Friday, November 8, 2013

Mr Holland's Opus, The Freedom Writers, and Stand and Deliver: Educational pornography that is bad for the teacher's soul

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week I participated in a retreat as part of Brigham Young University's Wasatch County School District (WCSD), based in Heber City, Utah.  This partnership is coordinated by BYU's Center for the Improvement of Teacher Education & Schooling (CITES) and includes an "Associates Program" that brings together both public school and university educators to discuss provocative educational issues.  I've been incredibly impressed with the passion and thoughtfulness of both the teachers and administrators from the WCSD.
partnership with

In a conversation on Wednesday, Jim Judd, the Director of Human Resources for the district made an incredibly insightful observation about the genre of films celebrating the efforts of inspirational teachers (i.e. like those I listed in the title of this post).  He pointed out that while these kinds of stories are incredibly inspirational for non-educators, they can (much like pornography) create unrealistic expectations for how educators can and should do their work.  In short, just like the adult film industry leaves ordinary people wondering how they could ever perform like the "actors" they see on screen, the stories told of Jaime Escalante, Erin Gruwell, and Glenn Holland leave most educators feeling both inadequate and discouraged.

Jim's observation is an astute one.  The reality is that very few teachers have the time, energy, or disposition to approach teaching in the super-human way that is subtly advocated for in these kinds of films.  And, when teachers are made to feel that they should all be like Ron Clark (one of the new breed of "inspiring," "innovative," and superstar educators), frustration, hopelessness, and feelings of failure won't be far behind.

Another problem with these films, one I've noticed before and that Jim commented as well, is that they tell a story of successful teaching that implies that the professional identity of the teacher is more important than any other aspect of their lives including health and family.  Consider the fate of the three teachers I've referred to above:  Jaime Escalante has a heart attack, Erin Gruwell gets divorced, and Glenn Holland has a deteriorating relationship with both his wife and his hearing-impaired son.  Yes, they're all great teachers, but is getting all your kids to pass the AP exam, to write well, or to play a score of music as important as your health and your family?  Hollywood would have us believe yes.

Finally, this group of feel-good films, does little to help a teacher understand how to facilitate meaningful learning.  They follow a typical narrative form:  new or unprepared teacher enters a challenging classroom environment, things are so bad they consider quitting, they come up with some kind of creative or "engaging" activity that breaks through the icy-cold disengagement of the students, and "poof" magic happens and lives start to be transformed.  Inspiring, but empty when it comes to helping real teachers understand how to facilitate real learning.

So, as entertaining and sometimes jear-jerking as these films can be, think twice before you show it to a teacher.  It's as good as showing them porn.

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