Every once in a while, I actually have an instant of idle time during which my mind wanders in a variety of directions. During one such moment recently, I found myself pondering how teachers are portrayed in the movies. It’s no surprise that the portraits of these educators aren’t the most favorable. A few examples:
“The Principal” (1987): Jim Belushi is a high school principal who, in the film’s climax, goes mano a mano with a tough gang leader while the entire student body waits silently outside. Where do I begin? First off, anyone who’s ever participated in a fire drill knows that it’s virtually impossible to silence 1000 students simultaneously. Secondly, the generous liberties taken by this principal as he reclaims his school are unprofessional and probably illegal. Finally, the most glaringly obvious faux pas: Jim Belushi is a high school principal.
“Teachers” (1984): Nick Nolte as a role model. ‘Nuff said?
“The Faculty” (1998): High school teachers might be aliens in disguise. Can you believe it? On the other hand, now that I think of it and reflect on a few people I’ve encountered in my career, this actually might be plausible.
Even the most well-intentioned films miss the mark at times. In an online review for the 2007 film “Freedom Writers,” Robert Keser writes: “There’s no question that a forceful teacher can change a student’s life, but it rarely works positively for every individual. You don’t have to be Mr. Chips to know that making education stick takes an entire social system, not just one willful teacher, no matter how well-meaning.”
Teachers who truly make a difference may be rogues who push the envelope, but one key point that these films miss is that their successes rarely if ever occur in a vacuum. They can’t do it alone, but in these films, the colleagues who prepared students up to that point or who support them every day in different ways are barely mentioned.
Of course, we all understand that with all professions portrayed in the media, generous poetic license must be employed to keep things interesting. My two-week stint as a juror a few years back taught me that the real legal system is a far cry from the expedient glamour of “Law and Order” and the sheer absurdity of “Boston Legal.” Family members who work in the medical profession find a number of things to laugh about whenever reruns of “ER” air. After all, nobody wants to see George Clooney doing paperwork for hours or calling an insurance company.
Two of my favorite films about teaching are ones that few people have seen: “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1939) and “Up The Down Staircase” (1967). Both are films based on books by the same name, and in the case of the latter, the book is even better (and not just because it lacks the groovy 60’s soundtrack of the film).
If you really want to know about the life of a teacher, the best way is to spend some time in their world. Some might argue that they already have – as students – but life is completely different from the other side of the desk.