Hero teachers in the movies

TNT’s “The Ron Clark Story,” about an unconventional white teacher who turns ghetto kids into achievers is predictable tripe, writes the Washington Post (via Eduwonk and Constrained Vision). Slate had kinder words for another teacher movie, “Half Nelson,” which avoids some of the cliches.

On the plane from Frankfort to Chicago, I watched (without sound) some of “Take the Lead,” with Antonio Banderas as an idealistic white teacher transforming ghetto kids by teaching them ballroom dancing. The cliches really pop out when you can’t hear the dialog.

Of course, I’m bitter because interest in making a movie of my book, Our School, has faded. If you believe the subtitle, it’s an “inspiring story of two teachers, one big idea and the charter school that beat the odds.” The charter school’s co-founders are white and idealistic; most of their students are underachievers from low-income Mexican immigrant families. But I tried in the book to avoid the usual cliches. Greg Lippman, co-founder and principal for the charter school’s first four years, hated the image of the hero teacher coming in and saving the day through superhuman effort. His goal was to create a school that would enable non-hero teachers to teach well. The students decide whether to transform themselves into serious students. Nobody gets rescued against his or her will.

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  1. “enable non-hero teachers to teach well”..I believe it was Peter Drucker who said “the purpose of an organization is to enable ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”

    Re the movie: maybe you should think about making your own DVD, in line with the ideas suggested here.

  2. The lack of cliches would be a real problem for most filmmakers, I fear.

    (I bought the book. Loved it.)

  3. Lack of cliches is not insurmountable. Are there any penguins?


    The problem regarding making a movie is this: A strong movie is about one or two people who have a dream, and are willing to do nearly anything to achieve it. An increasing series of growing, seemingly insurmountable obstacles must confront the character(s) on their way to their final failure (the black moment), over which they triumph through their own ability and determination.

    The problem, if “enable non-hero teachers to teach well” is really the goal, is that you don’t have a single character who is the focus. If the school just improves a little at a time over years, as most schools do, then you don’t have increasing problems leading to a black moment.

    You’d probably have to make state regulators and/or teachers’ unions the bad guys, of which the former is a cliche (yay!) and the latter a problem, since they are a Democratic constituency and Hollywood is strongly Dem.

    Could be done, but the story wouldn’t be the truth. Not that that stops Oliver Stone.

  4. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Excellent idea – you could have the students hiding a penguin, escaped from the San Jose Zoo, because someone said they were going to sell their penguins to an exotic restaurant chain.
    [someone take it from here]
    I shall refuse to see another movie until they make yours.

  5. Funny you should mention “Take the Lead.” I also watched it, without the sound, on a flight west from Providence, and had the same reaction — the cliches just screamed out. It looked like several movies I’d already seen. I wondered if it would seem as cliched if I plugged in my headphones. It was.