"It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen."

Monday, December 31, 2012

Movies About Teaching

I just watched Detachment - a movie about a supply teacher in an inner-city school.  It's a familiar topic for films:  To Sir With Love, Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, Teachers, Mr. Holland's Opus, Dangerous Minds...  But I like this one because nothing is really improved in the school, but in a less bloody way than Battle Royale.  However, this film is no less raw.

In so many movies about high-school life, one teacher comes along with a fresh perspective, usually some tough-love strategies, and everything improves dramatically.  Detachment sees many teachers trying valiantly and failing miserably to affect the system and society.  They do have a positive effect on some kids, but there are others that fall to the wayside.  So it goes.  Some teachers in the film have issues with mental illness and others openly despise students to the core, but most are doing their best with a difficult job.  That rings very true to me.

The film brings in the larger society.  The main character, Henry, spends evenings with his grandfather who's somewhat neglected in a retirement centre.  His caretakers aren't cruel, just busy and underfunded.  Henry tries to take care of a young prostitute until he recognizes he's out of his league.  He talks to his students about how women are treated, but ignores cruel and sexist comments as they happen.  That's a matter of the greater good.  Maybe if he ignores the snide comments and continues with his lesson today, and everyone comes back tomorrow, they'll gradually learn to respect one another instead of being forced to act respectfully.  Forced behaviour rarely becomes internalized; it's just on display for the authority figure.  He needs to convince them to treat others kindly - and that's a much slower process.

The acting was beautiful and subtle.  I loved the juxtaposition of drawings and surreal images throughout.  Life is profoundly absurd.  There are many vicious characters in this world, and we can't necessarily improve it all.  But our acts of kindness can help even it all out a bit, even if we totally lose it once in a while.  It might not get much better, but what's for certain is, if we don't try to be kind, it will definitely get worse.

And now for a short rant involving some scenes that resonated with my experiences teaching high-school for over twenty years:

* Unequal treatment at the hands of admin:  One reviewer mocked the film because Henry was called out for a hug, while another teacher openly and vulgarly admonished a student for wearing nipple-revealing clothing - as if that would never happen.  Of course it happens.  In any profession some people get away with anything, and others get charged with minor infractions.  I've seen some teachers get away with leaving the building to go for a coffee during class, and others get reprimanded for going to the bathroom.  Some teachers work hard at their lessons, and others show films every day.  There are always people that can flaunt rules successfully and others who are punching bags for the boss.  It may not be fair, but it's realistic.

* The effect of parents' attitude on student behaviour:  There were few attending parent-teacher night.  I've sat through similar evenings with few attendees.  The typical night brings in a few of the parents you don't need to see, and none that you do.  And the law is on the parent's side.  Parents in the film threaten to sue the school for not providing the best education for their kids.  When kids know that their parents will attempt to punish the teacher for low marks instead of blaming the student for not doing their work, then kids own the show. I have suspected that some of my students have parents that did their work for them, and something they didn't show in the film is the amount of cheating that goes on.  It's ubiquitous.  I know that if I give a student a failing grade, I'll have to prove I've done everything possible for the student, but the student doesn't have to show any work.  If they fail, it's because we didn't teach well enough; we didn't motivate them or entertain them or enlighten them.  Many teachers figure this out and make sure they don't fail kids - even those who do nothing.  This just makes it all so much worse.  And kids really do show up for class regularly without pens or paper.  It's not because they're poor.  It's because doing class work is such a low priority for some of them it barely registers.

* Students screaming and swearing at teachers:  In my case it doesn't happen anywhere near as often as the film depicts, but shit happens.  As a new teacher, when I wrote "Miss Snyder" on the board, a student commented, "Good.  She's single.  No sloppy seconds."  I started using "Ms." after that.  Shortly after having my first baby, I had a student threaten to come to my house and kill her.  The Behaviour Consultant assured me he'd deal with it, so I didn't call the cops.  On follow-up - the consultant had forgotten.  I've taught students who have just gotten out of jail - one for raping an elderly woman in a wheelchair.  I've had to testify against a student who almost killed someone with a baseball bat.  I had students put a firecracker in a paper airplane and launch it at me when I was pregnant.  Upon their immediate return from the office, they told me they're supposed to say, "Sorry."  I've seen students ironically yell and swear at teachers because they felt disrespected.  They know their rights, but not their responsibilities.  I've also lost quieter students to suicides I didn't see coming.  This is a volatile age that needs soothing and containing, and we have to start over again with a new group every term.

* The bureaucratic power of standardized tests:  Parents believe the scores indicate the quality of teaching rather than just the demographics of a school.  We trip over ourselves to improve our test scores - sometimes at the expense of real teaching.  Months are spent teaching to the test so students are bombarded with opinion papers, then they don't have time to learn how to integrate and cite quotations into a piece of writing or learn to edit and revise their work.

I sometimes think we need mandatory character-development and anger-management classes because it seems like such a looming problem in our schools and in society in general, but - something the film suggests but doesn't clarify - it isn't all like this.  It's way more good than bad.  Lots of people are kind.  In Henry's class, two kids were jerks on the first day, but 28 kids were sitting ready to listen.  The film focused on the bad because conflict is interesting, but in real life those kids sitting quietly are the majority - overall, if not class by class.  And it's exciting when one of the rough set turns before your eyes.  It's rare, but thrilling.  But more rewarding is the day to day interactions with the average nice kids.  They just aren't as exciting on screen.

Overall, I loved this movie - A-

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