I watched Freedom Writers two weeks ago and have tried, since then, to graft several different structures to a post which has pitilessly rejected each of them.
There was the drinking game. I had the first rule:
Whenever anyone affirms the heroism, nobility, passion, or self-abnegation of the teacher, take a drink.
I quit that, however, when it became clear I'd be legally blitzed by the first reel change.
Around the same time Erin Gruwell's staunchly disapproving father (played by Scott Glenn) at long last affirmed her career choice, I felt it would be interesting and appropriate to compare the intentions of pornography vis-à-vis those of Freedom Writers but after the final fade I felt too flattened and too earnest for anything so closely resembling glibness.
From a moviegoing perspective, Freedom Writers is merely average. It sticks resolutely to the biopic formula, constructing villains out of cardboard (a snarling department head; a racist honors teacher) and a protagonist out of porcelain, all while ladling on the hero worship. If you stripped away the relentlessly hagiographic dialogue — students worshipping teachers, teachers worshipping students, Holocaust survivors worshipping students worshipping them right back — you'd have about twenty seconds of mid-shelf rap. If I weren't a teacher, Freedom Writers would've bored me.
But I am a teacher, which intensified my reaction. My screening of Freedom Writers coincided poorly with some events online the sum effect of which has left me drifting detached from my job and my colleagues, both online and off-.
At one point in the movie, as the going is just getting tough, Gruwell's father tells her, "No matter what, you've got to remember, it's just a job. If you're not right for this one, get another job." Swank stares back at him with the patronizing half-smile usually kept on layaway for the harmlessly insane.
Gruwell (at least as portrayed in the movie) sees her job as a calling and a mission. She sees herself as a caregiver and a friend. She rebukes the racist honors teacher, accusing him, "You don't even like them!"
He responds stiffly (the preferred manner of cardboard villains), "What does that have to do with teaching?"
She hosts dance parties and referees self-actualizing games designed to connect students to themselves and each other. She touches a student's face affectionately. More to the movie's point, she commands her students to introspect, to journal, to write about anything they want.
It is my conviction that all of these caring strategies are good means (except for the affectionate touch), but none of them should be the ends of teaching. These are all good things, and the best teaching will inevitably subsume these lower levels of Maslow, but none of them should be the goal of teaching.
The fact that MTV portrays these caring strategies as Erin Gruwell's means, end, aim, and goal, while relegating grammar, syntax, and vocabulary instruction to a one-line mention, depresses me even weeks later. Because, let's be clear, in a culture where the consumer is king, we can only blame MTV so much for representing one over the other. This is how the movie-going public and, more to the point, how teachers want our job portrayed. MTV is merely the closest reflective surface.
I wish I could relate, I do, but I'm with Scott Glenn: this is just a job.
It's an unromantic sentiment that'll never find traction in a group that obsessively cultivates its image as self-sacrificing, difference-making caregivers. But if I could print any slogan on a mug to get me through an eighteen-hour day, it'd be those five words.
This is just a job.
This is just a job, which means my objective has been well-defined, though we may disagree on how best to measure it. This is just a job, which means I was hired to teach students a particular skillset.
There isn't any romance in my objective and MTV will never make a movie about really effective phonics instruction, but there is extraordinary, enduring value in effective phonics instruction, in learning, in breaking life's possibilities wide open for students by teaching. There it is: I have been hired to teach. Any inspiring, difference-making, role-modeling, surrogate-fathering, or dance-partying is strictly incidental.
I don't mean to set up this false dichotomy between teaching and caring. Both happen in the same practice; both are essential. But teachers — or rather, Teachers, by which I mean my union proper, the blogosphere in general, and my co-workers in particular — have emphasized caring over teaching. Teachers continuously fail to differentiate us from well-educated au pairs, as evidenced and perpetuated by Freedom Writers' very existence.
Again: teaching and caring (passion, if you want) are inextricably linked.
But: only one of them is difficult.
It is easy for me to greet my students warmly at the door each day, to ask after the trivial travails of their lives, to follow up on that girl who dumped you or the parents who grounded you for missing cheer practice. It is easy for me to bake cookies, cancel class, and dance.
Caring — like the kind bound up in Erin Gruwell's dance party — is the easiest part of my job. Caring — like the laundry service Prezbo gave Duquan in The Wire — should be the least of our obsessions. Caring — sadly — is how the majority of my co-workers and co-bloggers have framed the objectives of our job. Caring — depressingly — is how our taxpaying public sees the extent of our duties and — predictably — determines our pay and esteem.
Caring is easy. Keeping students engaged and operating at full capacity over a two-hour block is difficult. Serving every student the highly specific smoothie of success and failure — just enough success to encourage them, just enough failure to challenge them — is difficult. Making the leap from single-variable equations to two-variables without losing anybody is frighteningly difficult. (Three years and three tries and I still haven't found the right inroad.)
All this talk about caring and the intangibles of our job — cf. Freedom Writers and nine out of ten blog posts on the state of teaching — distracts from and lowers the bar on the matters of teaching truly worth discussing, namely: how to teach.
I have found my co-workers and co-bloggers depressingly singleminded on the subject of our objectives and deeply protective of their identities as passionate caregivers. So much so that a conversation on the PR and terminology of teaching simply cannot be had, even on one of the most evenhanded blogs in the sphere.
Immediately after watching Freedom Writers, I happened upon yet another blatant misinterpretation of this position and realized that just how little I relate to my co-workers and -bloggers. I wrote there:
In my workplace and around the blogosphere, I find teachers eagerly propagating the nobility of the teacher, the tragic, underappreciated condition of the teacher, the passion of the teacher, the artistry of the teacher, and then going the extra mile to misconstrue and marginalize my outlying objection to what I perceive to be a pervasive complex of martyrdom.
Likewise above, I can count on one hand the number of educators I've met (in real life or around here) who believe that hard work trumps passion in this job, that the latter follows the former, that caring's the easy part, that "passion" has become loosely defined through overuse. And even then I'd have three fingers I wouldn't know what to do with.
More and more, I find myself approaching this job so differently from my co-workers and co-bloggers, which wouldn't be so bad if both groups didn't find it so easy to marginalize my entire raison d'être. It's not you guys who need to change, though, it's me. You all need me a helluva lot less than I need some connection to you. Just the same, I only have so much stomach for this kind of detachment. Two years worth, tops.
In the intervening days since that comment, I haven't been able to think of a job I'd rather do than teaching. I'll quit blogging before I quit teaching. I'll make a lateral step to teacher education or research or — I dunno — administration, maybe, before I quit teaching. But I can no longer ignore the importance of a likeminded, likewise-driven professional corps.
I took a field trip last week to a program improvement school whose faculty has been set ablaze by data collection, benchmarks now informing and motivating some enthusiastic and effective instruction. Maybe that's the environment for me. I only know that it's corrosive — on a day-to-day, post-to-post basis — to teach while feeling like the harmlessly insane.