UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Lights, camera, teach!

“Oh, Captain, my Captain.”

In 1989, those words launched a thousand teaching careers. The movie was Dead Poets Society, the star was Robin Williams, and the quote – from a Walt Whitman poem eulogizing Abraham Lincoln – was the dramatic high point of the classic inspirational teacher movie. That beloved genre, filled with heartwarming stories of passionate educators guiding reluctant young people to academic success and self-discovery, is a time-honored institution in film and television.

The primary draw of these movies is the shared common experience of viewers. Everyone has a favorite teacher, and most people have a story about one who made a difference, opened their minds, turned them around, and even changed their life. We all have that one class, that one year, that one teacher, that one moment which is an indelible and heartwarming memory to share. And that’s one key reason the inspirational teacher story is so popular and is remade so many times.

The earliest on-screen version of this familiar story is probably Goodbye, Mr. Chips, first made in 1939 and remade in 1969. The next two most well-known versions of onscreen teacher heroes both featured Sydney Poitier. In 1955, he starred as a tough kid and reluctant, rebellious student in the Bronx who is ultimately inspired by the tough love of his teacher. Poitier returned to the genre at the front of the classroom in 1967 as the tough love teacher who brings a group of British hooligans to education and maturity through self respect in the classic To, Sir, with Love.

The 1980s and 90s can be considered the Golden Age of the great teacher film with a seemingly endless string of heroic public servants inspiring groups of ambivalent and rebellious youth through a mixture of tough love, witty banter, and mutual respect. From Richard Dreyfus finding his true calling as a music teacher, not a musician, in Mr. Holland’s Opus to Michelle Pfeiffer and Hillary Swank playing the savior teacher to inner city youth in Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers, every year seemed to produce another rendition of the same old story. And the inspirational, but often wise-cracking, teacher hero is not just on the big screen. Going back to the 1970s, television has seen numerous iterations of the hero Welcome back Kotter to Abbot Elementary. 

The primary problem with the classic teacher movie is a predictable formula based on false narratives and unrealistic expectations. The teacher wins over a bunch of disengaged, unmotivated kids and inspires them to love learning and excel in a very short time. That’s true even when the films are based on true stories, as in Stand and Deliver, where it appears the teacher Jaime Escalante takes a group of underprivileged students with no math background, and in one year inspires them to take and pass the AP Calculus exam. In fact, Escalante built his program over many years with students who’d shown an aptitude but had never felt they belonged in the class.

In Dead Poets Society the students are urged to “seize the day” and “make their lives extraordinary,” but writer Elizabeth Grace Mathew suggests “the boys were actually thriving before Mr. Keating got there.” They were, in their own small ways, rebelling as all adolescents do, but still achieving. Their inspirational teacher actually leads them to tragic results. In a New York Times column, teacher Tom Ford cautioned viewers that “It’s as if all the previously insurmountable obstacles students face could be erased by a 10-minute pep talk. This trivializes not only the difficulties many real students must overcome, but also the hard-earned skill and tireless effort real teachers must use to help those students succeed.”

The inspirational teacher stereotype has even been held up to brilliant mockery in films like Bad Teacher starring Cameron Diaz as the title character who is motivated to push her students to success on state tests simply to fund her breast implants, which she hopes will win her a wealthy husband so she can quit the job she actually hates. In an article for The Atlantic, writer Eleanor Barkhorn actually praises Bad Teacher as “Finally, a film that takes down the destructive myth of the hero instructor.”

There is much we can learn and be inspired by through fictional teachers in film and television. There are also many destructive myths and misleading assumptions rooted in the inspirational teacher story. So, keeping in mind that these stories are first and foremost simply entertainment, we should all remember it’s never as simple as Lights, Camera, Teach!

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com