I have a confession to make. I hate inspirational teacher movies. Hate them with a passion. Whether they’re completely fictional or based on a true story. I hate them, and here’s why I think we need to make inspirational teacher stories go the way of the Dodo.
They set unrealistic expectations for teachers.
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first.
In Freedom Writers, staring Hillary Swank, Erin Gruwell paid for field trips and books for her classes out of her own pocket so they could having meaningful learning experiences. Now, every teacher in America knows that spending money on school supplies is par for the course, but that doesn’t mean we need to encourage that by holding up teachers who do this as examples. Teachers already make less than their equally educated peers, so it’s incredibly frustrating to see big screen examples of teachers that everyone holds up and says, “See, she paid for all that stuff. You can, too!”
They never show the whole picture.
Jaime Escalante, the teacher from Stand and Deliver, has stated several times that the success he saw with his students took years, not just one school year. He also said that students who didn’t know basic multiplication were not among the kids who took the AP Calculus exam.
Additionally, LuAnne Johnson of Dangerous Minds fame, was shown teaching a single class of 15-20 students. And while she made great strides with those kids, she also had several other “standard” classes that didn’t make the film because what goes on in a standard class of 30+ students isn’t movie-worthy. (I beg to differ, but whatever.)
In Music of the Heart, Roberta Guaspari spent 10 years building her programs before budget cuts forced her to found her own music school, Opus 118, for which she held her now famous Fiddlefest at Carnegi Hall.
And they taught happily ever after… or not.
Of the 3 teachers mentioned so far, the 3 mainstream true-life stories only one, Jaime Escalante, had what any would consider a full teaching career of 29 years in public schools. Today’s teachers need to teach for 35 years or more to get their full pensions.
Miss Johnson and Ms. Gruwell taught for only 8 years and 4 years respectively. Instead, they’ve both gone on to write books, give presentations, and work in education outside the public education system.
Quite frankly, the type of teaching depicted in these movies is unsustainable and unhealthy. As it is, new teachers have to spend innumerable hours planning lessons and practicing the craft of teaching. These demands are so great that half of new teachers don’t make it past 5 years in the profession. If we place even greater expectations on teachers, how many more will we lose? Even these teachers, held up as the gold standard, could not sustain their careers.
Life is country song.
You know the old joke about country songs? What do you get when you play a country song backwards? Get your dog back, your truck back, your wife back…
The same can be said of inspirational teacher movies. What do you get when you play an inspirational teacher movie backwards? You get your money back. You get your husband back and get your mental health back.
And then there are the made-up teachers designed to inspire. They can go even further into the realm of self-sacrifice because, you know, they’re not real.
Mr. Keating took the blame for a student’s suicide while inspiring students to stand on desks and recite poetry. Mr. Holland ignored his deaf son in favor of his band students, resented being a teacher in the first place, but ultimately realized his life’s work was teaching. Mr. Thackeray takes a teaching job when he can’t get hired as an engineer and wins over students by taking them on trips and inviting them to his house.
They perpetuate the teacher as martyr myth.
More so than any other profession, teachers are expected to sacrifice their personal lives, mental health, and financial security to follow our calling, and teacher movies only serve to perpetuate those expectations. In fact, whether they be based on fact or a complete work of fiction, “inspirational” teacher movies elevate teachers to saint status (and not in a good way), in multiple ways.
Teachers shouldn’t care about money. No one goes into teaching for the money. We know this. But when you adjust for inflation, teachers are making 2% less than we were 10 years ago. Yet we all find it so “inspiring” when Michelle Pfeiffer takes her students out to a swanky dinner or Hillary buys boxes of books. In reality, movie goers should be appalled that teachers are asked to use their paltry paychecks on things essential for student learning.
It’s all about the kids. When we’re at school, yes, it should be all about the kids. But what about the other 2/3 of our lives? Should all teachers spend all night grading, coming up with entertaining lessons, and making themselves available to their students 24/7? Should we all ignore our other relationships and end up divorced? Hell, no! Teachers are human beings with families, and friends, and hobbies, and dare I say, businesses! Let’s not glorify the all-or-nothing martyrdom of movie teachers.
If you really care about kids, you’d… insert ridiculous expectation here. Chaperone the school dance, go to every game, join every committee – all for no pay – and just set up a cot in your classroom. Supply them with food, clothing, shoes, snacks, and school supplies. Invite them to sleep on your couch, give them rides to school to make sure they get there, and do their laundry. Follow them home and sit with them while they do homework, teach the parents how to do new math, and set up a 1-800 hotline for help at all hours.
Here’s the thing. Teachers have been extorted for decades by politicians, communities, and tax rolls demanding more for less, pointing to these stories as proof that “it can be done!” And when we ask for higher pay, smaller class sizes, adequate school supplies, and just a smidge less bureaucracy, we are rebuffed.
The constantly shifting goals, higher demands on our time, and relatively lower pay create unsustainable conditions. And as incidents of depression and anxiety are on the rise in American teachers, the last thing we need is another inspirational teacher story telling us we’re not doing enough.
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