Teachers and Class in Popular Culture

In today’s New York Times, Tom Moore, a high school teacher, writes an opinion piece about the distortions inherent in movies like the recent Freedom Writers. He writes:

Films like “Freedom Writers” portray teachers more as missionaries than professionals, eager to give up their lives and comfort for the benefit of others, without need of compensation. Ms. Gruwell sacrifices money, time and even her marriage for her job.

Her behavior is not represented as obsessive or self-destructive, but driven — necessary, even. She is forced into making these sacrifices by the aggressive neglect of the school’s administrators, who won’t even let her take books from the bookroom. The film applauds Ms. Gruwell’s dedication, but also implies that she has no other choice. In order to be a good teacher, she has to be a hero.

“Freedom Writers,” like all teacher movies this side of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” is presented as a celebration of teaching, but its message is that poor students need only love, idealism and martyrdom.

I talk often with the teachers I teach about the popular portrayals of teachers in the media, about the inherent contradictions between the mythology of “hero amongst the rabble” and a more systemic understanding of the reforms that will be necessary to make schools work for poor and working class kids.

For a class taught by one of my colleagues, they read Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, and many are quite simply overwhelmed as first encounter the gross inequities in U.S. public schooling. I want my colleague to push them further, however, because as they grapple with reconciling their initial belief in schools as essentially good places for kids with the conditions they read about in Kozol, they almost inevitably settle on one central image: that of the Chicago teacher with the rocking chair in her classroom who loves her students and works impossible hours to make them and their families welcome in her classroom.

This is who they want to be.

This is a powerful image of a teacher making the best of impossible conditions.

And I get mostly blank stares when I ask my students why this terrific teacher should have to put up with the conditions within which she works in the first place.

For many, their decisions to teach are shaped by films like Freedom Writers. They’ll be the One True caring teacher, and their students will grasp their ankles begging for more at the end of each class section.

I work hard with them to press the questions of whether, in the long run, poor and working class kids might not be better served by schools populated by an entire teaching staff that had the resources and support to do their jobs well.

I want my students to become heroic teachers. I want them to have models of heroism beyond the solo, self-sacrificing, teacher whose self-identity depends at least in part on maintaining smug distance from one’s colleagues.

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