The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why movies about rookie super-teachers hurt new teachers most of all

Placeholder while article actions load

This is the second of a five-part series on The Answer Sheet this week about the stories we tell about teaching. All of them are being written by Roxanna Elden, who combines 11 years of experience as a public-school teacher with a decade of speaking about education-related topics.

Her first book, the nonfiction “See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers,” is widely used for teacher training. Her debut novel, “Adequate Yearly Progress,” about a diverse group of educators in an urban high school, is on store shelves in wide distribution beginning this week.

By Roxanna Elden

As the author of an advice book for new teachers and, more recently, a satirical novel set in an urban school, I often find myself explaining why I have such a problem with “inspiring” movies about new teachers.

These movies are unhelpful to all teachers for many reasons, but they can be especially damaging for beginners. That’s because, in many cases, they become the stories that shape how new teachers see themselves. And the subtext of those stories goes something like this:

If you’re going to be a teacher, be ready to be a superhero.

The other adults in your students’ lives have clearly failed them. Now, their only hope is for someone like you to step in and save them.

Experience? The less you have of it, the better!

Certainly, the experienced teachers in this movie haven’t improved much in the years they’ve been on the job. Just the opposite: The corrupt system has turned them into old people in bad makeup under harsh lighting who only care about keeping their jobs. It is you, the 22-year-old directing that smoldering gaze into the camera, who has not yet learned the word “can’t.” (Sidebar: Do we really want teachers in our classrooms who don’t know the meaning of the word “can’t”?)

To underscore your youthful determination, there must at some point be a montage, set to fast-paced music, of you redecorating your classroom into the wee hours, tutoring students during lunch, taking a second job to pay for books, and generally working harder than everyone else at your school. There’s no time for sleep! There’s no need for a personal life! There’s no way this attitude could possibly become counterproductive and burn you out! (Although it probably helps that as a movie teacher, you teach only one class and never seem to grade any papers.)

The climax of this movie is nearly always a confrontation between you and your jaded colleagues in which, after just a few months on the job, you give them a good talking-to about how the secret to teaching is caring about kids. It’s clear, by this point in the plot, that caring about students is the main thing that’s been missing and that a self-righteous lecture from a beginner is the ideal way to address it. Plus, it’s not like you’ll ever need support from the people you work with, right?

In the end, though, it will all be worth it. There will be a clear, recognizable moment that shows you have indeed surmounted all the obstacles and done what no one else thought was possible — because you never stopped believing. Cue the music and let the credits roll.

Each fall, around 200,000 new teachers enter U.S. classrooms for the first time. It’s safe to say many of them have watched movies like this.

A few months into the school year, however, teachers have learned the hard way that a winning Hollywood story line doesn’t make a great guide for the actual job. Even the daily, non-action-montage responsibilities of a teacher can be exhausting. Alienating colleagues as a newcomer is not likely to lead to a happy ending. And the trial-and-error learning curve of the first year can be especially hard if you’re measuring yourself against a mythical super-teacher.

The off-screen reality is that one in 10 teachers will leave the classroom by the end of their first year. And teachers at the type of high-poverty schools featured in edu-dramas leave at twice the rate of those in low-poverty schools. Turns out, it’s hard to keep up with your part in a movie when no one is in charge of the special effects.

If we’re going to recruit and retain teachers for the length of a career, we need to start telling more realistic stories about what succeeding as a teacher looks like — and what it takes to get there. In my recent novel, “Adequate Yearly Progress,” I aimed to capture a more complete, nuanced picture of the teaching profession and the people who choose it. The real version of the job has never lined up well with the typical Hollywood story line.

Maybe it’s time to cast teachers in a different movie entirely.

Here’s Part 1 of the series on teaching by Roxanna Elden:

How the media image of the ‘great’ teacher hurts the real-life good teacher