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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Writing off the Freedom Writers

A bitter op-ed in the NY Times earlier this month argues against hagiographic films like Freedom Writers that glorify teachers. Tom Moore, a 10th grade teacher in the Bronx, points out that it will take more than the earnestness and consuming dedication of a few young teachers to fix our education system.
...the most dangerous message such films promote is that what schools really need are heroes. This is the Myth of the Great Teacher.

Films like “Freedom Writers” portray teachers more as missionaries than professionals, eager to give up their lives and comfort for the benefit of others, without need of compensation. Ms. Gruwell sacrifices money, time and even her marriage for her job.

Her behavior is not represented as obsessive or self-destructive, but driven — necessary, even. She is forced into making these sacrifices by the aggressive neglect of the school’s administrators, who won’t even let her take books from the bookroom. The film applauds Ms. Gruwell’s dedication, but also implies that she has no other choice. In order to be a good teacher, she has to be a hero.

“Freedom Writers,” like all teacher movies this side of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” is presented as a celebration of teaching, but its message is that poor students need only love, idealism and martyrdom.
...
Every year young people enter the teaching profession hoping to emulate the teachers they’ve seen in films. (Maybe in the back of my mind I felt that I could be an inspiring teacher like Howard Hesseman or Gabe Kaplan.) But when you’re confronted with the reality of teaching not just one class of misunderstood teenagers (the common television and movie conceit) but four or five every day, and dealing with parents, administrators, mentors, grades, attendance records, standardized tests and individual education plans for children with learning disabilities, not to mention multiple daily lesson plans — all without being able to count on the support of your superiors — it becomes harder to measure up to the heroic movie teacher you thought you might be.

It’s no surprise that half the teachers in poor urban schools, like Erin Gruwell herself, quit within five years. (Ms. Gruwell now heads a foundation.)
Several teachers wrote in to the Times to share their experiences and, for the most part, to echo Moore's indignation.

For my part, I worked for three years at an afterschool program teaching public high school students in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and I know I want to teach in the future. But there is little incentive to do so besides my own desire to instruct and know young people. Studies suggest that just paying teachers more doesn't do much to improve student performance, but I wonder if they just haven't considered how schools might change if the teaching profession could attract the kind of top-end talent that the legal and medical professions do. I had several extraordinary teachers in high school, and even in our high-paying school district, public school was a difficult place for brilliant people to work.

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