Equity & Diversity

Educator’s Resolution: Enough With the ‘Feel-Good’ Teacher Movies

By Anthony Rebora — January 02, 2014 1 min read
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In the Atlantic, Joshua John Mackin, a New York City middle school reading teacher, says it would be beneficial to those working for real improvement in education if Americans made a collective New Year’s resolution to desist from relying on feel-good teacher movies for their information about struggling schools.

He argues that such movies—among those he mentions are “Freedom Writers,” “Stand and Deliver,” and “Dangerous Minds"—create unreasonable expectations for reform initiatives, reinforce racial stereotypes, and badly simplify complex societal problems (by suggesting, for example, that “all kids need is somebody to believe in them”). Movie depictions, he continues, also tend to make teachers out to be self-sacrificing martyrs or (in a related genre) near-sociopathic incompetents—neither of which is particularly good for school recruiting or professional morale.

In reality, Mackin says, creating change in schools and students is a lot less glamorous and a lot messier than Hollywood makes it out to be—something that would be worth remembering as schools absorb a host of new challenges and initiatives in the new year. He writes:

Teaching isn't like the movies. It's a lot more boring than what you see in Hollywood. Breakthroughs come a lot slower. And guess what? That's a good thing. The classroom reflects so much of the human experience: a struggle to make progress and meaning and inspiration out of the raw quotidian material of everyday life."
[Mayor] Bill DeBlasio's changes to New York City's education system will not transform public education overnight. The Common Core roll out will continue to be slow, painful, and sometimes haphazardly implemented. Teacher tenure will persist in roiling the courts and opinion pages. And in the midst of it all the unglamorous daily faithfulness demanded by the teaching profession will necessarily continue.

It’s a provocative argument to start out the new year, especially since some of the movies Mackin mentions have frequently been cited as sources of inspiration for educators (and other viewers). Your thoughts?

Photo: Actor Edward James Olmos, left, compares notes with high school teacher Jaime Escalante during the filming of the Warner Bros. film “Stand And Deliver,” in Los Angeles in 2008.—Warner Brothers/AP-File

Update 5 p.m.. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue with this response from one of our Twitter followers:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.