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Volume 27, Number 5
September/October 2011

Good Teachers (the Movie You Will Never See)


It all began with a trip to the cinema to see Cameron Diaz in her new comedy, Bad Teacher. It was a bad choice, really. But what can I say? My editor was curious.

Not a great flick, but as a parody of bad employees, in terms of things that can get you fired—drugs, alcohol, cheating, foul language, inappropriate sexual behavior—Ms. Diaz slams pedal to the metal. You’ve probably heard: she nips out of the airline booze bottles hidden in her desk, smokes a bong in the parking lot, hands her bra to a seriously uncool kid to improve his street cred, and steals the answers to state tests.

Firing offenses? Sure, but “bad” teacher? Hmmm. Not quite. A bad teacher is different from a lousy role model. A bad teacher is someone who fails to teach, someone more like say, the teacher I had in third grade who lazed through an entire year with mimeographed worksheets and spelling tests, ignoring with equal disinterest those breezing through the too-easy work and those staring in despair at the sheets of problems.

She would stand dazed with boredom before the rows of desks, licking a finger to count out worksheets, then teeter back to her desk, kick off her heels, and pop a mint into her mouth. Those who finished early were invited to come rub her thick neck and shoulders while she noisily sucked the candy and stared out the window anywhere but at the kids sitting in abject, shame-filled misery before her.

Now that’s a bad teacher.

Anyway, thinking about this and other teacher movies I’ve seen, I began to wonder about Hollywood’s portrayal of teachers: were they quirky or idealized, sentimental or critical? And how did Tinsel Town depict “good” teachers?

So I turned to Netflix. A cursory review of the teacher film canon interestingly showed, that nearly all were biopics—To Sir with Love, Freedom Writers, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Dangerous Minds, Conrack, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Friday Night Lights, Lean on Me, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Up the Down Staircase, Take the Lead, Dead Poets Society, Music of the Heart, Stand and Deliver (to name some)—all based on memoirs by educators or novels about teachers written by students.

The second thing I discovered is that, with the exception of a few, most were urban classroom-turnaround tales. The reason for this seems obvious: there is more heart-warming—and self-serving—drama in saving urban youth. These films also feed on a collective-anxiety-type drama by subjecting a fresh-faced young teacher to public humiliation at the hands of unruly teens of color. The remarkably racist trailer, for instance, for Up the Down Staircase begins with Sandra Dennis walking through crowds of African American and Latino students in Spanish Harlem as a voiceover intones: “What’s a nice girl doing in a crazy place like this?”

These fairytale stories are not unlike the depiction of student-teacher relations in another relatively recent movie, Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak’s tale of how of how a boy, Max, deconstructs evil; teacher hero disarms classroom monsters by unearthing their terrible pain, and then tames them with love and support. Earning the monsters’ respect (Max is made king!) allows the teacher to work magic in transforming raging beasts into lovable critters.

These teacher movies unspool in similar and predictable formats. They begin with the teacher’s back story of disappointment—divorce, career change, lack of opportunity— which leads to a last-minute hire into a job no one wants. The school’s principal and colleagues tell the rookie not to expect much, suggest dumbing-down texts, and warn the newbie to “watch out:” the kids are merciless.

Sure enough the class makes short work of the greenhorn who, after contemplating desertion, brainstorms how to win them over: trying unorthodox methods like games, dangerous visits to the ghetto to call on parents, bribes of candy, playing Beethoven (Conrack), or life-changing field trips against school rules to the white side of town, which entails fancy restaurants, trick-or-treating (Conrack again), amusement parks, and museums.

There are bumps along the way, but the kids are inevitably won over and, in the end, return the love. (Lulu sings an iconic tribute in To Sir with Love about how Sidney Poitier’s character brought an uncouth class of East Enders “from crayons to perfume” by demanding they show more self-respect.) In the end, the teachers discover great fulfillment in doing work that “changes lives.”
As to how well Hollywood’s depiction of “great” teachers squares with the real world, I did some fact checking to learn (no surprise here) that the demands of a compelling story arc trump the truth about the actual success these educators had in raising student achievement. For example, not to lessen his accomplishments but, Jaime Escalante (Stand and Deliver) did not charm and flog an entire class of troubled East L.A. Chicano youths into triumphing over an AP calculus exam. In actuality, the class dwindled to five members and only two passed. Nor did the tough discipline meted out by Principal Joe Louis Clark in Lean on Me prevent a state takeover of a Paterson, New Jersey, inner-city high school. He just delayed state intervention by temporarily raising test scores through booting out troublemakers and the lowest performing students.

As for the scene in Dangerous Minds of a former U.S. Marine (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) teaching kids karate moves to earn their respect—wow, it’s hard to imagine this going over well in real-life, inner-city classrooms.

Wit and charisma may be important when lecturing at the front of the classroom—who wouldn’t want to listen to Robin Williams (Dead Poets Society)?—but lectures are no longer considered best practice. Kids are no fools; nobody likes being talked at, and kids learn best as active participants in their own learning.

The best of these films, Freedom Writers, shows Erin Gruwell, played by Hilary Swank, making coursework relevant to her class of at-risk Long Beach, Calif., students by challenging them to discuss the racist cartoons she found them drawing of one another. She compares their drawings to the propaganda cartoons that mocked Jews in Nazi Germany and soon has them reading and discussing The Diary of Anne Frank. Likewise, Romeo and Juliet became a way to discuss gang divisions in the classroom. Eventually, the kids are willing to bare their souls in journals. A reality check of this film fares better; many of her students did indeed become the first of their families to graduate and go on to college.

What’s challenging for moviemakers is that the kind of great teaching going on in classrooms today across the country generally happens offstage, in lesson prep. The best teaching does not showcase a heroic protagonist, because the best teachers are generally not entertainers yammering away at the front of the room, but are more often found, almost invisible, coaching from the back. Truly great teaching is less about the performing teacher and more about the performing student.

Thinking about the many teaching success stories out there that haven’t made it to the silver screen, I began to imagine the heroes I would depict, like our daughter’s grammar school teachers, who got in early and stayed late to coax works of genius out of their lucky charges. But these are past examples; I wanted something current.

By midsummer, I was still mulling this over when I found myself sitting beside a lake in Maine with the mother of Isabel Yalouris, who happened to mention the front-page success her daughter’s charter school was having in Harlem. The more I heard, the more I realized Isabel was perfect for my movie script! Smart, beautiful, fun, and coming from an urban school system herself here in Cambridge, Mass., her character would get the kids, but take no guff. She would have the class mesmerized and was way, way cooler than Sandra Dennis’s wide-eyed innocent navigating that “crazy place” in New York.

So I called her to get the lowdown on her school: the Harlem Village Academies in Manhattan, whose lottery-selected student body at the school’s two middle and one high school campuses is 75 percent low income, 100 percent minority, and 12 percent special needs. The school ranks first among all New York public schools in middle school math. All of the schools’ eighth graders, passed the state exam this year—especially impressive considering that when these same students arrived three years ago as fifth graders they ranked in the nation’s bottom twentieth percentile. A final accomplishment: all of the high school’s 2011 graduates will be attending college this fall.

As it turns out, Isabel, a middle school writing teacher, was uncomfortable being singled out when, as she says, test results are “the work of committed and passionate teachers in every grade.” She joins educators there in noting that the schools’ outstanding test scores are not the work of one brilliant hero but of many in a teaching approach that emphasizes and values teamwork.

As for the school’s secrets, she points to the support teachers get as key; support that is cited in the school’s mission “to be a school designed for teachers.” The school is also noted for its well-ordered classrooms and belief in preventive discipline in which bad behavior is never allowed to break the flow of a lesson. Isabel calls it a “culture of respect” that starts with a week of orientation to introduce new students to the school’s behavior expectations.

As for the learning that goes on: “Sure, we try to be fun and entertaining, but really the essence of our success is nothing more than just the time and effort we communally put into creating effective and rigorous lesson plans,” she says. “And of course all of this is based on how much we, as teachers, benefit from being valued and listened to by our administrators.”

Humph. Where was my heroine’s courageous battle with small-minded principals and colleagues? What about the candy throwing and karate kicking? I just couldn’t see a story arc anywhere. Too bad that the many “it takes a village” pieces responsible for the success of Isabel’s classroom, while dramatic and heroic in their own way, don’t really seem to make for much of what Hollywood would regard as a compelling movie script.

Share your thoughts on teachers in the movies at the end of our blog on the topic.

Colleen Gillard is a freelance writer and contributor to the Harvard Education Letter. Read her blog post about the French film The Class here. She recently returned from reporting on post-revolution Egypt and blogs at