Lessons from Educators on the Big Screen: Part II
For better or worse, films influence people. While known for exaggeration, I do feel like the best-made films contribute something to society at large. In the case of movies where excellence in teaching is the star, there is a lot to be gleaned – whether for first time or veteran teachers.
In part I of this series, I wrote about four inspirational movies that highlight transcendent educators. Today I want look at a few more of my favorites from the big screen and the lessons they teach teachers about their important jobs.
Lean on Me (1989). This is not really about a teacher per se, but about a principal. Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman) comes to save a school about to be taken over by the state. It is run down and full of rebellious and even criminal-minded young people. Joe Clark, the principal with the baseball bat, quickly tries to run the school like some angry but well-meaning despot. At first his teachers are against his methods (and critics of the movie made the same mistake), but as both students and teachers warm up to him, it’s clear that what he is doing is really working.
He does, however, have his enemies; particularly one member of the School Board, who is trying to get him fired. When he is caught chaining the school doors against the fire department’s regulation, he is put in jail, and the School Board convenes a special session to decide if he should be fired. But the students show up in front of the jail en masse and demand his release, which is eventually granted. Immediately after his release, he receives good news; the entire student body has passed the test administered by the state. This movie is yet another shining examples of a dedicated educator who breaks the rules and succeeds precisely for that reason.
Dangerous Minds (1995). This may begin to sound like a litany, but Dangerous Minds is yet another story (based on a true story) involving the dedication of a teacher in an underpriviledged school. Here Michelle Pfeiffer plays the real-life LouAnne Johnson, whose story the movie is based on. Johnson, an ex-Marine, is hired on the spot without really being informed of the kind of class she is to teach. Her students are not interested in learning, are disrespectful and the class is basically in chaos. At first she almost gives up in frustration, but then she decides not to. Once she has made up in her mind that she is going to win over the students, the “battle” begins. Once more, we have a movie about a teacher who breaks as many rules as it takes. In the end, the class is completely won over. In fact, they not only start learning and enjoying it, but they have also come to love and respect their teacher along the way.
Freedom Writers (2007). This is based on another true story. Here Hilary Swank plays the real-life Erin Gruwell. Her dedication also leads to a compassionate understanding of her underprivileged students, and she achieves the ultimate breakthrough when she informs them that they aren’t the first young people besieged by problems. Although she is not permitted to use The Diary of Ann Frank, she does precisely that, at her own expense. She also buys notebooks for her students and encourages them to keep diaries that she would only read if they permitted her to do so. Needless to say, breaking all the rules once more allows her to become an exceptional teacher whom her students come to love.
While I’m not advocating anarchy and chaos in the classroom, all these movies are good at pointing out that you can’t have a great school by making everything and everyone wear the same straitjacket. Rules and regulations are fine, provided that they don’t interfere with the real business of teaching. These fictional and real-life educators got through to their students by leveling with them, by understanding where they come from, and by empathizing with their struggles.