Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Annoying Depictions of Teaching by Movies/Television

Here are a few depictions of teaching that I find annoying!

Just make it relevant
I feel like this comes up a lot. As if teachers have never thought of this. But not only do teachers try to do this as much as possible, it is quite difficult to pull off on an everyday basis and with some subjects, maybe impossible. The depiction of this that first comes to my mind is from "The Wire." I loved this series, but I couldn't help but laugh at how Prez wins over his class. In the show, Prez has left the police force to try inner-city teaching. He notices that many of the students play a dice game outside of school and decides to use it as way to teach probability.

This doesn't seem so ridiculous at first glance. But having taught probability, I know that it is not so simple. Most games that people play are actually ridiculously complicated mathematically. The curriculum I used did have a game we did; they moved left on a game board left for even results and right for odd results. When you had them multiply the rolls, this resulted in more moves to the left than they expected. This was a good activity and they did like rolling dice, but they would have never played this outside of school. BECAUSE IT ACTUALLY WASN'T THAT FUN. It also lasted two days versus the months it appears Prez had for his kids to roll dice.

It's too easy and boring
This was not a big part of the movie at all, but near the end of "Sideways" Paul Giamatti's character returns to his middle school English teaching job. In one scene they show him just sitting at his desk while his students quietly work; it's meant to be an example of how underused his intellect is. This scene should have made me angry, due to its patronizing attitude towards my profession. Instead, I found myself rapt with jealousy, thinking, "I wish my students would just sit quietly and work." The writer of this screenplay has clearly not been around hormonal teenagers in a while. Yes, I encouragement movement and come up with a variety of activities each class because it's good teaching. But it's also because THEY HAVE ATTENTION SPANS OF 1 MINUTE. I also try to have group and interactive aspects to my lessons since I think they learn better that way. But I also do it because THEY CANNOT KEEP THEIR MOUTHS QUIET.

You must break the mold
There are also lots of movies where a teacher strolls into a school and through toughness, wackiness, passion, having high expectations, or connecting they are able to reach their students ("Dangerous Minds," "Stand and Deliver," Mr. Holland's Opus," etc). These movies are not insulting per se; they definitely show that teaching can be a complex and difficult job. In other ways though they are more dangerous. They give off the impression that the only way to be successful is to be different from everyone else. And that it's more about effort than the actual skill of teaching (which can be learned). I think new teachers often come in with a "Lone Wolf" attitude and kind of look down on veteran teachers for being in the system. Actually, new teachers would do much better if they paid more attention to what the veteran teachers are doing (which really shouldn't be a surprising thing to say).

At least I would have. When I started teaching I thought I could succeed if I tried hard, cared about my students, did things in a unique way, and understood where they were coming from. Soon (well after two totally disastrous years of chaotic misery for everyone involved), I realized it was actually more important to be clear, create structure, and not get pulled into the emotional ups and downs inherent to this job. I realize that doesn't make good fodder for movies, but it's true. I, of course, also want to connect to my students and do unique lessons. And that actually became easier to do once I had a controlled classroom and knew how to construct a lesson that was actually good (versus sounding good).

All that being said, I don't think teachers are the only ones consistently misrepresented. (It is fiction after all.) I mentioned this subject to a principal, who laughed, and challenged me to find one movie where a principal actually wanted students to learn. And I have to think that police must be tired of violent interrogation scenes being the norm. Even parenting depictions could use some work in the realism department. My wife and I, when we were parents of newborns, couldn't believe how almost every baby on a show just sat there and slept. Maybe that has something to do with people denigrating moms who stay home? In the end, they are just movies, but I do worry that if an incorrect depiction is repeated enough, it starts to become what people expect when they do those jobs for real.

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