Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Hollywood's View of Teachers: Teachers (1984)

Comedy has to be based on truth.  You take the truth and you put a little curlicue at the end. ~ Sid Caesar

Like any good comedy, the humor in the movie Teachers (Russo & Hiller, 1984) is based on some truth, with some exaggeration. The stereotypical portraits of teacher-types - the lackadaisical, the authoritarian, the crazy (literally and figurative), and the incompetent – can be seen in most large schools, which is what makes them so funny. Yet, the message of the film, that in an urban school, education is reduced to “ get as many through with what we've got,” is quite serious.

Although slightly exaggerated, I've met teachers who could be the origin of the movie's stereotypical teachers. Mr. Stiles, also known as Ditto because of the massive amounts of worksheets he copies, has a clockwork-like atmosphere in which the students are trained to preform to the bell, without teacher interference. In my first year of teaching, the social studies teacher, who had been teaching for twenty years, made a point to tell me that he had made enough purple ditto copies to last until he retired. It seems he didn't like the new-fangled xerox machines and planned ahead. He showed me his lesson plan book, which was planned out from the first day of school and looked remarkably like the year before. “Students look forward to this unit every year,” he explained when showing me the geography unit based on planning a family trip. Even though the students generally liked him, there was little incorporation of student interest and experience and he was on a strict schedule – snow days were a great interference. This is the type of teacher who values the content over the students, and probably looks at teaching as just a job, not a professional calling. Ayers (2004) believes that teaching is an ethical practice. Ditto's version of the classroom removes any ethical decision – just a factory model of input/output. Many students do well in this classroom because it is predictable and routine, yet, there is little room for creativity and critical thinking. Lamentably, this is what many schools apply to student populations who are considered at-risk. Kylene Beers, a teacher and current president of the National Council of Teachers of English, reported on one urban school she visited. The principal reminded teachers and students that they were supposed to stay in their seats and do their work:

  • He stared at me and, with no hint of a smile, not even a grin, explained, “Some kids—those out there heading to class right this minute so they aren’t late” he said, nodding toward the bus lot now filled with kids streaming into school, “learn best with rules. Rules and structure. We give it to them.” And then he walked away. He didn’t say it unkindly, that comment about “those” kids. With reflection, I realized he said it with sincerity, perhaps concern, and certainly with conviction. Somehow along the way, he had concluded that those kids, those kids whose lives are lived in the gaps—the poverty gap, the health care gap, the nutrition gap, to name but a few. . . those kids will do better if we just require that they stay in their seats. Those kids just need some structure. And we do them a service, a good service, by giving it to them.(Foster & Nosol, 2008, p. x)
When most children play school, this is the image they strive for and the quiet, dutiful stuffed-animals fulfill the role of passive students happily. However, in the twenty-first century, real students are messy bodies of hopes, fears and insecurities with great potential that shouldn't be limited by drill-&-kill activities. Eventually, Ditto has a heart-attack and each class period runs like a well-oiled machine. His body is not discovered until the end of the day. If only the rosy-image of the silent classroom could die as easily.

Returning to the film, Carl Rosenberg is a well-meaning but inept teacher who can't control his classroom and has his desk stolen as a joke. Unfortunately, I've had and met too many teachers who fit this description. My fourth grade teacher would regularly give us “the talk” which was a guilt-trip wrapped in her tears and would inspire good behavior for a few hours. In eighth grade, my math teacher had a short-temper and it became a class challenge to make her walk out on the class. As a teacher, I heard a music teacher shout, “Shut up!” at the top of his lungs frequently to attempt to get students' attention, which was quite disruptive to me since my classroom was right next door. This type of teacher is also immortalized in the children's book, Miss Nelson Is Missing! in which the nice teacher, Miss Nelson, resorts to becoming Miss Viola Swamp, a mean and ugly teacher, in order to get the children to behave (Allard, 1985). The basic message to the movie-goer, the student in the classroom and the reader is that nice teachers can't control a classroom. The myth of “don't smile until Christmas” has been repeated to many new teachers since before my aunt began her teaching career in the early 1940s. How terribly disheartening for the prospective teacher!

In the movie, the most engaging teacher was Herbert Gower, a mental patient who is mistakenly hired as a substitute. He uses role-playing, costuming and drama to help students “see” history. Unfortunately, he is found out and taken away by men in white suits. Regrettably, I have not personally seen this type of teacher in any school I've been in, but I've used the Teachers' Curriculum Institute's History Alive program, which incorporates many of these ideas. I've asked my students to form a tableau of scenes from history or literature and take the perspective of the person/character they are portraying. Sometimes, I read or see news pieces about teachers like this, usually couched in terms like “outstanding.” I would agree, that getting student attention is an important part of teaching, yet what a teacher can do with it then is the grunt-work of teaching. Anyone can tap dance for five minutes. Activity based learning, for the sake of the theme (teddy bears) or activity (salt dough maps) is meaningless without solid content, critical thinking, and continuous assessment. It is the marathon dancer who wins the prize.

The protagonist of the film, Alex Jurel, is a burnt-out social studies teacher with a idealist past. The system – too many kids, too many problems, too many administrative demands, and too little support – has turned him into a teacher with frequent absences, few lesson plans, and little enthusiasm for his job. The students like him, because he is the most “real” person in the school, and, I would guess, an easy grader. RateMyTeacher.com was built for students to find teachers like this – the ones who will give the A without much work. The teachers I've known like this tend to be very personable – bringing their passions (sports, music, movies) into the classroom, but without much thought about content or pedagogy. One social studies teacher I taught with had CNN running all the time in his classroom, claiming “current event” studies. His tests were easy, reading was done in class, there was no homework, and most of the grade was based on class discussion. Students generally liked him, and like in the movie, the students in trouble gravitated toward him when needing help, which also got him into trouble. On the positive side, when school was over, he left it at school – which is something more dedicated teachers could learn from. On the negative side, I've also seen this type of teacher get too friendly with students and become drinking buddies or sexual partners. At the end of the film, Alex Jural finds a cause he thinks is worth fighting for – his job. However, he redefines his role as an advocate for the troubled students.

Early in the film, Alex Jural hangs out with a former teacher, now vice-principal, Roger Rubell. They lament to each other how the kids don't care, the system is overwhelmed and they aren't paid enough. When Jural shows signs of trying to change the system, Rubell says, “Your job is to get them through school and keep them out of trouble.” (Russo & Hiller, 1984) The pessimistic message of the movie is that in an urban school, there are no individuals, no great aspirations, just the basic skills and babysitting. Even though the end of the film is seemingly optimistic, Jural finds inspiration again in teaching, in anticipating the next possible actions, it really isn't. His fiery lecture to the board of education would most likely lead to suspension, then a lengthy mediation, and possible trial – none allowing him to teach. His involvement in taking a minor to an abortion clinic could result in other charges. Ultimately, nothing in the school would change. 

That, I think, is the more subtle message. Urban schools have grown in size and problems, but because of the student population, lack of parent support, and inner-city location, nothing can be done. In the end, it is a fairly depressing conclusion, one that isn't necessarily true. However, the counterpoint doesn't make good cinema.

Allard, H. (1985). Miss Nelson is missing! Sandpiper.
Ayers, W. (2004). Teaching the personal and the political: Essays on hope and justice. Teachers College Press.
Foster, H. & Nosol, M. (2008). America’s unseen kids: Teaching English/Language Arts in today’s forgotten high schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Russo, A. (Producer), & Hiller, A. (Director). (1984). Teachers [Motion picture]. United States: MGM/UA Entertainment Company.

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