Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Depictions of Education in Film

Charlotte Williams's picture

Clearly both teachers and public education get a bad rap among many in America. And while defenders often point to unfavorable media coverage and blame by politicians, movie and TV show depictions of education are less frequently cited even though these domains can be hugely influential in forming public opinion. (Documentary films about education are especially trendy right now.)

Apparently Hollywood is irresistibly attracted to the same ideas as Michelle Rhee and many conservative pundits: that education in America can be saved by superhero teachers. In researching movie and TV depictions for this post, I came across many that focus on the messianic teacher who allows his or her students to overcome poverty, lack of parental involvement, disenfranchisement, peer pressure, lack of attention or recognition from other adults, cultural myopia, and a host of other deeply systemic issues. A partial list includes:

  • To Sir with Love,
  • Dangerous Minds
  • Mr. Holland’s Opus
  • The Corn is Green
  • The Miracle Worker
  • A Child is Waiting
  • Fame
  • Dead Poet’s Society
  • Music of the Heart
  • Stand and Deliver
  • Goodbye Mr. Chips
  • The Principal
  • Lean on Me
  • Freedom Writers
  • Mona Lisa Smile
  • High School High
  • 187
  • School of Rock
  • Precious
  • Finding Forrester
  • Blackboard Jungle
  • October Sky
  • Friday Night Lights
  • Remember the Titans
  • Glee

Not to say that these are not worthwhile stories, but they do provide an overwhelming depiction of the teacher-as-savior (even if the teachers are shown to have personal flaws). And ironically, they virtually always cast their teacher hero as one-in-a-million. Let’s consider how such depictions align with current education happenings.

Many political movements gaining momentum disincentivize talented young minds from becoming teachers (including political rhetoric attacking teachers, wage and benefit reductions, standardized testing and inflexible curricula that bar creative freedom, and taking away incentives for professional learning)—the sort of group from which super hero teachers—if they were to exist—would surely come from.  And counter to many of these films, often the most capable teachers avoid high-poverty schools because the obstacles associated with them are so difficult. Indeed, I think reality is more like this: there are great teachers in public education. They can reach, teach, and inspire. But the notion that such teachers can single-handedly push all or even a majority of their students to reach their highest potential despite overwhelming societal systemic problems is both an unrealistic and unfair expectation. And policies that promote that viewpoint have not helped. As Bob Herbert wrote in a recent New York Times article, “The current obsession with firing teachers, attacking unions and creating ever more charter schools has done very little to improve the academic outcomes of poor black and Latino students. Nothing has brought about gains on the scale that is needed.”

Indeed, as I have pointed out before, evidence overwhelming points to poverty and race as huge inhibitors for education, regardless of how stellar teachers are. Far fewer films and shows focus on the uninspiring realities that these constraints are virtually impossible to overcome on a broad scale as things currently stand (a notable exception is season four of HBO’s groundbreaking series The Wire reveals many of the dynamics students, educator, and politicians deal with in inner-city, low income schools). Too bad Hollywood has not been able to provide many other such depictions that might influence the public to look more at these deeper issues, and put less blame on teachers.