As a part of a recent undergraduate course in teacher leadership, I asked my students to view and analyze one of the legion of American motion pictures which take place in a school setting. I let them have free reign to choose any film, with the primary requirement being that they were able to apply one of the many possible definitions of teacher leadership to the film’s protagonist.
I also asked them to analyze the formal organizational structure of the school depicted in their movie of choice and describe its ability to stimulate (or stifle) teacher leadership.
Once I gave the assignment, I was not surprised to find many of my students selecting the old stand-bys, the films that we all think of when we reflect on Hollywood’s representation of teachers. Many of these films are the same ones identified by members of the Teacher Leaders Network in our Top 10 teacher-movie list published here in October: Lean on Me (1989), Freedom Writers (2007), Stand and Deliver (1988), Dangerous Minds (1995), and Dead Poets Society (1989). The students who chose these familiar movies did an excellent job of analyzing them, noting many of the same characteristics our TLN members did.
Two other film selections did surprise me. The first was Conrack (1974). Conrack is the story of a young white teacher, portrayed by Jon Voight (and based on the real-life experience of novelist Pat Conroy), who is hired to teach African-American children on a small island in South Carolina. Many of the children are depicted as illiterate and have a very limited knowledge of the world outside their isolated community. Conroy (the name Conrack is actually a mispronunciation of his name by the children) has to overcome resistance from administrators who do not want him there, in addition to the seeming disinterest in education from his students.
In many ways the Conrack story is similar to some of the themes in movies such as Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, Stand and Deliver, and Lean on Me. A determined teacher, unwilling to accept the failure of his or her students as inevitable, confronts an administration that holds low expectations for a group of children living in abject poverty.
In their analysis of teacher leadership in all of these films, my students expressed a true admiration for what these teachers accomplished given limited resources, low expectations for student achievement, and an often hostile formal leadership structure within the school. In most cases my students decided that the school itself did not promote teacher leadership—and in many instances seemed to actively discourage it. And yet these heroic teachers were able to meet their personal and professional challenges head on and make a difference in students’ lives.
As we discussed the heroic characteristics exhibited by the main characters in these films, I asked them a simple question: How do the hero teachers meet our basic criteria for teacher leadership?
After considering this question, some of my students (to their surprise) realized that most of these teacher heroes do not exhibit the basic characteristics for teacher leadership. One key component of our working definition was that teacher leaders “lead within and beyond the classroom.” While each of these protagonists was effective in their advocacy for what was best for their own students, few of them were leaders in the sense of trying to change conditions for all students—for the entire school, or the district, or beyond.
Our other unusual film choice was Matilda (1996), the Roald Dahl story of a bright young girl attending a school that is a dismal place, in large part due to the negative attitude of Principal Agatha Trunchbull. Trunchbull is balanced by Matilda’s hard-working and creative young teacher Ms. Honey, who makes her classroom a happy place filled with challenging work and high expectations, even though Ms. Trunchbull forbids such things. When Trunchbull comes to class for a visit, the children help Ms. Honey hide all of the student work and displays of active learning. Her methods are never spread beyond her classroom nor do they impact other students beyond her own (at least until the end of the film when she becomes the principal!).
A lively debate ensued among my students. Some felt that you have to begin with your own students and make a difference in your own classroom before you can take your professionalism to the next level and make change on a larger scale. Others disagreed, suggesting that emerging teacher leaders should conduct action research to gather data to prove that their methods work and/or invite peers into their classrooms to observe their techniques.
This debate led us to another issue: Did any of these movie stories reflect teacher collaboration? Early on in our classroom discussions, we had decided that collaboration is an essential characteristic of a teacher leader. It is difficult, if not impossible, to influence others when working in isolation. When we looked at the protagonists, from Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society to LouAnne Johnson in Dangerous Minds, we found very few hero teachers who attempted to reach out to their peers and include them in the changes they were trying to invoke. Many of my students felt that these were excellent teachers, but began to question whether they were actually leaders who could serve as agents of positive change in a school. In the end, these were individuals who saved the day (for some) with little or no help from anyone else—an idea that most of us found to be unrealistic.
Overall, this exercise proved to be one of the most interesting activities in my undergrad course in teacher leadership. From these emotionally powerful films my students learned a lot about the passion and drive a good teacher must have. They found role models for effective teaching in the various protagonists we examined. But they were also confronted by the very complex concept of teacher leadership, and most of them came to see that they will need to be both effective teachers and skillful collaborators before they can hope to “save the day”—the Hollywood way.
Tanya Judd-Pucella teaches in the leadership program at Marietta (OH) College, where she also serves as Director of Civic Engagement. She holds National Board certification in history and social studies and was a teacher and program leader for 11 years in the Orange County (FL) public schools before moving to Ohio.