What The Movies Taught Us About Teaching

Dec 5, 2014
Originally published on December 15, 2014 1:09 pm

Teachers are a type in Hollywood, as bound by convention as the guys who wear white hats in Westerns. They're mostly young, they're always energetic, and they answer to honorifics: Mr. Chips, Miss Brodie, Miss Moffat, Mister Miyagi, or just plain "Sir" (with love, of course).

They'll also answer to "Hey, wassup teach?" if that's what it takes to get their students to stand and deliver, to be great debaters or to form dead poet societies while heading up the down staircase in a blackboard jungle.

You know the type: hard-working, earnest, and most of all, inspirational. And they're all that while confronting — because Hollywood never does anything halfway — the sort of challenge that would give pause to a miracle worker.

The Miracle Worker's Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft), for instance, had to get through to a kicking, biting, almost feral Helen Keller (Patty Duke), who had been deaf and blind since infancy.

With only a few gestures to signal what she wants, 7-year-old Helen has no way to communicate with those around her, and initially, no concept of language itself. Her breakthrough comes in what amounts to a ferocious battle with Annie at a backyard water pump, where she suddenly realizes that the motions her teacher has been making in the palm of her hand connect to the movement of Annie's lips.

Annie spells out "w-a-t-e-r" and says urgently to this girl who can't hear her, "It has a name." And suddenly, in the midst of the struggle, Helen pauses. And you see her puzzle out that those movements of fingers and lips symbolize an idea: the wetness she's feeling.

She mimics Annie's hand movements, spelling it back. And Annie puts Helen's hand on her face and smiles and nods "yes." Immediately Helen wants other words ... pounding on the earth beneath her feet.

"G-r-o-u-n-d" spells Annie. And Helen spells it back, and as powerfully as it ever has on film, a whole world of knowledge opens up.

Changing Themes

Most onscreen teachers confront more conventional students and forge bonds with them over more conventional problems: kids who don't think they want to learn ... who mistrust authority ... who are bored ... and who inspire teachers like Robin Williams in 1989's Dead Poets Society to climb on his desk and find other unorthodox ways to enliven classwork.

This gets him in trouble with the headmaster, and that's pretty much a standard Hollywood plot development. Teachers who care — and you wouldn't make a film about them if they didn't — must not only relate to students, but must also shield them from their own parents, from school administrators, from the police and from social forces that lead them to not value education in the first place.

Stand And Deliver's math teacher, Jaime Escalante (Edward Olmos), for instance, helps Latino students overcome first their own resistance to authority, and then, when they start to succeed, the unfair perceptions of administrators wielding standardized tests.

Denzel Washington is up against even stronger forces in The Great Debaters, a 2007 film set in the segregated south of 1935. When his all-black-college debate team is told it cannot compete in a national tournament, he lets them know his stake in their struggle is personal.

"You are my students. I am your teacher. That is a sacred trust," he tells them before urging them not to quit, though all the forces of a racist society are arrayed against them.

The "rebel with a class," as it were, is a relatively recent development in Hollywood. Onscreen teachers were long pictured in gentler terms, as protective and nurturing, rather than crusading. Movies tended to subscribe to The King and I's true, but sappy thought: That if you become a teacher by your pupils, you'll be taught.

No tough assignments in her class.

But a year before that movie came out in 1956, the rougher side of that getting-to-know-students equation was already on display in Blackboard Jungle, set in an inner-city school where teacher Glenn Ford sparred with rebellious student Sidney Poitier.

A few years later, teacher Poitier got his comeuppance in To Sir With Love, frustrated by kids who were rebellious for many of the same reasons that had driven his character in Blackboard Jungle. It's the realization that they are "kids" who need guidance that finally allows him to help them.

And that became the new template — teachers wading into issues of race, class, generational conflict — to help kids, armed with good intentions and reliably conventional wisdom.

The plots became familiar enough to be turned on their heads occasionally. Say, in the 2003 comedy School of Rock, where teacher Jack Black is almost inadvertently successful at winning over his charges. Or in this year's Whiplash, where jazz instructor J. K. Simmons hurls a chair at the head of an auditioning drummer when he gets the tempo wrong. Inspiration through fear — a definite outlier.

Far more frequently, movies reinforce the notion that in secular society, teaching is the closest thing we have to a religious vocation. You don't decide to teach, you're "called" to teaching as a profession. And as with religion, this "calling" is one in which the basic job hasn't changed in a thousand years:

You stand in front of your flock, which expects you to be above reproach both on and off the job. Your authority comes from on high. You need the patience of a saint, the wisdom of a rabbi and the endurance of a martyr. And, at day's end, the rewards are largely spiritual.

As when Helen Keller, having pretty much worn out Annie Sullivan demanding the name of every object around them, finally points to Annie herself ... and Annie, choking back tears, spells out "t-e-a-c-h-e-r." And Helen spells it back.

And the lesson begins.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This year NPR is celebrating the teaching profession with a series called "50 Great Teachers." And our movie critic Bob Mondello couldn't resist. He offers this look at what Hollywood has taught him about teaching.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Will everyone please try to find a seat?

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Teachers are a type in Hollywood as bound by convention as the guys who wear white hats in Westerns. They're mostly young, they're always energetic and they answer to honorifics.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (As character) Mr. Chips.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (As character) Miss Brodie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CORN IS GREEN")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (As character) Miss Moffat.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KARATE KID")

RALPH MACCHIO: (As Daniel) Mr. Miyagi.

MONDELLO: Or just plain...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Sir or Mr.

MONDELLO: ...Sir with love, of course. Also, if need be...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) ...Hey, what's up, teach?

MONDELLO: If that's what it takes to get their students to stand and deliver to be great debaters or to form dead poet societies while heading up the down staircase in a blackboard jungle. You know the type - hard-working, earnest and, most of all, inspirational. All while confronting, because Hollywood never does anything, the sort of challenge that would give pause to a miracle worker. "The Miracle Worker" Annie Sullivan, for instance, had to get through to a kicking, biting, almost feral Helen Keller who had been deaf and blind since infancy.

MONDELLO: With only a few gestures to signal what she wants, seven-year-old Helen has no way to communicate with those around her. And, initially, no concept of language itself. Her breakthrough comes in what amounts to a ferocious battle with Annie at a backyard water pump, where she suddenly realizes that the motions her teacher's been making in the palm of her hand connect to the movement of Annie's lips...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIRACLE WORKER")

ANNE BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) W-A-T-E-R. Water - it has a name. W-A-T.

MONDELLO: ...And that they symbolize an idea - the wetness she is feeling.She mimics Annie's hand movements, spelling it back.

BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) Yes. Oh, my dear.

MONDELLO: And immediately Helen wants other words, pounding on the earth beneath her feet.

BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) Ground.

MONDELLO: Annie spells it out and Helen spells it back.

BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) Yes.

MONDELLO: And as powerfully as it ever has on film, a whole world of knowledge opens up.

BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) Pump.

MONDELLO: Most onscreen teachers confront more conventional students and forge bonds with them over more conventional problems - kid who don't think they want to learn, who mistrust authority, who are bored and who inspire teachers like Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society" to find unorthodox ways to enliven classwork.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEAD POETS SOCIETY")

ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As John Keating) I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way. You see, the world looks very different from up here. You don't believe me? Come see for yourselves. Come on. Come on. Even though it may seem silly or wrong...

MONDELLO: This gets him in trouble with the headmaster and that's pretty much a standard Hollywood plot development. Teachers who care, and you wouldn't make a film about them if they didn't, must not only relate to students, but must also shield them from their own parents, from school administrators, from the police and from social forces that lead them to not value education in the first place. "Stand And Deliver's" math teacher, Jaime Escalante, for instance, helping Latino students to overcome, first, their own resistance to authority.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAND AND DELIVER")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Can we talk about sex?

EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: (As Jaime Escalante) If we discuss sex, I have to give sex for homework.

MONDELLO: And then when they start to succeed, he helps them overcome the unfair perceptions of administrators weilding standardized tests. Denzel Washington is up against even stronger forces in "The Great Debaters," a film set in the segregated South of 1935. When his black college debate team is told it cannot compete in a national tournament, he lets them know his stake in their struggle is personal.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GREAT DEBATERS")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Melvin B. Tolson) You are my students. I am your teacher. I think that's a sacred trust. So what do I say to you now? Quit? Because the Dean says so? Because the sheriff says so? Because the Texas Rangers say so? No. I am diametrically opposed to that. My message to you is to never quit.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: We are not quitting.

WASHINGTON: (As Melvin B. Tolson) Good.

MONDELLO: The rebel with the class, as it were, is a relatively recent development in Hollywood. On screen teachers were long pictured, in gentler terms, as protective and nurturing rather than crusading. Movies tended to subscribe to the "King and I's" true but sappy thought that if you become a teacher, by your pupils you'll be taught.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "THE KING AND I")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, singing) ...As a teacher, I've been learning, you'll forgive me if I boast. And I've now become an expert on the subject I like most. Getting to know you. Getting to know you...

MONDELLO: No tough assignments in her class. But the year that movie came out, that rougher side of that getting to know students equation was already on display in "Blackboard Jungle," set in an inner-city school were teacher Glenn Ford sparred with rebellious student Sidney Poitier.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACKBOARD JUNGLE")

RICHARD DADIER: (As Glenn Ford) There was no racial issue until you made one.

SIDNEY POITIER: (As Gregory W. Miller) Why you've got the knife out for me?

DADIER: (As Glenn Ford) Oh, man, now there's a real switch. I mean, after all the trouble you caused me.

POITIER: (As Gregory W. Miller) Boy, you really got it bad.

DADIER: (As Glenn Ford) You deny it.

POITIER: (As Gregory W. Miller) You going to hit me? I'd really like that. That would really wash you up around here.

MONDELLO: A few years later, teacher Poitier got his comeuppance in "To Sir, With Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TO SIR, WITH LOVE")

POITIER: (As Mark Thackeray) I lost my temper. The one thing I swore I would never, never do. Those kids are devils. Nothing I've tired. Kids - kids - that's it - kids.

MONDELLO: And that became the new template - teachers wading into issues of race, class, generational conflict to help kids with good intentions and reliably conventional wisdom. More recently, the wisdom's been less conventional, say, in the comedy "School Of Rock," where the teacher is almost inadvertently successful at winning over his charges.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCHOOL OF ROCK")

JACK BLACK: (As Dewey Finn) If you want to rock, you got to get mad at the men. And right now, I'm the man. And who's got the guts to tell me off?

MIRANDA COSGROVE: (As Summer) You're a joke. You're the worst teacher I've ever had.

BLACK: (As Dewey Finn) Summer, that is great. I like the delivery because I felt your anger.

COSGROVE: (As Summer) Thank you.

MONDELLO: A tougher approach to music instruction is this year's "Whiplash" where the jazz instructor seems fine until his auditioning drummer gets the tempo wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHIPLASH")

J.K. SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Why do you suppose I just hurled a chair at your head, Nieman?

MILES TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) The tempo?

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Were you rushing or were you dragging?

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) I don't know.

J.K. SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Start counting.

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) One, two, three, four (Fletcher slapping Nieman). One, two, three four (Fletcher slapping Nieman). One, two, three four (Fletcher slapping Nieman).

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Now, was I rushing or was I dragging?

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) I don't know.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Count again.

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) One, two, three (Fletcher slapping Nieman). One, two, three (Fletcher slapping Nieman). One, two, three (Fletcher slapping Nieman).

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher, yelling) Rushing or dragging?

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) Rushing.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher, yelling) So you do know the difference.

MONDELLO: Inspiration through fear, a definite outlier. Far more frequently, movies reinforce the notion that in secular society, teaching is the closest thing we have to a religious vocation. You don't decide to teach, you're called to teaching as a profession. And as with religion, this calling is one in which the basic job hasn't changed in 1,000 years. You stand in front of your flock, which expects you to be above reproach both on and off the job. Your authority comes from on high. You need the patience of a saint, the wisdom of a Rabbi and the endurance of a martyr. And at day's end, the rewards are largely spiritual. As when Helen Keller, having pretty much worn out Annie Sullivan demanding the name of every object around them, finally points to Annie herself. And Annie back tears spells out T-E-A-C-H-E-R.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MIRACLE WORKER")

BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) Teacher.

MONDELLO: And Helen spells it back. And the lesson begins. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MIRACLE WORKER")

PATTY DUKE: (As HeLen Keller) Teacher. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.