The Teacher Movie That Doesn’t Exist

Remember that movie about the team of teachers who worked together to create an incredible school? Me neither.

From Dead Poets Society to Freedom Writers, there is only room in the script for a single hero. These valiant individuals strive nobly against the corrupt, craven, cumbersome system. That system has to be a dystopia for the formula to work.

These valiant heroes don’t let the system change them. The problem is, they don’t change the system, either.

Remember that movie about the team of teachers who worked together to create an incredible school? Me neither.

You could count X-Men, I suppose, where Dr. Xavier’s school for mutants enlists the more experienced X-Men—Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm—to teach the youngsters how to hone their freakish powers.

Harry Potter, too. Slytherin aside, the Hogwarts faculty is top-notch.

But outside the realm of Fantasy and SciFi, movies about teachers tend to feature lone rangers. From Dead Poets Society to Freedom Writers, there is only room in the script for a single hero.

These valiant individuals strive nobly against the corrupt, craven, cumbersome system. The administrators above them are weak at best, oppressive at worst. Their colleagues are ineffective and uncaring. Sloppily dressed to boot.

The system in which these heroes work is always a dystopia. It needs to be a dystopia for the formula to work. How else would these lone heroes prove their worth?

The problem with such solitary heroes, whether they’re based on actual teachers or fully fictional, is this: they don’t stick around too long. They get fired after a year, like John Keating (Robin Williams), or they leave their school for an easier environment.

These valiant heroes don’t let the system change them. But they don’t change the system, either.

When they leave their schools, the joy, brilliance, and creativity they brought with them—to a single classroom, for a few years—leaves, too.

 

“Systems Bad! Teachers Good.”

There’s a strong argument to be made against systems that are impervious to joy, wisdom, and innovation. There’s plenty of evidence that bureaucracies stifle innovation and reduce teaching from craft to compliance.

But not every school system is a dystopia. I teach in a school filled with remarkably talented, dedicated teachers, who share their ideas freely and help one another to become better teachers. My principal is no movie ogre. She’s a talented educator who cares deeply about children. She works to shape the system to student needs, rather than shaping students to the needs of the system.

Thanks in large part to a superintendent with a great heart and mind, who has put decades into his district instead of the typical three to five year stint, the Springdale district is filled with schools like mine.

Teachers in this district collaborate. They don’t “close their door and do the right thing for kids,” a popular mantra of the lone hero. They open their doors and do the right thing for kids. They share their expertise, they learn from the expertise of their colleagues, and they seek to change the system—not just find ways around it—when it fails the children they teach.

 

Writing a Different Script

At our back-to-school event a few weeks back, the keynote speaker was a remarkable young man named Michael. Michael grew up in poverty, suffered neglect, and was bullied by neighborhood kids for his stutter. Yet he excelled at virtually everything school had to offer, from marching band to academics. When he addressed the two thousand teachers in our district, he had just graduated from Brown University.

Part of Michael’s success, of course, has to do with his core, with his sense of purpose and his indestructible spirit. But it has plenty to do with his teachers and principals, too. Teachers, plural.

Michael talked about his 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Fink, who is now the principal at my school. Melissa Fink introduced Michael to the most hopeful books he had ever read: the Harry Potter series, about a boy who had a rough home situation, too, who went on to lead a remarkable life through courage, friendship, and the excellent team of teachers at Hogwarts.

When the fifth Harry Potter book came out, Mrs. Fink waited at Barnes and Noble at midnight, surrounded by the parents of children born into luckier circumstances, so that Michael would have the book in his hands as early as those children did. A year later, when the sixth Harry Potter book came out, the principal at Michael’s middle school did the same thing.

Michael’s high school principal taught him to tie a tie. The stories go on, ordinary acts of kindness with an extraordinary collective impact, weaving a tale that doesn’t look much like the Hollywood history of the teaching profession. The school system worked for Michael, as it will this year for thousands of high-poverty students in our district.

Michael shared with us the goal that kept him going when his home life was rough and the work was hard. It had nothing to do with standardized test scores, though he did well on those tests. His goal was simpler and far more significant: to someday become the kind of father he deserved but never had growing up.

Michael will become that kind of father. He has had plenty of role models along the way, surrogate mothers and fathers who took care of him from pre-K through senior year. When he stood on that stage and looked out at two thousand teachers, Michael didn’t thank that one heroic teacher who bucked the system. He thanked an entire team of heroic teachers who transformed the system.

That’s the kind of teacher movie I’d like to see.

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