How Teaching Movies Fail Me

Teaching movies suffer just like all movies do from weak actors, murky cinematography, and didactic, lazy writing. I’d argue that teaching movies hold a lower batting average than most, but you’d call me fussy, so I’ll note, instead, two extremely specific, substantive ways teaching movies fail me:

  1. Wrongheaded pedagogy. In The Wire we’re meant to smile when Prez cancels literature review (boring!) for another lesson loosely connecting gambling to math (fun!).

    Or in another episode, when Bunny Colvin creates a separate class for a group of unruly kids, the sole purpose of which is socialization, because, paraphrased, “they can’t learn.”

    Or Chalk, which propagates the philosophy that students oughtta do the teacher’s job.

    Or Freedom Writers, whose failings are notorious around here.

    When these films and programs speak truth to the reality of teaching in America, it’s often accidental. More often than not, they do us some terrible PR, depicting this job for bystanders and prospective teachers as something it isn’t.

  2. Noxious pandering. Call it the “Oh Captain, My Captain” moment, endemic to the genre, which pits an unctuous, narrowminded dean …

    … against a beneficent but unconventional teacher …

    … with a bunch of disadvantaged doe-eyed students between them. And it’s like, how do you think a situation that contrived is gonna turn out?

    Every time this sequence shows up (usually within the last reel) I feel like a stranger has started massaging my back. I don’t need that.

Mr. K

My question, then, is whether there are any depictions of teaching you find worthwhile, or whether you’d relegate everything to the same trashheap as Kindergarden Cop?

I have found the most interesting depictions of teaching in movies and tv wholly unconcerned with teaching.

As in The Wire, which depicts Carver’s transformation from an overbearing, self-important cop to a community police who knows where the kids hang out, who motivates, talks to, and looks after young offenders instead of writing up their every humble misdemeanorIf TMAO doesn’t watch The Wire, he oughtta., who believes, paraphrased, that “until the bracelets fit, there’s still room for talking.”

Or in The Office, which on a weekly basis speaks more truth to the exigencies of befriending, interacting with, and motivating your subordinates than any teaching movie I’ve ever watched.

None of this is to say I hated Chalk. I don’t know if its wisdom was entirely intentional but one short scene involving a stolen box of chalk warrants an entire graduate seminar of its ownEducation deans & conference organizers: you know where to find me..

I’m certain, though, that teaching lends itself poorly to dramatization. Our triumphs are often ephemeral – here and gone again – and sometimes exist only in the hindsight of an appreciative former student. The work isn’t cinematic – we aren’t piloting X-Wings into the Death Star here – and it’s often an interior, intellectual pursuit.

Why, then, do we insist on dramatizing a profession which defies dramatization?

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. [raises hand so teacher type will call on him]

    “Ah. Ah. Can I be excused for, like, ah, ah, an hour?”

    [waits as teacher cocks head to the side and sorta raises eyebrow in that please-continue sort of way]

    “Ah, I’d like to, ah, ah, like, ah, ah, like, give away my “Dead Poets Society” t-shirt to Goodwill. Can I leave now?”

    [manages to leave the classroom before emotionally spiited soundtrack can catch up and the camera can pan back to allow the audience’s eyes to raise a triumphant Mr.-Chips-Against-The-World fist in the air]

  2. Thanks for the response, dan.

    I suspect it’s kind of like my hang up about computer geekery portrayed in movies: the culture around it can be interesting, but the actual coding and development (even for malware, aka “hacking”) is too tedious to ever be portrayed realistically. It’s much easier to provide a flashy looking body double for the real thing, since 98% of the people watching couldn’t tell the difference.

    Why, then, do we insist on dramatizing a profession which defies dramatization?

    America does love its heros. The educational system has been portrayed as on the brink of failure, so I suppose that it seems natural to develop hero rescue fantasies around it.

  3. Here’s the thing I wonder about teaching movies: Do folks in other professions have negative reactions to how their jobs are protrayed in movies? Do firefighters support Backdraft? How do convenience store clerks feel about Clerks? Do Navy SEALs like Navy SEALs?

    I’m down with The Wire. Have not watched season 4, however, the one most salient to my profession. Kinda hesitant. Like, I teach in the “ghetto,” some of my former kids are in jail, some of them have been murdered, shit’s fucked up — do I want to watch dramaticizations of such things in the name of entertainment? I don’t know.

    [There was not one single assertion in this comment.]

  4. There’s a brilliant bit with Seinfeld teaching a history class. I think one of the writers had to have substituted taught at least once.

    TMAO, to answer your question, partly:

    My forensics-job wife likes to watch CSI, but says they have “the Easy Button”. She also gets annoyed whenever someone on a show uses a GCMS wrong.

    My police-now-retired father likes Law and Order (in all incarnations), but hates cops-as-buffoon portrayals.

    I don’t think we can learn anything from those two examples other than we aren’t going to easily be able to make generalizations.

  5. I’m not quite sure what everyone is fussing about.

    Everything on TV or in the movies is dead-on balls accurate.

    I learned how to teach from the Mystics in the Dark Crystal.

    I learned how to perform complex medical procedures from watching House.

    I learned how to travel on 40 dollars thanks to Rachel Ray.

    I learned how to avoid sounding ‘pitchy’ from Randy Jackson.

    I learned how to handle intractable children from Judging Amy.

    I learned how to parent from Everybody Loves Raymond.

    You’ve learned all this too, right???

    We’re talking about movies and tv, right?

    Or, as usual, am I missing something on this one?

    Probably. But I gotta go, Regis and Kelly are on.

  6. Stand and Deliver? Are you people kidding me? That was 1988. Pretty sure I wasn’t even born then.

    Okay, so I saw it a long time ago, so long I didn’t feel comfortable introducing it into the post proper. All I remember, in fact, is Edward James Olmos collapsing and falling down a flight of stairs. Which kinda strikes me as par for the teaching movie course.

    I mean, Jaime Escalante did some fantastic stuff, no doubt, but we’re talking about creativity and perserverance, primarily, neither of which are very cinematic attributes.

    So you overdramatize. Instead of some rowdy bangers, you have the freaking teen slum lord of South Central sitting in the back row. Instead of an intrusive, useless administration you have completely antagonistic dictators. Instead of a strained, joyless family life, you have husband and wife screaming at each, throwing perishable items against walls, and divorcing, in the case of Freedom Writers.

    And you have Edward James Olmos falling down a flight of stairs.

    None of this is to suggest these tragedies don’t afflict teachers, that they aren’t real, but to see all of them in the same movie, as is par for the teaching movie course, beggars belief.

  7. @Jeff, the kids in these junk genre films aren’t necessarily disadvantaged economically. In DPS, the kids are instructionally disadvantaged, learning about poetry on an x- and y-axis from Pritchard, etc.

    @TMAO, point taken, but The Wire has rarely struck me as entertainment.

    @Benjamin, these movies aren’t even that profitable. They rarely win awards (can’t recall any since S&D) and they’re usually dumped off in early January alongside Saw VII.

    They’re only around ’cause @Christian’s a sucker for ’em. Which, hey, I mean, that’s cool. Everyone’s got their thing.

  8. Mean Girls gets my vote for favorite movie about high school (if not teaching per se). And yes, I’m lesson planning to chick flicks this year. They don’t require thought to follow them.

  9. We’re stretching the def’n of “teaching movie” pretty hard if we’re including any movie set in a school.

    But Tina Fey did lend dignity to the job, so nice call.

  10. That group of kids who are removed from the general ed. class in The Wire are not removed because they can’t learn. They’re removed because they have deeper, urgent needs that need to be addressed in both an immediate and temporary fashion within the constraints of the school day. You might not be in the best position to learn standardized test prep (not exactly “Literature Review”) if you are a -60 on Maslow’s hierarchy. Yes, I just made up -60 in reference to the hierarchy, but you get my point.

  11. Alright, shit, so ya got me on lit review, but I’m shorthanding here. Tilghman Middle is a surprisingly didactic place (given the rest of The Wire‘s run) where mindless test prep (in which eighth grade essay questions involve Greek mythology!) is positioned as the only alternative to Colvin’s Finishing School For Corner Boys.

    And all I’m saying is, nine cases out of ten, “these kids can’t learn,” is equivalent to, “that teacher can’t teach.”

  12. Er…two years ago New York State’s *6th* grade English exam involved several heavily weighted questions on Greek mythology/fable.

    I agree w/ your overall film critique, but the mindlessness of Prez’ prep does not seem to be wildly exaggerated.

    (Were you saying something earlier about shitty content standards?)

  13. Glad I found your blog!

    You forgot my favorite teacher movie theme: White woman saves urban children with revolutionary teaching method, such as listening to them or doing a home visit.

    And there’s always the teacher inspires kids to Dance-Away-Socioeconomic-Struggle theme!

    With that said, the documentary Mad, Hot, Ballroom was adorable and inspirational. The remake with Antonio Banderras made me want to throw up.

  14. @Rebecca, yeah, that one’s shown up more than once, hasn’t it?

    These tropes get even scarier when you glance backward in the theater and watch all the teachers just eating them up along with the popcorn. What does that mean?

  15. What does that mean?

    I think it means that a lot of teachers are desperate for validation. Low wages, media and political bashing, stuck between administrators and parents, there isn’t a whole lot of positive feedback for a lot of them. Being able to get that, even vicariously, is probably a great relief for some.

    I find this manifests itself when I see teachers asking to be treated professionally. I spent decades working professionally, and what that meant was that you were in a dog eat dog world where you’d get your butt handed to you on a plate if you didn’t perform at the top of the group.

    As little as I think the rest of the world understands teaching sometimes, I’m also afraid that our teachers don’t have a great grasp on how a lot of the business world works – I’m not sure they’re the best to prepare our kids to go out and deal with that.

    Whoops – sorry about that. I had no idea I was going to rant on this.