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Searching for Common Ground: Rick and Pedro Go to the Movies

When it comes to education in film, reality inevitably gets bent to serve the narrative arc
By Rick Hess — August 15, 2022 5 min read
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Pedro Noguera, the dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, and I have a podcast (Common Ground: Conversations on Schooling) in which we dig into our disagreements and seek to identify common ground on some of the thorniest questions in education. I thought readers might enjoy perusing snippets of those conversations every now and then. Recently, Pedro and I talked about education-themed films, why they matter, and what Hollywood gets right and wrong about schooling. We had quite a bit to say so we’ve split it up into two parts. Here’s Part 1:

—Rick

Pedro: I think education movies can really help the public to understand what’s going on in schools. Unfortunately, though, that often doesn’t happen because in most movies about education, the complex issues are trivialized for the sake of a compelling story. Still, there are a few I love. I would say my favorite of all time is “Stand and Deliver.” I love it because it’s based on a true story: the work of the great teacher, Jaime Escalante. He was an engineer who became a math teacher at Garfield High. For almost 20 years, he taught poor Latino kids from East L.A. to pass and excel in AP calculus. He referred to his work as cultivating “ganas” in kids, which is another way of talking about grit and the desire to learn. He got his students to believe in themselves and to work hard. It’s such an impressive film.

Rick: You’re right, that’s a great film. But it’s worth noting how, when it comes to education in film, reality inevitably gets bent to serve the narrative arc. That’s natural, obviously. It also means, though, that we wind up getting a distorted sense of things. One moment in “Stand and Deliver” I always fixate on is in the middle of the movie, when Escalante is feeling defeated. He’s about to give up. The students aren’t getting it, and then he comes out to the parking lot, and his car is gone. My heart just breaks for him. He’s struggling to get by, the kids are ignoring him, and now his car is stolen. And then students pull up in his car, and it turns out they were just tricking it out as a token of appreciation. And he’s like, “Hey! These kids do appreciate me!” But what’s the message if his car had actually just been stolen? The movies don’t show what it’s like when someone is sweating away, the kids aren’t getting it, and there’s no magical pivot. And the other part, which gets elided over in the Hollywood version, is that a lot of Escalante’s students didn’t actually make it through AP, much less ace the exam. He built a program that was hugely transformative for many students but not for all of them. That program required a handshake between the teacher and the students who chose to grasp his hand, and then those who didn’t. You’d never know that from the film.

Pedro: That’s true. The truth is, he got them to come on Saturdays and work in the summer. Not everyone wants to do that. There were no shortcuts, no gimmicks, just hard work and a change in their beliefs about what they could do. I think that’s what the film captures pretty well.

Rick: That’s where I get conflicted, because people are watching this, and it’s influencing their notion of what it means to be a good teacher. Is a good teacher able to show up in remedial math and, if they’re dynamic and passionate enough, ensure that every student will want to give up their summer vacation in order to pass to Calculus BC? Is that the expectation? How much are these cultural images shaping our sense of what we should expect from teachers and what we should ask of students or families?

Pedro: That’s true, and I think that part gets lost in most education films. After Sidney Poitier died a few months ago, I thought about “To Sir, with Love.” Poitier was such a tremendous actor, and in one of his first movies, he depicts a teacher serving at a school in a working-class community in London. He’s a Black immigrant, teaching these white kids, and they’re not interested in learning, especially from a Black man. What happens over the course of the film is he realizes that he’s not really preparing them academically, he’s preparing them for life as adults. Though they are resistant at first, eventually they start to realize that the lessons he shares about life—respect, integrity, treating people fairly—are valuable, and they begin to see that they can learn from this guy. It’s a very powerful film and probably one of the first types of films that depict the classroom as a drama.

Rick: That’s really well said. And anyone in education who hasn’t seen “To Sir, with Love” really needs to. Another favorite of mine is the low-rent ‘80s movie “Teachers.” There, Nick Nolte was the hero, and it was interesting because he was a veteran, once-passionate teacher who had given up under the frustrations of the bureaucracy and the B.S. And the heart of the film is Nolte rediscovering his will to stand back, push back on the administration, the union, and the other interests, and fight for what he believes in. It’s so cheesy, but this whole idea of a popular piece of culture sympathizing with an exhausted, frustrated teacher just seems really compelling. Rather than making him the villain, they made his rebirth the arc. It may be a schlocky film, but I think Nolte really infuses the role and that the message, however accidentally, really is profound. More generally, so many of the fights that the heroes in these films go through are trivial, bureaucratic, or people don’t believe in them—that part feels depressingly true to life.

Pedro: On that note, how about the movie “Half Nelson”? Ryan Gosling plays a teacher at an inner-city school. He is a good teacher, but he has a drug addiction. He is caught smoking crack by one of his students. They form a bond based on this secret, and he becomes her advocate. This film again deals with teachers not as heroes but as humans who have flaws and weaknesses. Ryan Gosling’s character is still heroic in certain ways, especially in the way he comes through for this student despite his drug addiction. It’s edgy and problematic in many ways, but it’s raw and it captures something that I think is important about the lives of teachers—that teachers are people. Teachers have huge challenges in their lives, and as I think about the challenges that many teachers are struggling with as they cope with the needs of their students and their own mental health challenges, it’s understandable that many are questioning whether or not this job is worth it. It’s not surprising that it’s becoming harder and harder to convince young people to think of teaching as profession because it’s such a tough job.

Rick: Hard to say it better than that. Let’s leave it there.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. To hear the rest of the conversation, check out Episode 12 of Rick and Pedro’s Common Ground Podcast, “ Rick and Pedro Go to the Movies.”

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.

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