Friday, January 3, 2014

Lights, Camera, Teach! Questioning The Value of the Feel-Good Teacher Movie

Don't watch Stand and Deliver. Don't quote Dead Poet's Society. Don't reference Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. Is it time to be done with the inspirational, feel-good teacher movies? Or is at least time to stop watching them with any hope that they will provide the answers on how to "fix schools"? That's the recommendation from middle school teacher Joshua Mackin for a New Year's Resolution in 2014: "Stop Watching Feel-Good Teacher Movies."

There are obviously many problems with using Hollywood's portrayal of anything as a guide or blueprint for how things should be. Certainly, "fixing public education" is a task far more complicated than any story can begin to crack in ninety minutes. And, between the necessary over-simplification and the requisite "Hollywood Ending," the teacher movies may do more harm than good. As Mackin points out in a succinct and well-argued criticism,  inspirational teacher films do not offer a realistic portrait of what it’s like to be a teacher or a student in an underserved school.  One of the biggest problems is that the movies require a happy ending. This simply dishonors the daily and on-going struggle in the public schools. The movies also revel in stereotypes, and mistakenly portray urban school teachers as superheroes. The reality is far more "boring" at times.

Certainly, the movie industry has all the best intentions of portraying the educational successes - some might call miracles - of people like Jaime Escalante and Ron Clark and Joe Clark.  And the more fictionalized stories behind Robin Williams "Mr. Keating" or Richard Dreyfuss' "Mr. Holland" are certainly wonderful narratives that can inspire as they entertain. However, they risk becoming cliche and doing more harm than good, especially when they fall into the trap of being a WTSM - White Teacher Savior Movie. We've all enjoyed the stories of teachers and students defying the odds, and we all have that favorite teacher who made a difference for us. And there is nothing wrong with honoring them and the ideas they represent.  However, we do have to be careful with the conclusions drawn from a movie's representation of real world struggles.

For more perspective on the portrayal of teachers, consider checking out books like:

The Hollywood Curriculum: Teachers in the Movies - by Mary Dalton

Carry on Teacher: Representations of Teaching in Screen Culture - by Susan Ellismore

Hollywood Goes to High School - Robert Bulman

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