The Teacher as Savior Myth

Teachers, when showcased on film, seem to be viewed as saviors to the underprivileged children of the world and people to whom all other teachers should aspire. However, the reality surrounding these teachers of greatness is often left unsaid. Many of these teachers leave the profession soon after the events of depiction are shown while others become mainly speakers rather than teachers, and some are just unable to work within or change the system as a whole (more a problem of the system and administrators than the teachers themselves).

Despite even this, my biggest objection to teachers in film are the new stereotypes of the white woman (or man) saving the less fortunate and storytellers changing reality to make the film more palatable. This can most recently be seen in Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers.

Freedom Writers is the story of Erin Gruwell’s successes in an inner-city high school, and this film–while inspring to many–is not free from criticism. Josh Tyler, Editor-in-Chief of, goes so far as to say Ms. Gruwell (in the film) is “a pampered, idealistic, white girl with grand ideas about how she’s going to save the ghetto.” He further states in his review that Ms. Gruwell’s detractors:

have a point. She was the right person, with the right class, at the right time. She doesn’t discover a magic formula for getting gangbangers to stop shooting each other in the chest, she simply stumbles on a class full of downtrodden, violent kids who happen to be ready to listen. As portrayed in the film, the secret to her success was simply blind, stupid idealism.”

While I believe Mr. Tyler’s criticism may be a bit harsh, he does note that Ms. Gruwell’s successes with her methods are not repeatable, are not reproducable. This is, of course, not really spoken of when noting a teacher’s successes and failures.

An additional and maybe far more sad example of a myth filling social expectations rather than reality is in Dangerous Minds when LouAnne Johnson is shown using Dylan lyrics to inspire her students when she actually used rap lyrics. As Roger Ebert states in his movie review:

The real Miss Johnson used not Dylan but the lyrics of rap songs to get the class interested in poetry.

Rap has a bad reputation in white circles, where many people believe it consists of obscene and violent anti-white and anti-female guttural. Some of it does. Most does not. Most white listeners don’t care; they hear black voices in a litany of discontent, and tune out.

Yet rap plays the same role today as Bob Dylan did in 1960, giving voice to the hopes and angers of a generation, and a lot of rap is powerful writing.

What has happened in the book-to-movie transition of LouAnne Johnson’s book is revealing. The movie pretends to show poor black kids being bribed into literacy by Dylan and candy bars, but actually it is the crossover white audience that is being bribed with mind-candy in the form of safe words by the two Dylans.

The lack of reality in this film detracts from a vital piece of information about teaching kids, especially those who may be resistant to learning: using material relevant to the students can be a major hurdle to overcome. Simply using material the kids will accept can be a gateway to skillbuilding and possibly to other literature.

Even when the teacher in question is not white, the reality of the teacher is often ignored or eschewed in favor of a more palatable tale. Jaime Escalante’s successes, as seen in Stand and Deliver, are wondrous to behold. However, his headbutting with the union and administration is ignored as well as his inability to change the perceptions about inner-city students (even in his own school!). His teacher partner isn’t even shown or mentioned in the film.

I wish that it wasn’t necessary to show teachers working in isolation to achieve results, that they have to fight the system to succeed. Systems are always more successful in raising overall student achievement than an individual; systems can touch more students. I wonder where the stories are detailing how a school or school system rises to success, where teachers and administrators actually work together. It does happen from time to time. 🙂

Still, these stories make me feel good. I guess I’m as suckered as the rest of society when it comes to these films. As a teacher I would like to think I can have even a fraction of the impact these teachers had. Maybe I have or maybe I might one day, and maybe that’s why I keep watching these films.

Side note #1: If you were to make a movie about teaching or a teacher, what would it be?

Side note #2: I remember that show Boston Public on TV about ten years ago, and it was one I really hoped would show some of the realities of teaching. However, it quickly devolved into a tawdry and weak soap opera.

I might have been appeased a little bit had they even had one teacher who graded papers for real. Every school has that one teacher who is buried in papers to grade; for me, grading papers is the most time-consuming part of the job. I thought I could have at least watched the show had there been a teacher in the background of scenes who never speaks but is constantly grading. During the staff meetings or in the staff lounge, that one teacher could have been present with that ever-large stack of papers.

7 thoughts on “The Teacher as Savior Myth

  1. Mystery Teacher

    I never go to those movies. I don’t believe they are representative of real teachers. Why are we expected to model ourselves after them? Most of us work very hard in our classrooms. We may not work “miracles” but we do teach and help children to learn. I resent it when Hollywood does these “Super Teacher” movies. I have spent 23 years working my butt off to help children and I feel I have done a good job. I am not a miracle worker but I love children and learning. I wish the movies would leave teachers alone.

  2. John Spencer

    I hate those movies. I call them the Silverscreen Superteachers. I work really hard in a low income school and I’ve seen my students do amazing things. Yet, it’s never miraculous. It’s in small steps and it has less to do with me than with so many other factors. I hate the implicit message that I have to be a martyr to be successful.

  3. drpezz Post author

    But it’s our calling. 🙂

    Ok, seriously, though, I have to admit I do get a small charge out of those films even though I know that’s not the way it works. Maybe it’s the narcissist in me wanting to feel like I’ve made major breakthroughs.

    Truthfully, I know that most of us do make these huge impacts on kids, but I also know that those results may not manifest themselves for 5 or 10 years down the road, too. Sometimes we just give a gentle nudge in the right direction, and that’s all that’s needed right now.

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