New teachers, don’t be fooled by the serial moments of epiphany showcased in teacher movies. That’s all Hollywood and plot points. It’s the moments in between that make the good teacher great.
In movies illustrating the life of police officers, the audience sees only the moments of discovery and intensity, the car chases, the busting down doors, the book’em Danno conclusions.
Movies illustrating the life of teachers follow a similar abbreviated course. Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me, School of Rock, and Freedom Writers all have the “we were lost, but a teacher found us and set us free” narrative that highlight the hallelujah moments of the teaching trade.
In these movies, a group of misunderstood youths intersect with a naive, conflicted, angry, or hopeless teacher who decides to buck the system and change lives. Some pinched, draconian gatekeeper stands in the way of true learning, but the passionate educator always succeeds with Snickers bars or poetry or punk rock or a baseball bat.
The cinematic moments of salvation are, of course, metaphors for the essence of teaching, or at least the essence of what teaching is supposed to be— vanquishing social ills, transcending the system, inspiring the unmotivated, and finding redemption along the way.
I love teacher movies because they are so ridiculous.
True, movies can be like real life—a distilled version of real life. If you watched all the teacher movies on Netflix, however, you might get the feeling these moments of transcendence happen more often than they do.
But they don’t. They just don’t.
I’ve written before about how most teachers over the course of a thirty-year career will only have a handful of the moments that Nick Nolte in the 1984 movie Teachers seems to be having in every scene. Like this one where a class of 40 kids crowd spellbound around a radiator he’s decided to fix in his Social Studies class. Throughout the whole movie, Nolte’s character is constantly staring out windows, having watershed epiphanies while a Joe Cocker song swells in the background, and all his students perch in their seats with furrowed brows, respectfully watching the internal psychological struggle playing out on the rugged face of their teacher.
Like I said, ridiculous.
I show this movie to pre-service teachers to illustrate all the teaching tropes: the sleeping teacher, the affable, but ineffectual classroom manager, the compassionate English teacher, the disaffected principal, and the escaped-mental-patient-turned-substitute, who, by the way, is the best teacher in the whole movie.
But the point I want them to really understand is this: it’s not the moments of transcendence that make a good teacher great, it’s how she handles the rest of her teaching career– the deadly tedium of a two-hour faculty meeting, the inexplicable defeat of explaining the same thing twenty-eleven different ways to a student only to be met with a blank stare, or the perennial irritation of standing in the copy room watching the copy machine print off a one-page article at the speed of lazy-drunk snails.
While most teachers go into the field of education to change lives, it’s how they handle cafeteria supervision, lock-down command, bathroom sweeps, tardy table policing and pep rally control that predicts whether or not they can keep calm and carry on until someone finally stands on his desk and recites Walt Whitman. Almost anyone who has a personality and a pulse can stand in front of a group of students and parse some dreck about carpe diem, but explaining fractions for 50 days in a row? Those are some moments.
I graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1989, and while I loved every English class I ever took there, I would have rather jumped in front a train than to go to a class called Educational Technology, where we learned how to put in a tape cassette in a recorder and push play. But irony of ironies, that class bears a striking resemblance to what I find myself doing over the course of my year even today: collecting and filing papers, recording grades, reading emails, standing in halls, or pacing back and forth for hours in testing rooms.
But here’s what I’ve discovered only in the later days of my career: the successful teacher learns how to navigate the tedium by making a meditation out of the simplest tasks. You’ve seen these people in the teacher’s lounge serenely chunking out alphabet letters on the cricket machine as they merrily whistle a little tune. You’ve seen them in the cafeteria line. While most of us look like we are waiting for experimental surgery, they are placidly occupying the moment, a light smile playing around their zen monk mouth. Are they high on a mountain awaiting enlightenment or are they just high?
No. They’ve just figured out the key to a successful career in teaching. They have, in the words of the Roman poet, Juvenal, learned to bear life’s ills, without being overcome by them. What they have discovered is that tomorrow is always another day. That simply caring for the humanity staring back at you every day is the best teaching method. That the beastly boy in the backrow will invariably be the one who lists you as his favorite teacher during his graduation memories. That grading and standards and educational silver bullets are here today and gone tomorrow. They know that ‘this too shall pass.’
They aren’t chasing the moments of epiphany; they know those will happen on their own and when they are least expected. They have discovered the Nick Nolte moments of glory are nice, but how they take the moments in between– in long strides anddeep breaths, smiling, hopeful, kind– make all the difference.