Monday, January 22, 2007

Teacher Quality and Heroic teachers

Writing in the New York Times, Tom Moore, a 10th grade history teacher in the Bronx, laments Hilary Swank’s portrayal of a courageous and committed teacher in the movie Freedom Writers ("Classroom Distinctions," January 19, 2007). Freedom Writers is the true story of a freshman English teacher who uses writing to reach a group of students living in poverty-stricken, gang-infested neighborhoods. Freedom Writers is merely one of the more recent entries in a long history of films portraying idealistic, inspirational teachers who manage engage troubled, unmotivated students (e.g., Blackboard Jungle, To Sir with Love, Conrack, Dangerous Minds). Over the week-end, I saw another film in this genre, the History Boys, which portrays a group of working class boys whose love of learning (and entry to exclusive Oxford University) is nurtured by caring, quirky, and intellectually challenging teachers.

Quoting from Tom Moore’s thoughtful Op-ed piece, “the great misconception of these films is not that actual schools are more chaotic and decrepit — many schools in poor neighborhoods are clean and orderly yet still don’t have enough teachers or money for supplies. No, the most dangerous message such films promote is that what schools really need are heroes. This is the Myth of the Great Teacher.” The myth of the heroic teacher who, against all odds, reaches her or his students resonates in the popular imagination and recent public policy. The notion of teacher quality embodied in No Child Left Behind presumes that quality teachers are virtually the only factor in student achievement. If teachers are smart enough, tough enough, demanding enough, caring enough, work hard enough, even the most disadvantaged children will learn.

I work with future teachers every day and I believe that the bright, caring, and committed students with whom I work will make a difference in the lives of their students. But students in poor, urban communities do not need heroes who will save them from their communities and culture. The myth of the heroic teacher insults students, their families, and the communities from which they must be “saved.” More to the point, in the end, teachers, no matter how bright, hard working, or demanding will be insufficient to overcome the effects of crippling poverty, under-resourced schools, or pervasive racism. Educational policies that rely solely on better teachers cannot succeed.

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