The Heights

I guess movies about teachers are made for people who think they could never be teachers, so that they can imagine how great a challenge  it would be.  Like I would watch a movie about climbing Mount Everest.  Real mountain climbers probably don’t spend a lot of time watching the Discovery Channel, either.  They probably are busy rebandaging the stumps of their amputated toes.

Or maybe I should say, I hope those movies aren’t intended for teachers, because they make this teacher want to board a plane for the south of France and lie on the beach until my money runs out.  I am nothing like those inspirational teachers.  I’d like to be.  Who wouldn’t?  Challenged, celebrated, beloved.

A recent meeting forced me to sit and watch portions of “Stand and Deliver.”  I know this was supposed to help us and inspire us.  But I can be crochety and sensitive, even in the afternoon.

We were told to notice what the teacher did to make his students successful.  All his AP students got 4s and 5s (out of 5) on the Calculus AP Exam, you see, even though they were poor.  Lesson learned: poor kids can achieve, it’s just that their teachers don’t work hard enough and don’t care enough.

My students are socioeconomically and academically poor, and for the last two years, they have mostly gotten 1s on the AP test.  I’ve had a couple of 2s and 3s.  I think I work hard.  I think I care.  I hope their scores will get better as I get more knowledgeable and experienced.

It hurt to watch that stupid movie, though.  Me and my lame little half-wit urban teaching thing.  How well could the kids do when I am sleeping late, writing essays, watching television, and attending parties on the weekend instead of running extra tutoring sessions?

In my saner moments, I think it’s better to have a teacher who is happy and well-balanced than a Type A neurotic lunatic with a one-track mind rabidly chasing one test score.  How can kids know how to lead a balanced life without balanced role models in the community?  But then a silly movie pulls me back into my favorite self-flagellating loop, reinforces the message often sent to teachers.  Work harder.  Care more.

(There are people who are happy to be Type As and use tests scores as motivation without becoming neurotic.  I’m just not one of those people.)

I’ve only seen one movie about teaching that I enjoyed.  I can’t say it will inspire you, particularly.  It does contain some truth about urban schools.  Lots of them are generally calm, happy places.

The grown-ups there are a fascinating collection of idealists who are constantly moving between optimism and despair, depending on the moment.  Many of them have a religious or political inspiration to teach in the city.  Some love a challenge.  And a few are too far outside the box to get hired by a more functional school system– for good or for ill.

The main thing urban teachers have in common is that they are tired, and they are some of the most calm and patient people you have ever met, or else they would have run screaming out the door before October.

The movie I did like is “Half Nelson.”  Now the teacher is a drug addict, which freaks people out,  but I found that reassuring, because while my issues are much less dangerous, I can also be self-destructive.  The “Half Nelson” teacher sometimes shows up at work and his eyes look dead like he just wants to crawl under the table.  But who among us has not shown up at work that way?

That teacher wants to be a good example, a great teacher and role model, but he’s just a human being with some common human problems.  He tries to save other people while he’s trying to save himself.

This is my fifth year teaching at an urban school.  It was always my goal to get through and past five years.  Somewhere I read that only 50% of urban teachers make it past five years.  So I’m almost to the top of my mountain, and I do want to focus more on toe-bandaging than nursing grudges against Hollywood.

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