In Part 1, I discussed the doctoral dissertation of Derisa Grant who tried to unravel the puzzle of Hollywood films moving from superhero teachers to “bad” teachers over the past few decades. In Part 2, I point out how Hollywood films about teachers epitomize the dominant American cultural value of an individual overcoming all obstacles ignoring the substantial influence of the school and community. Consider the film portrayals of English teacher Erin Gruwell and math teacher Roland Pryzbylewski.
Not only 3000 miles separate English teacher Erin Gruwell at Wilson High School in Long Beach (CA) in the film “Freedom Writers” from math teacher Roland Pryzbylewski (Mr. P.) at Edward J. Tilghman Middle School in Baltimore (MD) in HBO’s “The Wire.” Based upon an actual novice white teacher, the celluloid Gruwell, played by Hillary Swank, spurs her class to overcome poverty, gang banging, and utter pessimism about their future to write in their journals and eventually go to college. Mr. P, also a novice white teacher, played by Jim True-Frost, tries hard to get his 8th graders, to learn fractions, long division, and probability and stay out of selling drugs. Mr. P, however, is a fictitious character.
Yet what separates the two films about teaching poor and minority youth under grim conditions is neither the distance between Long Beach and Baltimore nor between high school English and middle school math or that one teacher is real and the other fictitious. What separates the films from one another is the implicit view in “Freedom Writers” of the road to reform being paved by stellar teachers while in “The Wire” that same road would require overhauling the entire institution. Ironically, then, Mr. P/Jim True-Frost, a fictitious teacher, captures the gritty conditions that urban school principals and teachers face far better than the film about an actual teacher Erin Gruwell/Hilary Swank.
To say that the Hollywood version of “Freedom Writers” is less true in portraying teaching in gang-ridden schools then HBO’s “The Wire” is only to re-state the obvious popularity of the film genre of innocent white teacher—think “Dangerous Minds”–making mistakes with troublesome students, encountering conflict after conflict with gang members and close-minded administrators only to overcome them amid a crescendo of music. Not only white females dominate this genre. “Stand and Deliver,” based on the experience of Jaime Escalante at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, follows the same pattern. The clear message is that gutsy, smart, hard working individual teachers can overcome student apathy and the powerful tug of the Street. Of course, there are such superheroic teachers who do the impossible 24/7. But they are not typical novices who, after a few years leave in droves from such schools.
Hollywood over-sells individual teachers while understating the institutional complexity of working in inadequately staffed, overly regulated schools where city politics, bureaucratic inertia, and sheer drudgery shape classroom practice as much as what students bring to school. HBO gets it right in fictitious Tilghman middle school where Mr. P, a former police officer, teaches.
Why is Mr. P’s portrayal closer to the truth of urban schools? Over five seasons, “The Wire”—title refers to a police unit recording drug dealers’ business transactions to gather evidence for their arrest—goes well beyond West Baltimore and those who sell drugs. The series explored families involved in the drug trade and families not yet hooked, corrupt police bureaucrats, City Hall politics, dirty union leaders at the Port of Baltimore, and, for an entire season, schools. “The Wire” looked at institutions and how racial politics in the police department, among city officials, and the schools interact to affect one another. A newly elected ambitious white mayor of a predominately black city and bureaucracy, for example, has to find a new police commissioner, cut the budget, and do something about the school district whose schools are underperform academically.
Enter Mr. P., a former Baltimore City police officer, who has neither charisma nor teaching experience. He makes the usual novice mistakes, has a hard time managing his 8th graders, and an even harder time getting them to focus on math. Unruly students erupt into fights at real or imagined slights. Many cannot follow the textbook. A few are super-bright and with a little prodding grasp the math concepts. Mr. P’s patience and decency slowly wins over a core of students but not all. Finally, he gets some students interested in learning probability through throwing dice. But at the next faculty meeting, the assistant principal announces that because the school’s test scores are so low all classes will focus on reading and math skills for the upcoming state test. Good soldier as he is, Mr. P switches lessons and prepares his students for the state test at the same time that a few of the promising 8th graders get enmeshed in the drug trade.
The Hollywood genre of heroic teachers overcoming obstacles promises better schools through individuals staying the course. While such films are popular, this optimistic strategy of reforming urban schools is doomed because it ignores the institutional side of schools and how teaching and learning are affected as much by the Street as they are by school bureaucrats, city officials, and other agencies. HBO’s “The Wire” portrays schools as deeply flawed institutions sailing through teachers’ and students’ lives more concerned about surviving than teaching or learning. Surely, the Mr. Ps in this world salvage individual youngsters but are tossed about like confetti on a windy day. This complex, realistic view of urban school reform as institutional renewal has little room for heroics. And truth be told, are hard to translate to the screen and make money. Far easier is to focus on the individual rather than the organization. Even highly-touted films of urban charter school (e.g., “Waiting for Superman“–a documentary and “Won’t Back Down“–a Hollywood production showing two mothers who seize the school from a corrupt teachers’ union) succumb to the fairy tale view of superheroes conquering poverty and difficult students. These film versions of school reform may have box-office appeal (one was a financial hit; the other was a flop). But in focusing on iconic teachers conquering all obstacles, they offer little guidance to today’s policymakers or for teachers caught in the web of institutional shortcomings and the poverty that continue to pervade U.S. urban districts.