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Published in Print: September 1, 2003, as Mixed Media

Mixed Media

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In movies, high school teachers never carry a full load of five classes of 30 kids each.

Before I started teaching, I expected my classroom experiences to be similar to what I had seen in teaching movies like Dangerous Minds. For instance, the first day of school in a movie is always portrayed as horrible, while the rest of the year is fairly easy. In reality, the first day is fairly easy, while the rest of the year is horrible. In movies, high school teachers never carry a full load of five classes of 30 kids each. Instead, they always seem to teach just one class of 15. And, on film, there's always that one kid the teacher has to win over, and then the rest of the class follows. What I've learned is, after you win that kid over, some other kid always rises to take his place.

Movies lead people to think that the first year of teaching is a bunch of brief horror stories separated by some fairly calm times. After the first day of my first year teaching 6th grade math was surprisingly good, I let my guard down, not realizing I was just beginning the mythical "honeymoon period." The year wound up being consistently chaotic, due, in no small part, to my neophyte status.

Proof of just how confused, and confusing, I could be is preserved on a piece of loose-leaf paper I confiscated from a girl during a lesson on decimal division. I thought she'd been writing a note to a fellow classmate, but actually she was creating a transcript of every word I had said. Here, evidently, is what I sounded like:

OK well Amber pay attention you don't have to move it add zeros if needed wait let me get the eraser have you seen the eraser oh here it is quiet quiet Erica Jaime quiet OK these are very very easy OK number one is opposite OK lets go over these examples Jaime you say that Jaime enough of that when we watch the TV your going to be sent to Harper's room that's it that is the answer don't write on this keep your mouth shut can we just write the answer then Julio number three lets talk about Julio the me guys quiet Jaime three steps.

I recently saw The Count Of Monte Cristo with a friend who was in the process of writing her PhD thesis on French novels of the 19th century. I thought the movie was pretty good, but she didn't like it since she had already read the 1,200-page book numerous times—in the original French. For teachers, watching movies about educators is the same kind of experience: Not only have we read the book, we could have written it. We laugh during scenes that weren't intended to be funny and cry during scenes that were. We may even overrate a film by automatically filling in plot gaps that non-teachers can't. Or we may underrate a film because, as my friend said about The Count of Monte Cristo, the filmmakers changed the ending and left out the best—or, more accurately, the worst—parts.

If a movie were ever made that would completely satisfy everyone in the profession, it would be utterly unwatchable. A true-to-life teaching film, as I'd define it, would send the average moviegoer out of the theater, midway through, screaming, "No more! No more!" The only way a movie could ever come close to capturing the first year of teaching would be if it were about 17 hours long and viewers weren't allowed bathroom breaks.

Even though I continue to wait for a genuine movie about teaching, I still obsessively watch any film or TV show that focuses on the profession. I've seen Up the Down Staircase, Stand and Deliver, Teachers, Lean on Me, Dangerous Minds, To Sir, With Love, Conrack, Dead Poet's Society, Kindergarten Cop, The Substitute, The Faculty, Mr. Holland's Opus, The Principal, High School High, Blackboard Jungle, and every episode of Boston Public. I even sort of liked the made-for-TV movie To Sir, With Love II, in which Sidney Poitier's character comes out of retirement at age 70 to teach at an inner-city school in Chicago.

Although teaching movies are oversimplified, misleading, and occasionally insulting, I've figured out why I continue to watch them. If you've ever had the opportunity to watch a movie that was filmed on location near your home, you might enjoy it just for that reason. During the film, you poke the person sitting next to you, presumably your friend, and proudly say, "That's my building." Or "I've been to that deli! They've got great potato salad." That's what I like about teaching movies: They remind me of where I've been. I also get a cheap thrill out of knowing that "I was there," in a place worthy of use in a movie. For that reason, I will keep watching every teaching movie that gets made—except maybe To Sir, With Love III. Even I have my limits.

Vol. 15, Issue 1, Pages 46-47

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