What the movies don’t tell you about teaching

I want you to get this straight! Most of the teachers here are here because they care! About those children out there! This school, this fight, they are in it with you! They take it home at night, the same as you! They are a part of those children’s lives!

– Ms. Levias, Lean on Me.

 

I love movies about teachers, especially ones where a hard-as-nails group of good-for-nothing reprobates realise their potential under an educator whose tough love shows them the value of discipline, hard work and camaraderie. Admittedly, once you’ve seen one film in this genre you don’t need to see the rest as they are overly formulaic to the point of being the film equivalent of a paint-by-numbers colouring in book. That said, I am always touched by the dramatic moment when the most troubled teen makes a public declaration of support and love to the teacher.

 

I’m watching Coach Carter with my year 12s at the moment and this scene comes when the player who has struggled the most (on and off the court) stands and recites an abridged version of Marianne Williamson’s “Our Greatest Fear”.

our-deepest-fear

 

It’s tear jerking stuff.

 

 

I’ve been teaching for 12 years; I’ve had my “O Captain! My Captain!” moment (literally) and, while my unorthodox teaching methods are more likely to draw comparisons with Dead Poets Society’s John Keating, I was inspired by the Dangerous Minds and To Sir With Love idea of improving the lives of those who really need it.

 

Female Student: “Why do you care anyway? You just here for the money.”

LouAnne: “Because I make a choice to care. And honey, the money ain’t that good.”

– Dangerous Minds.

 

I can’t be the teacher I thought I would be.

 

This isn’t “I can’t” in the sense that I lack the professional knowledge or nous to teach a class of ‘dropkicks’ nor is it “I can’t” as a cop-out meaning “I won’t”. I can’t be that teacher because it is physically and emotionally impossible to maintain.

 

I care for my students. I care for many of the individuals I have had the pleasure to teach. But, I can’t care for every individual student who enters my classroom. I know this because I have tried. Tried and failed. I have driven myself to the point of physical exhaustion, to the point that I would have crippling stomach pains and overly emotional reactions to minor issues. Despite the exhaustion I wouldn’t sleep because I was constantly planning for and reflecting on every minute of each day. I have taught THAT class, where the only person the students had in their lives that cared for them was me. I taught them, fought the system and faced the criticism of my colleagues while doing so. And then I drew a line.

 

One of the sayings I’ve latched on to, and I don’t know where I picked it up from, is that you have to treat things as though you are on a plane about to crash. When you listen to the safety spiel at the start of each flight you are always told to affix your oxygen mask before assisting anyone else with theirs, even if that someone else is your child or partner. Why? Because you are no good to anyone when you’re dead. Parenting manuals advocate for this approach too. To a lesser extent, so too do Snickers’ commercials. When you are tired/sick/emotional/hungry (and so on) you do not perform at optimal levels. So, if you want to be effective in the classroom you have to look after yourself first. And, one of the ways you can do this is to re-evaluate how you measure success.

 

The problem isn’t the kids. It’s not even what they can achieve. The problem is what you expect them to achieve.

– Ron Clark, The Ron Clark Story.

 

I can’t care for every student. I can dangle a carrot and/or wave a big stick but I don’t have the time nor inclination to sit with each student and ensure they are doing their work. This isn’t written with a secret agenda to lower class sizes, that would help in some instances but academic success for all is not achievable through any one simple act. Lower class sizes can’t improve attendance, decrease drug and alcohol use or change social/cultural attitudes towards education. I only have limited impact in that sphere too. I have data that shows I’ve had a positive influence on my students but I see them four hours a week – that’s 4 lessons out of the 25 they have on their timetable.

 

I can’t care for every student, mostly because it’s not fair. I don’t know, maybe I’m using the word care incorrectly. What I’m saying sounds pretty harsh but I’ll try and unpack it further. In one of my current classes I have half of the students achieving B grades or better, some students on C grades and a handful of them not passing. Of the students currently failing I CAN help some of them turn their fortunes around but there are three who probably won’t pass even with my intervention. Two of these are because their attendance is so poor I simply won’t have enough opportunities to assist them. I can’t let this get to me, their failure is not a reflection of my abilities or efforts in the classroom. The other student is a regular attendee but he is in class in body only. This student will only work under close supervision and in order for him to pass I would have to sacrifice time spent improving the educational outcomes of the other students in the class. Is that student more important than his peers? Is his potential C worth more than other students’ potential B and A grades? No. One student cannot be seen to be of more value than any other – imagine asking a parent to devote their attention to one child at the expense of their other children. So, if that student chooses not to make an effort to improve on his academic standing during the times he doesn’t have my undivided attention, I can’t let bring me down either.

 

Then there are the classes where next to no one is passing. I had one last year, a class of the lowest achieving students deliberately put together through a streaming process. If the class is ‘destined’ to fail when I am given them, why should I have an emotional reaction if that eventuates? So much of the education system appears designed to limit student success. Curriculum overhauls pitch assessments (including externally set exams and common assessment tasks) at a higher level than many of the students appear capable of understanding – and a science colleague recently said their yearly curriculum has 18 months of content in it. Furthermore, in WA we have an online test where failure prevents students from graduating. Tragically, the students who need to experience success (those who speak English as a second language, have some form of disability and/or come from low socioeconomic backgrounds) are the most disadvantaged. While I might be saddened by their situation, I can’t let their lack of academic success impact on my job satisfaction.

 

“I took this job because I wanted to effect change in a special group of young men, and this is the only way I know how to do that.”

– Ken Carter, Coach Carter.

 

I can’t care for every student. That doesn’t mean I’m not doing my best in the classroom. It doesn’t mean that I don’t value each student as human beings with great potential. It just means that I won’t let their academic progress be my only measuring stick. I don’t (and won’t) care what grade they get, I judge my effectiveness across a variety of criteria and few of those are found on standardised tests. A person’s attitude towards school and education is influenced by a number of factors. It takes a village to raise a child and I’m just one of the idiots.

 

Besides:

I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.

– John Keating, Dead Poets Society.

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “What the movies don’t tell you about teaching

  1. So well written. I second the motion …. affix own oxygen mask first.

    One of my motivations for teaching ….. as a kid I got to see “To Sir, with love”. The song still echos in my head, and the ex students I meet are a constant reward.

    Liked by 1 person

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