War Photographer: Abby Norman
Abby Norman got my attention when she broke the internet with this post on not sharing stories. Abby has worked in inner city schools, which tends to get more than a little sensationalized press in our society. I love this perspective on teacher-as-hero-in-inner-city-schools movies, savior complexes, and justifications for passivity. Be sure to check out Abby's blog, and I thank her kindly for bringing her sharp perspective here today.
What Teacher Movies Don’t Teach
When I was in college, I borrowed my boyfriend's car to take myself to the movies on a Tuesday night. I sat in the middle of an empty theatre in Muncie Indiana and wept and cheered for Akeelah and all her spelling glory. I left that theatre inspired. I would be that teacher. I would grow my students to their fullest potential. I would change the world, one student at a time. I could not wait to get into my classroom.
This was not my first foray into the teacher movie. Not only had I seen Dangerous Minds starring Michelle Pfeiffer, when I was 12 I read My Posse Don't Do Homework, the book the movie was based on. I loved Finding Forrester and Freedom Writer; any movie where the teacher was the hero was a movie I wanted to see.
I suppose I was attracted to these movies because they made me feel special. They made me feel like what I was about to do was important. They promised me that if I wanted it badly enough, if I just dug deep enough, I could be the change I so desperately wanted to see in my future students’ lives. My career would be a teacher movie and I would be the star!
Three months into my first classroom experience, I despised these movies. Every. Single. One. I hated the promises these movies had made me. I hated the details these movies left out. I hated the way people referenced these movies with a wink and a nod when I told them what I did. These people thought they understood my world, they had seen the movies.
These movies may have made the classroom that I taught in more accessible to those who would never enter this world, but it also made the teacher the only person who could make a difference. I once loved these movies because they told me that I would be the one to make the difference, but when I got into the reality, I was crushed under the weight of the pressure I had been so attracted to. During my first year of teaching, the kids called me Freedom Writer like it was my name. ("Who you got for English?" "Freedom Writer.") It was a constant reminder that I was not enough.
Here are the things the teacher movies don’t teach you: most kids’ problems are far greater than what one English teacher can fix in the span of fifty minutes a day for one hundred eighty days. Physical hunger and feeling safe at home have major impacts on the classroom environment, and are out of the teacher’s hands. Between lesson plans, referrals, attendance, and field trip requests, there is enough paperwork to necessitate a personal assistant. Sometimes a teacher has to choose between grading yet another class set of papers, and her sanity.
The thing the teacher movies don’t teach you, is that almost all of those “give it everything” teachers they make movies about quit within the first three years. The lifestyle is simply not sustainable. It takes a village to raise a child, and I have come to believe it takes a village to teach one too.
The truth of the matter is this: teaching in movies is like sex in movies. They leave the boring awkward bits out. It doesn't always go smoothly. It isn't always as exciting.
Copying entire chapters out of books that are falling apart and making class sets of them, cutting out the letters to staple onto the class bulletin board, sitting at Starbucks grading 150 research papers (half of which are accidentally plagiarized) these are the things that teachers do with their planning period. There is never enough time.
High needs students are just that, higher in need. Yet high needs schools are least likely to have parents fighting for an opportunity to volunteer in the reading nook. Meanwhile, schools where kids already have every advantage are advantaged again by parents who are willing and able to volunteer.
By casting the teacher as the hero, people give themselves permission to not help. The teacher is special; there is nothing “normal people” can do. Turns out, if you can use a pair of scissors you can be a major force in the elementary school classroom. Every spare minute a teacher has because someone cut out the bulletin board decorations for them, is a minute the teacher can be doing something extra for students that so desperately need it. Imagine the kind of classroom environment four friends and a shared Pinterest board could help create.
Teacher movies don’t tell that story. There isn’t a movie about how a group of volunteers took over a classroom and helped to create a warm and loving environment for the year. When the story of education is framed as a teacher and her students, there is no room in the picture for anyone else. But there is room for everyone else, lots of room, in lots of schools. There is likely an opportunity at your local high needs elementary school (and there is always a local high needs elementary school).
Don’t believe everything you see in the movies. I learned that lesson the hard way.
Abby lives and loves in the city of Atlanta. She has two hilarious children and a husband that doubles as her copy editor and biggest fan. If two in diapers and a full-time job teaching English at a local high school don’t keep her busy, you can find her blogging at accidentaldevotional. Abby loves all kinds of Girl Scout cookies, and carries a dream of one day writing a book about teaching in her heart
For more posts in the War Photographer series, please click here.