What Teaching Movies Get Wrong About Teaching
Middle-class American fantasies about teaching.
This is an email, mainly, to let you know that our Math Teacher Lounge live show at NCTM has dropped. Bethany Lockhart Johnson and I, along with special guest host Chris Nho, presented eight arguments for the “best Hollywood teacher” and then let the audience decide the winner by acclamation. Have a listen!
This was a pile of fun for two reasons. First, it gave us a new way to talk about our own different ideas about the nature of good teaching. Second, because we were talking about mass market entertainment (rather than empirical research, let’s say) it let us talk about how middle class America sees the nature of good teaching.
As Robert Bulman writes in his paper, Teachers in the ’Hood: Hollywood’s Middle-Class Fantasy:
Because these high school films are made by and largely consumed by members of the middle class, and because middle-class culture is the hegemonic culture in the United States, these high school films tend to reflect middle-class worldviews and assumptions.
From that lens, it’s interesting to see how often teaching in TV and movies is characterized as:
Easy for outsiders—perhaps even easier for outsiders than for insiders, the people who have studied and practiced teaching for years. (Dangerous Minds, School of Rock, Stand and Deliver, Kindergarten Cop, etc.)
Individualistic—a profession where you’re successful in spite of rather than because of your colleagues, most of whom are weighted down by their antiquated traditions or their inadequate beliefs in the potential of their students. (The Wire, Blackboard Jungle, Stand and Deliver.)
Sacrificial, indeed to the extent that successful teaching may require you to forsake your marriage (Freedom Writers) or your health (Stand and Deliver).
An economic equalizer, where classroom success is the engine of economic mobility, rather than, say, wealth redistribution or a strong social safety net. (Dangerous Minds, Blackboard Jungle, Stand and Deliver.)
Cultural discipline, a medium for transmitting cultural and social values from the middle class to the lower. (Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, Lean on Me, The Principal, Stand and Deliver, The Substitute, Blackboard Jungle, and on and on.)
Bulman pulls zero punches here.
The heroes of these films do not need teacher training, smaller class sizes, a supportive staff, strong leadership, parental participation, technological tools, corporate partnership, school restructuring, a higher salary, a longer school day, vouchers, or more financial resources. All they need to bring to the classroom is discipline, tough love, high expectations, and a little good old-fashioned middle class common sense about individual achievement and personal responsibility.
Whatever you or I think about teaching, the people who vote for school boards, set school funding guidelines, and determine the material environment in which our students learn and live, have other ideas. Movie and TV can help us better understand middle class America’s fantasies about teaching and we shouldn’t turn down the opportunity.
(h/t Vanderbilt doc student and Desmos Fellow Madison Knowe for the Bulman paper.)
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Hmmmm... When I think of teacher movies, the very first ones that comes to mind for me are ones like Mr. Holland's Opus, Dead Poets Society, McFarland, and Mona Lisa Smile. I'm not sure what that says about me, but the reason I thought about it was as I read through the list of five characteristics I'm not sure they would necessarily apply (or at least that may of them wouldn't apply in the same way). In fact, I think the only one that holds completely true is the individualistic one.