Education Opinion

Movies Distort Realities of Teaching

By Walt Gardner — January 03, 2014 1 min read
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Movies have a long history of portraying teachers and teaching in starkly contrasting ways (“2014 Resolution: Stop Watching Feel-Good Teacher Movies,” The Atlantic, Jan. 1). I’ve seen my share of them, and always leave the theater wondering what people who have never taught think. My guess is that they use what is depicted to support their pre-existing opinions.

If films presented the truth about what actually transpires, audiences would likely lose interest. Let’s be honest: Engaging audiences requires drama. That goes for movies about other professions as well. However, since teaching is no longer a backburner issue in the U.S., it’s worthwhile asking if Hollywood is undermining efforts to improve public schools.

As I’ve written before, schools are not Lourdes, and teachers are not saints. Yet when I’ve made that observation, critics maintain I’m offering excuses. After all, if the late, great Jaime Escalante could produce sterling results in East Los Angeles at Garfield High School, which was largely populated by disadvantaged Hispanic students, as described in Stand and Deliver, then why can’t all teachers do the same at their schools?

The answer is that in seven years Escalante was unable to replicate his success at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento, where he transferred. In other words, what he achieved was in large part the result of the unique chemistry between him and his students. By the same token, I submit that other publicized triumphs over adversity are either not scalable or sustainable for similar reasons. Movies do not bother with these factors because they are, well, movies.

People want to believe in miracles because they offer hope. Movies play on this need. But I think we do a terrible disservice to teachers who are compared to the heroes on the big screen. Teaching is a tough job. We shouldn’t leave audiences with the fiction that high expectations, dedication and compassion are enough to overcome the huge deficits that increasing numbers of students bring to class.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.