Inspirational teacher/coach movies are completely my jam. If you offer me a movie about a washed-up athlete pulling together a ragtag band of misfits or a tough but caring teacher who steps into a classroom full of defiant kids, just wait a second while I grab some popcorn. But the longer I spend in my actual, far-from-Hollywood classroom, the more I notice there are myths in these movies that are downright dangerous to those of us in the trenches.
Myth #1: The Great Teacher puts teaching first.
Last week I watched McFarland, USA, which is a fantastic movie. I cheered Danny Diaz all the way to the top of that hill. But as the coach’s wife was reminding him to pick up the cake from the grocery store, all of us knew exactly what was coming. A crisis with a student, another fire to put out, and Coach forgets his daughter’s fifteenth birthday.
It’s not worth listing the number of movies in which teachers focus on their jobs to the point of burnout and damaged relationships. But, I mean, Freedom Writers? Stand and Deliver? The Ron Clark Story? The teacher martyr is everywhere, and it’s presented in a way that’s virtually impossible to resist.
The really insidious problem with this trope is how easy it is to get pulled into it in real life. Because there is ALWAYS another fire to put out. There is always a child who urgently needs help, and there’s never enough of any of us to go around.
Two years ago, one of my students ran away from home. I was home alone with my own two sick children, and I remember crying after they went to bed, partly because I was terrified for this kid and partly because I wasn’t there. A good teacher, I told myself, would have been out driving the streets, calling his name.
The teacher-martyr trope makes us feel like if we don’t give 100 percent to our job, to the point that we have absolutely nothing left for ourselves or our own families, we’ve failed. Our students would be better off with a teacher who really cared about them. And that’s just not true.
Myth #2: The Great Teacher reaches every kid.
You know the end of Dead Poets Society, when all the kids get up on their desks and say, “Oh captain, my captain”? The inspirational music swells in the background, Robin Williams wipes away a tear and says, “Thank you, boys,” and then I collapse into a puddle of mush on my living room floor. Take a closer look next time it’s on TV. There’s a bunch of kids standing on desks … and four or five of them still sitting and avoiding eye contact. Those kids are my favorite part of the movie.
It’s an exception to the rule, for sure. And you’ll notice that even in that one, all the kids still sitting are nameless and faceless—seat fillers who have never had an interaction with the inspirational Mr. Keating during the movie. Presumably, if they had, they’d be on their desks, too. Inspirational movie teachers or coaches are exactly what every kid in the class or on the team needs. These teachers are able to relate to every single kid—especially the hard cases—and turn their lives around.
The problem with this trope is just that it’s not true. Some kids need an entertainer to get them involved and interested in what they’re supposed to be learning. Some kids need tough love. Others find both these approaches scary as hell and just need someone a little more low key who will listen to them. Some kids don’t need a teacher at all; they need a psychologist or a social worker.
When we believe that we have to be the right teacher for every student, it has real consequences for our kids. If we buy into this myth, we’re less likely to ask for help or to capitalize on the fact that another teacher might be better placed to help a specific student. Our kids have a variety of needs, and they need a variety of teaching styles and personalities. They don’t all need Hillary Swank, Robin Williams, or Sidney Poitier.
Myth #3: The Great Teacher is an outsider to the community.
Way too often, this shows up as the great white savior trope, like in Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers. (Yes, I know they were based on true stories. Stay with me, here.) But even Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act II is an outsider to the community.
It’s an appealing story: The iconoclastic loner shows up and revolutionizes everything in their first year and then, often, moves on like Mary Poppins. But there are a few problems there. First of all, what about those of us who have been at the same school for decades? We’ve taught all the siblings in a family, maybe even had a couple of grand-students. Does that mean experienced, settled teachers no longer have the ability to inspire their students?
It also overlooks the importance of systemic support for students. It’s great that Robin Williams goes into a stuffy boarding school and shakes things up for the dozen kids in his class. (Also, can we talk about the fact that he gets a salary and housing for apparently only teaching twelve seniors?) But then he leaves and everything reverts back to the status quo. If we’re serious about helping our kids, we’ve got to reach outside our classrooms, to the structures within the school and community that provide barriers to learning. The trope suggests that great teachers stand in opposition to the community; what we really need to do is contribute to it and support systemic changes.
Will I still watch The Mighty Ducks if it’s on TV tonight? You bet. But I’ve learned to enjoy these movies with a critical eye, because real-life teaching is a different situation. It’s not just standing up in front of fewer than twenty kids for less than two hours and making a few speeches. It is becoming part of a community. It’s looking at the big picture, finding support from other teachers, and, hopefully, keeping our own bodies, souls, and relationships healthy. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch School of Rock.
What teacher movie myths have you noticed? Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.