Monthly Archives: March 2011

Why I Hate “One Teacher Who Made A Difference”

Apropos of maaaaany discussions of teachers lately, in obvious contexts: I hate most movies about teachers. I particularly hate movies about “one teacher who makes a difference.” I have mentioned this before, but seldom spelled out why. Here it is.

Three Reasons I Hate “One Teacher Who Made A Difference”:

1. These movies, in focusing on a single teacher, and often a single teacher in a sea of indifference, argue that all the problems with our educational system could be fixed if teachers just cared more and tried harder. Underfunding, bad policy, apathetic and/or overworked parents, a dominant culture that discourages critical thinking…trifles. No, a really good teacher can inspire anyway.

2. In constructing teaching as a sacred calling, we construct teachers as saints and martyrs. Which sounds great until you get to the part where this lets us justify not paying them shit. We expect our best and brightest to sacrifice not just prosperity but sometimes stability to be teachers out of altruism, rather than making the financial investment to attract them. See Jon Stewart’s commentary on that. (Note: you can substitute many, many professions, here, including prosecuting attorneys, doctors and nurses who work in poorer paying environments, etc.)

2b. In addition, in constructing “good” teachers as saints and martyrs, we vilify teachers who view teaching as a job, who decline to sacrifice their own relationships, families, and outside interests to devote every spare minute to teaching. My own personal favorite, btw, was a TV movie showing a teacher doing his middle-school student’s chores so she could do her homework. See point #1, btw: the family’s financial situation, which caused the student to be left with the care of her younger siblings, is presented as something that can be overcome if the teacher just cares enough.

3. There is a tendency on the part of these movies to glorify teachers who impart valuable “life lessons” (usually in the form of teaching kids to buck the system) at the expense of teaching the subject matter they are hired to teach. And yes, this is where my utter loathing of Dead Poets Society comes from. I am the first person to say that I think literature is as much about teaching ways of approaching text as it is about teaching particular texts themselves (although that varies from class to class), and hey, I’m all about questioning tradition. But it is nonetheless true that we seldom saw that teacher teaching literature. I’ve embraced a fair degree of radical thinking about writing teaching in my time, but it also remains that the world I am preparing my students for expects them to know how to organize their stunningly original thoughts in a coherent manner and present them in coherent sentences. That doesn’t make me a tool of the man. That makes me someone who is doing my job.

These, btw, are only the aspects of these movies that deal with teaching as a profession. There’s a whooooole lot to unpack about race, gender, and other social issues in many of these movies. This does a better job of invoking these issues than I could.

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