Pedro Noguera, the dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, and I have a podcast (Common Ground: Conversations on Schooling) in which we dig into our disagreements and seek to identify common ground on some of the thorniest questions in education. I thought readers would like to peruse snippets of these conversations from time to time. Recently, Pedro and I talked about education-themed movies, their importance, and the good and bad things Hollywood has about schooling. We had a lot to say, so we split it into two parts. Here is part 1:

-grinding wheel

Pedro: I think educational films can really help people understand what’s going on in schools. Unfortunately, that often doesn’t happen because in most education movies, complex issues are trivialized in favor of a gripping story. Still, there are a few that I love. I would say my all time favorite is “Stand and Deliver”. I love it because it’s based on a true story: the work of the great teacher, Jaime Escalante. He was an engineer who became a math teacher at Garfield High. For nearly 20 years, he taught poor Latino children in East LA to succeed and excel in AP math. He referred to his work as cultivating “ganas” in children, which is another way of talking about courage and a desire to learn. He made his students believe in themselves and work hard. It’s such an impressive movie.

grinding wheel: You’re right, it’s a great movie. But it’s worth noting how, when it comes to film education, reality inevitably bends to serve the narrative arc. It’s natural, of course. It also means, however, that we end up having a distorted idea of ​​things. A moment in “Stand and Deliver” that I always focus on is in the middle of the film, when Escalante feels defeated. He is about to give up. The students don’t understand, then he goes out to the parking lot and his car is gone. My heart breaks just for him. He struggles to get by, the kids ignore him and now his car is stolen. And then some students pulled up in his car, and it turned out they had just cheated on him as a sign of appreciation. And he’s like, “Hey! These kids like me! But what’s the message if his car was actually stolen? The movies don’t show what it’s like when someone sweats, kids don’t understand no and there’s no magic pivot. And the other part, which is elided in the Hollywood version, is that a lot of Escalante students didn’t pass the AP, let alone the exam. He built a program that was extremely transformative for many students, but not all. This program required a handshake between the teacher and the students who chose to grab his hand, and then those who did not. You would never know that from the movie.

Pedro: It’s true. The truth is that he made them come on Saturdays and work in the summer. Not everyone wants to do that. There were no shortcuts, no gimmicks, just hard work and a change in their beliefs about what they could do. I think that’s what the movie does pretty well.

grinding wheel: That’s where I’m conflicted, because people watch this, and it influences their idea of ​​what it means to be a good teacher. Is a good teacher able to show up for math remediation and, if they are dynamic and passionate enough, ensure that every student will want to give up their summer vacation to switch to Calculus BC? Is it the wait? To what extent do these cultural images shape our perception of what we should expect from teachers and what we should ask of students or families?

Pedro: It’s true, and I think that part gets lost in most educational movies. After the death of Sidney Poitier a few months ago, I thought of “To Sir, with Love”. Poitier was such a great actor, and in one of his early films he portrayed a teacher serving in a school in a working-class community in London. He’s a black immigrant, teaching these white kids, and they’re not interested in learning, especially from a black man. What happens over the course of the movie is that he realizes that he’s not really preparing them academically, he’s preparing them for adult life. Although they are reluctant at first, they eventually realize that the lessons he shares about life – respect, integrity, treating people fairly – are valuable, and they begin to see that they can learn from this. kind. It’s a very powerful movie and probably one of the first types of movies that portrays the classroom as drama.

grinding wheel: It’s really well said. And anyone in education who hasn’t seen “To Sir, with Love” really needs to see it. Another favorite of mine is the low-rent 80s movie “Teachers”. There Nick Nolte was the hero, and it was interesting because he was a veteran, once-passionate teacher who had given up under the frustrations of bureaucracy and BS And the heart of the film is Nolte rediscovering his willingness to take step back, push back against the administration, the union and other interests, and fight for what he believes in. It’s so corny, but this whole idea of ​​a sympathetic piece of popular culture with a burnt-out, frustrated teacher sounds really compelling. Rather than making him the villain, they made his rebirth the arc. It might be a schlocky movie, but I think Nolte really permeates the role and the message, even accidentally, is really deep. More generally, so many of the fights the heroes of these movies go through are trivial, bureaucratic, or people just don’t believe in them — that part seems sadly true to life.

Pedro: On that note, how about the movie “Half Nelson”? Ryan Gosling plays a teacher at an inner-city school. He’s a good teacher, but he’s a drug addict. He is caught smoking crack by one of his students. They form a bond based on this secret, and he becomes her lawyer. This film again treats teachers not as heroes but as humans with flaws and weaknesses. Ryan Gosling’s character is still heroic in some ways, especially in how well he does for this college student despite his drug addiction. It’s edgy and problematic in many ways, but it’s raw and it reflects something that I think is important in the lives of teachers – that teachers are people. Teachers have enormous challenges in their lives, and when I think of the challenges that many teachers face when dealing with the needs of their students and their own mental health issues, it’s understandable that many wonder if whether or not this work is worth this. It is not surprising that it is becoming more and more difficult to convince young people to consider teaching as a profession, because it is such a difficult job.

grinding wheel: Hard to say better than that. Leave it there.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. To hear the rest of the conversation, check out Episode 12 of Rick and Pedro’s Common Ground Podcast, ” Rick and Pedro go to the movies.”