetuated by Freedom Writers' very existence.

Again: teaching and caring (passion, if you want) are inextricably linked.

But: only one of them is difficult.

It is easy for me to greet my students warmly at the door each day, to ask after the trivial travails of their lives, to follow up on that girl who dumped you or the parents who grounded you for missing cheer practice. It is easy for me to bake cookies, cancel class, and dance.

Caring — like the kind bound up in Erin Gruwell's dance party — is the easiest part of my job. Caring — like the laundry service Prezbo gave Duquan in The Wire — should be the least of our obsessions. Caring — sadly — is how the majority of my co-workers and co-bloggers have framed the objectives of our job. Caring — depressingly — is how our taxpaying public sees the extent of our duties and — predictably — determines our pay and esteem.

Caring is easy. Keeping students engaged and operating at full capacity over a two-hour block is difficult. Serving every student the highly specific smoothie of success and failure — just enough success to encourage them, just enough failure to challenge them — is difficult. Making the leap from single-variable equations to two-variables without losing anybody is frighteningly difficult. (Three years and three tries and I still haven't found the right inroad.)

All this talk about caring and the intangibles of our job — cf. Freedom Writers and nine out of ten blog posts on the state of teaching — distracts from and lowers the bar on the matters of teaching truly worth discussing, namely: how to teach.

I actually think the more interesting aspects of Gruwell's and Escalante's stories were the parts that weren't told in the movies, in particular how both of them left teaching in part because their demonstrably successful methods either could not be sustained, or because they didn't fit neatly enough into the "traditional" teaching box required by their respective schools. (Stand and Deliver Revisited is a fascinating exploration of the many parts of Escalante's career that didn't fit into Hollywood's version of events.)

I think teaching is a fascinating profession, but I'm not sure the movie format is the best way to explore its complexities. Or maybe we just need more movies that present teaching in ways that go beyond the simplistic and sentimental treatment that it so often receives.

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