(Photo Courtesy of Studio One)
From the music-fueled hijinks of Jack Black’s Dewey Finn (School of Rock) to the inner-city idealism of Sidney Poitier’s Mark Thackeray (To Sir, with Love), Hollywood’s perennial fascination with teacher stories has produced an impressive lineup of iconic pedagogues over the years. One of my earliest teacher-on-film memories is watching a hell-bent Anne Sullivan reach her cathartic water pump breakthrough in the iconic climax of 1962’s The Miracle Worker, adapted from the autobiography of Helen Keller. The film’s title says a lot about why the educator archetype continues to be a popular source of dramatic inspiration: the idea of the impassioned teacher as an indomitable “miracle worker” for whom no troubled young mind is beyond reach seems to hold much sway for filmmakers and audiences alike.
Movies like this had so romanticized my perception of the profession that, as I readied myself for my first semester as a fifth grade teacher in the summer of 2008, it seemed only natural to wonder: should I fashion my teaching persona in the style of Robin Williams’ John Keating or emulate the eccentric profundities of Mr. Miyagi? Despite my best efforts, I ended that first year feeling more like Cameron Diaz’s Bad Teacher than anything else. I had not inspired a sensational love of poetry in my students. I had not convinced them to carpe the diem. The only standing on desks had occurred in rebellious defiance of (not in solidarity with) my teaching.
The melodramatic glorification of teachers perpetuated by films like Dead Poets Society and Freedom Writers had made for excellent inspiration, no doubt. It had also been terrible preparation for the real deal. The more I thought about these teacher-worship movies, the more they bothered me. It’s not that I believe teachers unworthy of the exaltation – it’s that these movies totally miss the mark when it comes to what makes educators admirable and effective. The mythic Hollywood teacher conditions us to interpret passion as an acceptable substitute for patience, diligence, and partnership. We’re asked to value inordinately only the most obvious of a much larger set of characteristics actual master teachers exhibit, even when these characters are based on real individuals.
Take for instance Stand and Deliver, the true-ish story of Jaime Escalante’s expectation-defying advanced calculus program and a staple of miracle-working teacher tales. This was the movie I was told repeatedly that I “must see” in the run-up to my first days in the classroom. As depicted in the film, Escalante leads his ragtag band of inner-city pupils from a shaky grasp of basic arithmetic to calculus fluency in the span of a single year at East LA’s Garfield High – an impressive feat to be sure. That Escalante felt passionately about opening doors of opportunity for his students is obvious. What isn’t clear is that it took real-Jaime seven years to build his seemingly miraculous program; the movie seems content to give us the equivalent of a “greatest hits” compendium of Escalante’s achievement.
The warping of Escalante’s story, however well intentioned, seems an all-too-common phenomenon in the profit-driven entertainment industry. I suspect it’s a matter of marketing: it’s much easier to sell a sensationalized tale of miraculous accomplishment than it is a record of the slow, incremental progress by which great teachers often impact and are impacted by their students (though there are always counter examples – Mr. Holland’s Opus comes to mind). My time in the classroom has shown me that excellent teachers temper their bold visions with patience and planning. They recognize that quiet consistency and persistence can be powerful forces for change. They master their craft through years of practice and patient study, making plenty of mistakes along the way. In short, they understand that the really important work takes time, constant effort, and an accumulation of small, boring victories. That’s what real passion looks like: less a singular dramatic shout from the proverbial mountaintop and more a solicitous, ever-present whisper of encouragement, a diligent striving to bridge the gap between what is and what should be.
That’s why I’ll risk massive ridicule by proclaiming Kindergarten Cop one of my favorite teacher movies to date, if only for this reason: it’s the relatively simple story of a man (a very large Austrian bodybuilder, as it happens) who learns the hard way how demanding the life of an educator can be… and then embraces it anyway. By the film’s end, Schwarzenegger’s John Kimble hasn’t miraculously rescued his kids from destitution*. He hasn’t even really mastered the basic foundational skills of a novice teacher. But he has, in spite of his repeated failures in the classroom (which seem surprisingly realistic in light of the more ridiculous action/crime elements of the plot), made the monumentally courageous decision to trade his position as a celebrated public hero for a demanding career with a long, hard road to excellence. And it takes an entire movie for him to reach this point!
As the film fades to black, Kimble resembles so many real teachers I know that embody this more understated brand of heroism; having survived the chaos of those first few weeks, he is humbled by and in love with his students. There’s a sense that, though he may be incapable of academic feats as glamorous as his crime-fighting exploits, he’s at least ready to fight for those small, boring, important victories that imbue a teacher’s life with such meaning. You might call that miracle working, though by degrees.
*He has however saved them from the machinations of a nefarious drug dealer.