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Few Great Picks Among Teacher Movies

March 1, 2014

Over at Edutopia, there’s a discussion brewing about which film would deserve the Oscar for Best Teacher Movie. The conversation spilled over to Twitter a bit as well. Some of the movies are more broadly about education, not just teaching, of course. I have to say I’m not a huge fan of any of the leading contenders – at least, not if we think of them as teaching or education movies. Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips seem to lead the pack among purely fictional stories, while Stand and Deliver and Freedom Writers, and Dangerous Minds are the based-on-a-true-story leading contenders.

Some of these are fine films, dramatic and compelling, well-written and full of good performances. But looking at them as teacher movies, only Mr. Chips leaves me with an unambiguously positive feeling. (I haven’t seen Dangerous Minds). The other movies show passionate teachers, but their passion becomes the centerpiece of the story; that might make for good narrative, but it doesn’t capture what I love about teaching or would want other to understand about good teaching. There’s also a significant cost – teachers sacrificing health, family time, jobs and marriages.

When it’s fictional, or a dramatized version of real life, it’s easy for viewers to shake their heads about the downsides and celebrate the good. In reality, the burnout and familial discord have lasting effects not only the individual but also on the future students.

Coincidentally, I just received an email from someone seeking a recommendation for a good education documentary for use in a public event. This person had read my negative review of “TEACHED” – which is actually a series of short films. (See also, follow-up with Kelly Amis, director of those films). This person wondered what I thought would be a better option. So, here are a few notes about some education documentaries that might be worth a look.

American Teacher – a documentary film that grew out of the Teacher Salary Project, American Teacher follows four teachers and documents their lives in and out of the classroom. The broader argument of the film has to do with the working conditions and salaries of teachers, and how challenging it is to remain in the profession. I had the pleasure of viewing the film as part of an event I helped plan at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. I wrote a blog post that includes some pictures from that event, along with my approximation of improvised remarks I made at the end.

Mitchell 20 – this documentary focuses on National Board Certification as a school improvement strategy. That might sound a bit narrow or “wonky” but the film really does a fine job of capturing the promise and the challenges of certification as they played out in Mitchell Elementary School in Arizona. While the film is decidedly pro-certification, I think what distinguishes this type of advocacy from something like TEACHED is the commitment to documenting the challenges and dealing honestly with imperfections, rather than simply pushing an agenda through implications and distortions. (Although, unfortunately, their website includes a tagline that reads “Teacher quality is the answer” – and while the question is unstated, any kind of oversimplification like that bugs me a bit). Again – I have a blog post on this film if you want more information.

Teach – CBS made this film last year, directed by Davis Guggenheim, returning to education with a film less antagonistic than Waiting for Superman. I can’t give it a hearty endorsement, (especially with part of it serving as an embedded promotion of Khan Academy), but there might be enough good in it that you could get into some conversation about the current state of teaching. Yes… blogged.

I’d love to hear your reactions about these or other movies in comments below.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lisa Alva Wood permalink
    March 2, 2014 6:57 pm

    OMG David, you haven’t yet seen or heard of GO PUBLIC? It’s a day in the life of Pasadena Unified, from the campus aide to the parent volunteer to the students to the supe. By far the best ED movie because it’s absolutely real, positive and has no narrator – people tell their own stories. Let me get a link…
    http://gopublicproject.org/
    DO click the links to the subjects’ individual films. This is a great documentary that shows the gritty reality of life in SoCal public schools.

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