Fables about Transformational Teachers

There is a classic dominant fable about the transformational teacher in an urban ghetto high school. The school is failing in its mission: the students aren’t learning, but they are getting into trouble. A transformational teacher arrives on the scene and, through hard work, long hours, commitment to excellence, and empathy for the students wins their trust. The students become interested in the curriculum and their performance starts to improve. The teacher sets a stretch goal and the students meet it. They raise their hopes and career aspirations. And one teacher’s success becomes a model for others.

Three relatively recent films presenting this dominant fable are Stand and Deliver (1989), which deals with a mathematics teacher in East Los Angeles; Dangerous Minds (1995), about an English teacher also in the Los Angeles area, and Freedom Writers (2007), which focuses on another English teacher in Long Beach. Besides their Southern California location – which has the considerable advantage of proximity to Hollywood – they are all based on true stories.

The implicit message of these dominant fables is that ghetto public high schools are not hopeless, and what is needed is simply hard work, dedication, and middle class values – as opposed to more expensive interventions or a more radical reform agenda.

When comparing the cinema’s dominant fables with the actual historical record, the big difference is that Hollywood focuses entirely on the classroom, while it actually turned out that these teachers were also effective organizational politicians, in that they mobilized support within the school and the school system. In addition, the teachers went far beyond the extra mile in terms of their time – and even their own money – invested in the classroom. These facts lead one to question the likelihood of this dominant fable as a model for reform of the public high schools.

Counter-fables question the dominant fable in a different way, namely by telling stories that invert, subvert, or reject it. Here are two recent examples. Half-Nelson, a 2006 film starring Ryan Gosling, tells the (fictional) story of a would-be transformational teacher who has a big personal problem – an addiction to crack cocaine. And teaching in a ghetto high school makes it very easy for him to score. So instead of the teacher inspiring students to transcend the grim social and economic conditions of their lives, the teacher himself is dragged down into the most degrading aspect of that reality.

The HBO movie Cheaters (2000) – very faithfully based on a true story – stars Jeff Daniels as a teacher who coaches the academic decathlon team from a lower-middle class ethnic neighborhood in Chicago. Daniels inspires the team and they work hard and scrape into the last spot in Illinois state finals. They are given an opportunity for instant success – a stolen copy of the exams for the state finals. After considerable soul-searching, coach and team decide to go for it and, after the hard work of prepping for the questions they know they will be asked, the team wins the state competition.

Their meteoric and unexpected success leads to questions, a police investigation, confessions, and – for the coach – dismissal. But the careers of the students themselves are not impaired. The movie succeeds because it is presented in the form of the dominant fable, but its content is satire. Its subtitle (“putting the system to the test”) and its entire narrative question the intrinsic value of the academic and career success that transformational teachers are supposed to inspire. It is both entertaining and disturbingly thought-provoking.

These examples should make clear what I mean by dominant and counter-fables. In this instance dominant fables are intended to inspire, and counter-fables to question the uplifting story. We can learn from both.

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