In the midst of the Chicago teacher's strike, embassy attacks and 2012 election I looked for an escape. A movie sounded good. But given I am busy and poor I settle for watching free trailers. This looks like a great film. The struggle against hopelessness. The power of the individual. Overcoming incredible odds. Good vs evil. It is an irresistible narrative that celebrates all that is right. Teachers are lazy, do harm to our kids and are protected by fat cat unions. Wait...what? I'm a teacher. Like many films the storyline is simplified by filmmakers to a narrative that is easy to consume. Major players are neatly reduced to caricatures that embody what is necessary to make a quick buck with a film. As we know, real life is rarely so simple. So thinking more critically... does the narrative of the film reflect the narrative of the nation?
No doubt the "our schools are failing" bandwagon is tempting but it is equally inaccurate. Actually it is farcical. Let me queue up to be the first to say, too many of our schools and too many kids are in trouble. Too many schools are broken and might even be described as dysfunctional. But they are as much the victim as the students within them. You don't have to look far to find kids struggling and not getting the help they need. Tragic. Many of our kids are indeed trapped in some of these schools. But did the system and those schools create this situation? Will choice solve it? Should schools be able to solve the social ills we've now saddled them with and expect them to remedy? It is worthwhile to remember that as a whole there is a great deal of evidence that we are in many ways performing better and doing far more than ever. TU's favorite Diane Ravitch provides solid rationale as to why the NAEP, the most valid measure of the state of education tell a different story from the one scripted by powerful groups and individuals. Failing....that is a long leap, even for Hollywood.
After our very first post Should We Trust Superman, we have written about 200 times about what we think as teachers. But other than Tony Danza, there is little public discourse or attention focused on what teachers think. Unless it was in the context of the strike in Chicago. At the TU our unique perspectives likely differ little from hundreds of thousands of teachers around this great nation. A group that is wearing thinner each year from the negative press. We are not all crazy. We are not all lazy. We are not the problem. Quite the contrary. In the three years since we began the blogging on the topic the public understanding of the state of education has changed little. When a non-teachers asks what I think I rarely speak as openly and freely as I want and honestly don't even know where to begin to express my frustrations. Teacher voice gains no momentum.
During that time the movement to radically change the make-up of our nation's schools has gotten more organized, better funded, and found more success politically. For profit entities, well funded foundations and others framing the public perception of how we are doing have motives far more complex than the lowly teacher occupying the classroom. Recent events in Chicago force us to acknowledge that the demonization of teachers meets a receptive audience. Maybe they want to cash in on one of the last frontiers of government funds, maybe they want to blame schools and ignore growing poverty, maybe they believe everything they say. It doesn't matter. fact is, they are wrong. The outlets preaching gloom and doom have become ubiquitous and inescapable.
Teachers, some seasoned veterans who have poured their lifeblood into the profession, work alongside green newcomers who are eager to make a difference. Yet it many in the media, statehouse, and in private foundations would rather vilify than support. Who could blame them when the common story of where fault lies for these perceived ills appeals to the psyche. Movies, or more accurately some influential groups and people in Hollywood, it seems have it out for teachers. Who and why matter less than the absence of a balancing voice. On the whole we can always do more and should always try to do better. But how we go about that is a matter where a great deal of informed people disagree with the political momentum. And movies, as such a powerful medium, make things worse and do a great disservice to just about everyone.
Their depiction of schools and teachers are akin to, indulge the comparison, the way movies portray(ed) Native Americans. Speaking prophetically in broken English, and only taking what they needed was the norm for the "noble savage" of the New World. Such stereotyping in film is the norm. Teachers in movies usually appear in a similar one-dimensional roles. (There are some notable exceptions with say Mr. Holland and Jaime Escalante standing out). But those are older movies. They oversimplify complex issues and situations for the sake of time. They take liberties with facts for the sake of story and combine individuals into aggregate characters making them more powerful symbols. This cutting of corners can also be seen in how we portray educational issues. All our kids it seems are enrolled in underperforming poverty magnets staffed by callous self serving unionists. Our teachers and schools are being stereotyped and we are letting it happen. No one speaks up. Far more dire than the erosion of professional status is the fact that many changes are destroying the quality of what schools do.
Overworked and voiceless teachers still staff the classroom face to face with the students. They show up every day, do what they can and know at times they will fall short in many ways. There is your movie right there. Their story is the story of our nation's children. They are inseparable. But I suppose it is far easier to make a movie for public consumption that only tells part of the tale rather than one that tells the truth. It is shame too as a good teacher movies go a long way in portraying schools and teachers in a more positive light. That helps garner much needed support from their community. But the other movies seem to be the norm, The effect, like the movie, won't be good for teaching. Sad too...because I love me some Maggie Gyllenhaal.
The film's line is "Change a school; change a neighborhood." Wow that phrase drips with hope blended with Rage Against the Machine. Skipping the substance since I have not seen the film, and probably won't, I can only surmise that the movie will do more harm than good for children and schools. What ails our schools will take much more than parents flipping a switch or a company taking the reigns to truly "change". Keeping how movies help define how education is perceived in the public consciousness in mind, we should be a bit more careful with which movies will not only be good, but maybe do some good as well. Because as I see it, Won't Back Down, Won't be Good.