by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"The movies are the only business where you can go out front and applaud yourself.".... ....Will Rogers.
Commentary of the Day - February 8, 2007: Movie Star Teachers. Guest commentary by Beverly C. Lucey.
There’s a cliché around that says, "Everyone knows everything about their own business and show business."Also, because most everyone has gone to school, somehow it makes them experts in their own field... and teaching.Another aphorism notes, "Show business is like high school, only with money."I'm no expert on most things these days, as the world gets more bewildering, but I've seen a lot of films with a high school setting and I taught in public high schools for decades. Maybe that gives me a bit of street credibility when I alert the sidewalk superintendents of education, that most people just don't get it when it comes to being good in the classroom, never mind great.
Having just seen Freedom Writers with Hillary Swank, I'd like to toss a few pieces of meat in the stew called education reform.In Freedom Writers, teachers in an affluent white California community seemed to have difficulty dealing with 'school choice' students who came to class with more baggage than a cell phone and an iPod. In the film, at least, it appeared that veteran teachers did not want to teach them. As a result, a brand new teacher was sent into the fifth circle of Hell (wrath and sullenness) to flounder and fail. She didn't fail, of course. She didn't give up. Sure, it's a movie, but it's based on a real person's experience, just like the teacher in Stand and Deliver. These things happen. Magic can happen in the classroom as much as mayhem. I've seen it; I've lived it.The first important issue that arises, however, is why do so many schools in so many places give the least experienced teachers to disaffected learners? In Freedom Writers, the representative of this method of assignment was embodied in a man who taught the honors juniors and seniors. He said he had worked hard, put in his time, and therefore deserved to have a schedule of the best and the brightest. I saw this placement practice in action when I supervised practice teachers for a college education department in the Greater Atlanta area. Veteran teachers were rewarded with electives, AP classes, and junior and senior students -- which often also meant smaller classes. New teachers were assigned a full schedule of overcrowded, undermotivated students. Often, the laggards and ignored dropped out or disappeared by sophomore year. Some students were encouraged to leave before 10th grade standardized testing made their school look like one that was failing. "Darius, Marisol, you can repeat 9th grade, or find something better to do with your time in the real world." Thus do scores of some schools not reflect success.When I taught high school, it was our department policy to balance teachers' assignments by student age and ability level. We could trade off course sections to play to our strengths among ourselves, but in general, all of us taught all age levels as well as remedial, general, and accelerated students in a four year high school.The second important issue plaguing public high school education, is assuming that the fallacy of either/or is at play. Either we equip all our students with college prep materials aiming toward university as a goal, or we are lowering standards and baby sitting clumps of kids who don't care.Here is where standardized testing sticks in my craw, and the present definition of high standards becomes absurd. Not for one second do I think that students are not to be held accountable for their own actions, attitudes, and futures. But to ignore the variety of learning styles people have, the reality of student lives outside the classroom, and the role our 'general population' will have as consumers, citizens, and people of character in the future is folly. Of course being able to read and reason is crucial. The methods and materials available to help students with these skills are infinite. Requiring everyone to read The Scarlet Letter or Hamlet is a mighty small definition of what's good for the 'educated populace' we need, to assure the continued greatness of our country. For all the bitching and moaning about crummy public schools for the last thirty years, please explain why our workforce is one of the most productive in the world, both hourly and salaried. We work harder and longer. It seems the work ethic is alive and well. About half the jobs require some use of a computer. That's quite a sea change in required skills over the last twenty years, and apparently employees of all ages have adapted. Next, tell me, why one type of test, with bubbles and #2 pencils reveals whether a school, a teacher, a classroom has made strides appropriate to the needs of the community and a student’s own personal goals. Instead we cut art, music, technical drawing, theater programs, world languages, vocational opportunities -- anything but sports.The last important issue for people who go to the movies, and think they understand what it's like to be a teacher, is the reality of time management. When I watch Dead Poet’s Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, and today, Freedom Writers, I am moved to tears with the knowledge that a teacher can make a real difference in students' lives. The latter three films are based on true stories. I know those stories are true elsewhere, and most teachers could tell you some. But at what cost? In the films, teachers are either single or have sacrificed their personal lives to be there for the kids. Husbands and wives of these dedicated people do not want to hear about students all the time, or give up week nights to a spouse correcting or planning -- for the kids, for the kids. The Patrick Dempsey character, Swank's husband, says something like, 'This isn’t what I signed on for. I just don't care about people as much as you do."When I taught high school I had kids over for dinner, took them to plays, read their journals, started a writer's group, picked up one girl each morning for a month who was about to get tossed out for truancy, and visited them in psych wards. I also went through a couple of husbands.Now, consider the following question.If everyone of those public school teachers had a typical schedule, such as Ms. G in Freedom Writers -- "Five sections of freshman English, 125 students" -- where were the other four sections of equally deserving kids while our movie teachers gave up their Saturdays tutoring and fundraising for their single showcased class? I know where they were. Outside, in the halls, slamming their locker doors, kissing someone, punching someone else, and heading for their next class. English. Mine. Me? Five shows a day, five days a week. It's not the movies. And it’s certainly not like show business. In show business, there's money.
© 2007, Beverly C. Lucey
Beverly Carol Lucey is a freelance writer who teaches writing and communication at the University of Central Arkansas.
The IP comments: Beverly hits the nail on the head. Neither combat nor teaching are as easy in real life as the movies might make it appear.