Stop watching feel-good teacher movies

Stop Watching Feel-Good Teacher Movies, writes  Joshua John Mackin in The Atlantic. Movies such as Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers and Lean on Me have distorted American’s ideas about teaching in struggling schools, he writes.

Idealistic young teacher enters classroom that is out of control. Young teacher tries his or her best to assert authority. Minority Student A responds with inner-city wisecrack and entire class laughs.  Minority Student B makes aggressive comments about Minority Student A and fistfight ensues.  Teacher goes home in tears.  Yet through indefatigable large-heartedness and real talk with students, young teacher eventually makes astonishing progress with these overlooked kids in the face of an unsupportive bureaucracy. 

There’s always a happy ending.

By focusing so narrowly on the inspirational teacher-overlooked student dynamic, the genre of movie teaching implicitly sends the message: All kids need is somebody to believe in them.  Think of Gabourey Sidibe’s character in Precious.  Or the “Dungeon Kids” in Take the Lead.  Almost every teacher movie follows the same dramatic arc: previously overlooked children have their potential unleashed only through the benevolent intervention of a charismatic adult.

Children who grow up with “poverty, crime, the collapse of family life, moral norms” need a lot more than one really good teacher, “even one really good Harvard-educated teacher,” Mackin writes.

The only Hollywood movies without hero teachers feature horrible teachers, he adds. Bad Teacher is not realistic either. (It’s not meant to be.)

Are there good feel-good teacher movies?

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  1. My favorite feel good teacher movie is found here:

    My only quibble with this post is the overwrought stereotyping of poor children and their families.
    They tend to be very religious and no more likely to use drugs than wealthy people. Few of them engage in criminal activity, and most will not become pregnant in their teens. The majority of them work very hard at jobs that our society could not do without, but no amount of hard work at or near the minimum wage can lift a family out of poverty.

    • That depends on what your definition of family is. It’s hard to say since you’ve provided no references for your assertions, but it sounds like you’re talking about intact nuclear families. The greatest indicator of crime in an area is the density of single parent households (which crosses socioeconomic lines to a certain extent). Marriage is also a defense against poverty for a variety of reasons–economies of scale and harnessing male aggression, to start with. So we’re not really talking about poverty–we’re talking about culture.

      • Your link is based on old data. Currently, crime rates are about the same as they were in the 60’s, even though single parent families are more common now.

        Listen, I love marriage. I have been married to my one and only for over 25 years, and I would recommend it to anyone. But the reality is that nearly 50% of low income children live with married parents.

        It is the McDonald’s Corporation, not me, that released a budget showing that a full 70 hours a week at minimum wage could not support even one person, let alone an entire family.

        Stable, married, two-parent families are the best way to raise children. And the best way to encourage the formation of such families is to make sure that hard working people make enough to lift themselves out of poverty. It is worth noting that if the minimum wage of the 1968 had kept pace with inflation, it would now be worth over $10 an hour. If the current minimum wage were raised to that level, half of the working poor would be lifted out of poverty.

        • SC Math Teacher says:


          The true minimum wage is $0 per hour.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          “If the current minimum wage were raised to that level, half of the working poor would be lifted out of poverty.”

          That assumes that all of them would keep the jobs they have. I do not think that is a reasonable assumption. Everyone agrees that a minimum wage rise to $30 would cause lots of people to lose their jobs. They just don’t provide that much service to the employer (in fact, they have to provide more than that since the employer also pays Social Security tax, unemployment insurance, and various other things that an employee never sees).

          The question is whether an increase from $7.25 to $10 would. My reading of the economics literature is that that is big enough to make a noticeable difference, especially if it goes into effect all at once, rather than being spread out over several years.

          The people most likely to not get jobs because of a high minimum are the least-skilled and least-desirable, the ones who are hurt most by not having a job (especially if a job helps them gain skills and experience). I actually think that in the long run, a high minimum wage hurts more poor people than it helps.

          BTW: the federal minimum began in 1938. It was 25 cents an hour, equivalent to a little over $4 now, considerably less than $7.25. The year when the minimum wage had its highest purchasing power ever was 1968–which is why people who are trying to convince you that raising the minimum is a good idea use it for a comparison.

        • Deirdre Mundy says:

          How many low-income kids live with TWO INCOME married families?

          I know a lot of families who would qualify for free lunch if they bothered to apply (don’t need it) because one parent is staying home. But the day-to-day standard of living for a single income family making 30K a year with 4 kids is very different than that of a dual income family making 30K a year with 4 kids. The stay-at-home parent’s time actually has a HUGE value, but one that doesn’t show up in the statistics.

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          What percentage of min-wage workers are their own self-support? What defines support? What proportion of min-wage workers support a family?
          The most lucrative thing about a min-wage job is…it’s a job, and the next most valuable thing is the next job.
          Think of it as an apprenticeship or voc ed where the teacher pays you.
          Instapundit had a piece not too long ago about a robot burger maker, which starts with the order, and starts by grinding the beef, adding condiments and other ingredients. Up to 48 custom burgers an hour. Probably end up doing better with the next model. Thing is, with no labor costs, you can put more money into ingredients, so you get a boutique burger for fast-food prices. Min-wage laws are running right up against such potential changes.
          That said, a number of low-paid jobs are half a buck or not much more over min-wage and don’t count as min-wage while not being appreciably better.
          Last I heard, most min-wage jobs were held by teenagers living with their parents. IOW, they’re not supporting a starving family on $7.25, no matter how much the propagandists–and some union contracts are tied to min-wage, as in multipliers–would want us to believe.
          Now, to my own human qualities: I think everybody should be rich. Okay? I’m okay, right?
          But not having a job which, if you had it, would pay $12 an hour makes you less rich.

          • 75% of minimum wag jobs are held by adults.

          • I guess considerations about the actual value of the job are less important then the pretense that those advocating for a minimum wage bump give a damn about the people they’ll render unemployed and unemployable.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            I think that in the long run high minimum wages hurt more poor people than they help. That’s why I oppose them. Most people, on the other hand, like minimum wages. They seem to be costlessly helping poor people. They are a feel good, do harm policy.

            Since most people support them, so do most Republicans. But what is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.

        • One of the fascinating occurrences in such discussions is the ease with which a phony presumption becomes an unquestionable, and rarely questioned, basis for the discussion.

          Ray, for instance, is advancing the idea that an employer must consider the living standards of the employee. It’s an idiotic idea when stripped of its protective camouflage of its unquestioned status since a job’s just a task someone needs done and for which they’re willing to pay. That starts to become harder to ignore when the reductio ad absurdum argument of raising the minimum wage to $30/hour, or $50/hour, or $100/hour is the response.

          But not impossible to ignore, which is the favored response of proponents of the minimum wage.

          As an extension of that argument is the implied, but rarely explored, jobs that simply never materialize because the task isn’t worth the minimum wage. Proponents of the minimum wage either ignore those people or propose welfare as a solution.

          So the failure of the minimum wage is papered over by the expansion of an entitlement which, as history has clearly demonstrated, is a hole into which whole generations drop. The “solution” to that problem then is an expansion of either make-work government jobs programs, so popular during Roosevelt’s Great Depression, or wildly over-priced skills training programs.

          I’m cautiously optimistic that this effort to raise the minimum wage will fail. Mostly because the left’s running into more and more in the way of impediments to advancing their agenda and more and more in the way of failure in defending their past successes.

          • I support a culture of life. I believe that people who work full time should receive enough money to provide them and their children with nutritious food, warm clothing, housing, and medical care. Without these things, people die. I consider all human life to be precious. Culture of life conservatives have been shouted down lately, but we still exist. Hint- Most Republicans support an increase in the minimum wage.

          • SC Math Teacher says:


            What will you say to people put out of work because the minimum wage is above their level of productivity? Will you just say that you “support a culture of life”? The fact that you are a self-proclaimed “conservative” bears no weight at all here. Maybe I’ll call myself a reasonable liberal and oppose the minimum wage, eh?

          • SC Math Teacher says:

            And by the by Ray, I do agree with you on one point: I, too, “consider all human life to be precious”.

          • A culture of life. Now, that would be in opposition to myself who supports, I assume, a culture of death, right?

            Sorry, but you’re wrong. The only culture I support, to the extent that silly phrasing means anything, is a culture of truth.

            In that culture if you’re paid more then you’re worth, it’s for a bad reason. A reason incommensurate with the principles of equality before the law which is to say, coercion. The reasons can be artfully structured to justify the coercion or obscure the coercion but inevitably there’s one form or another of arm-twisting involved and, of which you approve.

            Sorry but coercion in the service of a claimed noble cause is coercion.

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          Ray. You want everybody to have a modestly adequate lifestyle, at least.
          I’m better than you. I want everybody to be rich.

          Point is that min-wage lifting has downsides which are not addressed by wishing. Such as lost jobs.

          • I want people who work full time to make enough to sustain life. This is part of a culture of life. A minimum wage at the 1968 level is one way to achieve this. Another way would be to supply government services. I don’t prefer one over the other, but it is wrong for hard working people to be denied the means to live.

            Allen, the phrases “culture of life” and “culture of death” come from Pope John Paul II. Life is not just a “claimed noble cause” I think the Jewish sages said it best, “Whoever saves a human life, it is as if he saved a world entire.”

  2. Mackin’s right about “Bad Teacher” not being realistic. There’s a cash prize for the kids doing well on the tests which motivates Cameron Diaz’ character and what could be less realistic then that?

  3. wahoofive says:

    No one wants movies to be realistic, any more than we want “reality TV” to be like our boring, dead-end lives. Who’d watch a movie about stultifying bureaucracy, or one where the teacher finally becomes numb to her inability to reach the students and just goes through the motions? Fictional movies aren’t intended to be documentaries.

    • SC Math Teacher says:

      True enough. I think the point here, though, is that people tend to form their impressions of teachers from the popular culture, and these movies, while just movies, tend to exaggerate our true influence. It is also worth noting that some of these movies are based on real people.

  4. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Should we stop watching feel-good sports movies too? Do people decide to formulate football policy based on “Rudy?”

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Nothing wrong with such movies as long as they aren’t shown in ed school. Or to school boards. Or to the LIV.

  6. Show Reel Teacher to Everyone for Inspiration:
    I was inspired by Richard Dadier’s use of cartoons to reach students in Blackboard Jungle.
    Norm Dale in Hoosiers inspired me to teach fundamentals in athletics and academics
    Joe Clark in Lean on Me inspired me to “chain doors for the protection of students” in my career despite the costs to career advancement.
    Lou An Johnson of Dangerous Minds inspired me to provide prizes for my students and the importance of how they were presented.
    Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver showed me the importance of teaching to the test long before NCLB or Common Core
    Chippings in the 1939 version of Goodbye Mr. Chips taught me the importance of “looking the other way” in search of the SECRET.
    The list is endless if we just take time to find the value within the movies. Critics disliked the movie Teachers as it tried to cover too many topics in two hours. Teaching is always about too many hats and not enough time.
    Take time to read the book. It is free