Ann Beatty recently penned a brilliant article for The Atlantic, “Hollywood’s Reductive Narratives About School.” Not only does she make a case against most popular teacher movies, but articulates what I’ve been trying to say for a long time. Over the years, students occasionally, with moony eyes and hope, ask me if I “love” Freedom Writers, and seem kind of hurt when I say no–but then come to some deeper understanding of when I tell them why. The “great White savior-teacher-lady” is bullocks, basically. But Beatty says it better. She writes: “Bulman argues these films are popular because they bolster the middle-class fantasy that holds individuals accountable for low-income students’ successes or failures, while conveniently absolving viewers of any responsibility to lobby for system-wide change.”
It is Hollywood, and it is a fantasy.
This fantasy resides in the same room as bootstrap baloney and the grit myths. The [white] middle class, usually young teacher, (so much ageism in Freedom Writers….so…..much….) comes to the school, loses her relationship with her husband, looks great in sweater sets, gets a paternal nod of Fatherly Approval from Daddy, and carries on, changes the world, and enlightens one and all. The thing is–her students possessed abilities and THEIR OWN STORIES the entire time. Somewhere along the way, they were taught to read, make letters, write, sing their ABCs, etc. I wonder if these narratives seep into our culture to the point where students can’t see past their own experiences, either, making short-cut assumptions about their teachers, no matter their race, gender or age.
The dangers of the ‘rockstar’ teacher or group include the shallow dismissal and incorrect thin-slicing of a group or individual personalities and dynamics. As in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story,” (which Beatty alludes to in her essay as well), the danger lies in accepting one’s perspective as the only perspective, and everyone else is getting it wrong.
Stop: it’s not a zero-sum game. It’s not a competition. It’s not a ‘celebration’ when there are winners and losers. It’s a celebration when it’s a celebration, and everyone is invited to the table.
Beatty distinguishes between pity and empathy: pity leaves us all diminished and weakened. Pity is the beast that lower the bar, doesn’t maintain high expectations, or gives a pass when too tired to keep pushing. Empathy, however, should work reciprocally: we and our students come to better understandings of one another’s, and our goals align. (Easier said than done, clearly.)
“Pity means I tell students who I think they are; empathy means I ask them, again and again, to tell me who they are. Such a shift resets a power imbalance. Classrooms where teachers and students actively work against the narratives and misconceptions that batter them are places where real learning happens.”
What Beatty comes to, and where I came to a long time ago, was that students are so much more than a Hollywood narrative, and so are we. When we work together and stop putting each other in ‘rockstar’ or competitive situations, zero-sum games, when we don’t reduce one another as colleagues or reduce our students to simple numbers, we see a much bigger and more beautiful picture, a bigger life, one larger than any Hollywood truncated narrative. As the next few weeks fall into summer, what final messages will I, in some cases desperately, in other cases seamlessly, instill in my students?
Well, as friends read Beatty’s post on social media, many agreed with the list of damaging teacher films. But everyone still likes “Bad Teacher.” Okay, I’ll let that one slide.
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