Wednesday, April 23, 2014

T: Teacher Movies--Their Themes Fail Teachers #AtoZChallenge

During my long career I've viewed many teacher-themed movies. Without fail, I leave the theater and click off the big screen thinking, "Why can't I be that good at my job?" Simply, teaching a class of students for one school year takes longer than two hours. 

During a trimester, a student spends approximately 75 hours in my classroom. Many students spend 150 hours in my classroom (two trimesters), and some students take up to three classes with me in a year, so they spend 225 hours as my student. None of the classes to which I refer are repeats; each is a different course. 

Teacher movies send a simplistic and distorted message to the public about the nature and nuances of teaching: Teachers are superheroes capable of contortions and tricks that a Cirque du Soleil performer would envy. When viewers see feel-good teacher movies, particularly those set in poor, inner-city schools, they begin expecting a simplistic, happy ending in real-time, in real-life. 

Writing for The Atlantic (January 1, 2014) Joshua John Mackin lists five problems with teacher movies:

  • They guarantee a happy ending.
  • They market stereotypes.
  • They shift the focus from the real issues, both political and social, schools face.
  • They construct an either/or fallacy about teachers: Either a teacher is a superhero or a villian.
Typically, young, inexperienced teachers are the superheroes in teacher movies. In Matilda, the young Miss Honey is Matilda's caring teacher who nurtures her love of learning and books. The vile Trunchbull is the scary teacher who locks kids up and shows her disdain for them in many ways. 

In Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell, played by Hillary Swank, sacrifices her marriage, takes a second job, and overcomes the obstacles her veteran colleagues erect to preclude her from saving the children. 

Even websites that support teachers promote the viewing of teacher movies. For example, Edutopia published a list of "20 Movies Every Educator Should See." Among those on the list: Lean on Me with the "be tough enough and kids will snap into shape" theme; Dead Poet's Society with its "rip the pages out of the book so kids will love poetry" theme; Ferris Bueller's Day Off with its "if you bore the kids they'll be justified in skipping and pranking the assistant principal" theme. 

I recently watched Ferris Bueller's Day Off for the umpteenth time, and even though I enjoy the movie, I also recognize the stereotypes and the subtexts in the movie. 

Unlike the writer for The Atlantic, I'll probably continue watching teacher movies, and I'll laugh at the comedies and get frustrated and dismayed by those that send an idealistic and simplistic and reductive message about what it means to be a teacher. 

The chasm between real classrooms and a movie set is as great as the distance between the two hour running time of a film and the 150 hours it takes a student to earn his/her senior English credits. 

What's your favorite teacher movie? 


  1. I have two favorite movies both comedies Rock N Roll High School and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

    1. Been a while since I've seen those movies. I haven't seen "Bad Teacher," but I hear from my colleagues it's hilarious!

  2. I have to admit a love for Stand and Deliver and Mr. Holland's Opus. Though like you, I am both inspired and dismayed by the stereotypes promulgated by the teacher films. One of my students is the daughter of Cirque de Soleil performers--loved that detail as well as the number of hours you have students.

    1. Thanks, Lee. I was filmed yesterday for the MTP, and the filming experiences have made me keenly aware that editing does wonders for making a class look perfect when the lesson may be anything but perfect.

  3. I did my student teaching with the teacher movies in mind. I think the biggest misconception is that teachers can change their students' lives. I wish that were true. But in the end, only the student can make that decision.

    1. Well said, Tamara. I have a student teacher this year and definitely need talk to her about the myth of teacher movies. Putting in a little plug: Tomorrow's post is relevant to the teacher movie topic, too.

  4. My favourite teacher movie would have to be, like you mentioned above, Freedom Writers. I watched it a few months ago with my class, and a lot of us were crying and tearing up because it's just such a beautiful and inspirational story. I was in love with it. Stunning post!