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Bill Tierney

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At the Movies: American Teacher

When we think of teachers today we tend to think of incompetence. The New Yorker had a devastating article about teachers in New York City’s “rubber room” who clearly should have been fired; because of union rules they got their salary to sit in a room and twiddle their thumbs all day because they could not be trusted in a classroom and they could not be fired. In Los Angeles we had a crazy man teach children for years but did horrible things to them and no one protested. These are the sorts of portraits that are out there now and they are primarily negative. Rather than a noble profession far too often people will ask “why did you go into teaching?” with the assumption that there’s something wrong with you or you are just dumb.

American Teacher offers the opposite portrait. These are stories of the sorts of teachers I had as a kid. Some are young and incredibly hard working. Some are old and equally hard working. My brother is one of those sorts of teachers. They love their job. They spend their own money to buy supplies for their classrooms because the system is either broke or too bureaucratic to get them what they need. The salaries are lousy. One guy has two jobs. Another person is loved by the students but leaves to sell real estate because of the salary. Another has a baby and isn’t sure if she can return to the classroom. Another applies to a school with a good salary and feels guilty leaving her impoverished public school.

Matt Damon does the voice-over. His mom is a teacher. This is a movie that is overtly supportive of teachers. What bothers me is that by making that comment some individuals will dismiss the movie as propaganda or biased. These same critics, however, won’t say the same about Waiting for Superman or other movies that I’ve reviewed over the last several months. Why is it that one portrait is “correct” and another is not? I’m willing to listen to the discussion about the shortcoming of public education in Waiting for Superman but I’m bothered by those who dismiss everything else as biased. They are unwilling to acknowledge that movies they support have a particular bias.

What American Teacher also reminded me of is the importance of a compelling story. Far too often those on the losing side lose not because they are wrong but because they were unable or unwilling to communicate in an effective manner. Simply finding what one believes to be the “‘truth” is insufficient. Our obligation is to figure out how to convince others.

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