Cheery news: Won’t Back Down had a hideous opening. Here’s a hint, folks: teachers are a big piece of the audience for simplistic, feel-good teacher movies, so it’s a terrible idea to make a simplistic feel-good teacher movie suggesting that most of them suck.
I, however, am not a fan of simplistic, feel-good teacher movies: Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me, Mr. Holland’s Opus, or Freedom Writers, are tripe. (But the best of that group by far is Holland.)
I occasionally enjoy movies about flamboyant teachers for whom students function primarily as an audience (Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Dead Poets Society)—and in my enrichment classes, I fear I am that sort of teacher—but they send the wrong signal and thus, I deny them official status as teacher films. They are “idiosyncratic adult who happens to be a teacher opens the eyes of his appreciative audience” movies.
Stand and Deliver is overrated, but Lou Diamond Phillip’s performance covers up a lot of sins. The story’s a big lie alas, and the students did cheat.
Up the Down Staircase, written by Bel Kaufman—still enjoying life at 101, Holla!—is far superior to To Sir with Love, which had the bigger star and English accents, so the first film has been mostly forgotten. It’s worth a look for its honesty and refusal to portray simplistic success. Staircase, like Kindergarten Cop, a guilty pleasure, and the delightful Goodbye Mr. Chips, does a nice job of focusing on classroom management, so essential to teaching inner city kids, wild suburban kindergartners, or British boarding school brats.
Searching for Bobby Fischer is a beautiful film about parenting and teaching; both Vinnie and Mr. Pandolfini are exemplars of their individual approaches. School of Rock is sublimely silly, but at its heart is a similar film; specialist teachers (the arts, chess, what have you) have all the fun, sometimes.
There has been much in the news lately about the importance of teaching writing, which reminded me of an odd, lesser, film for both Doris Day (another Holla!) and Clark Gable, Teacher’s Pet. Day is quite gorgeous as a journalism professor who thinks rough, tough (and far too old) newspaper editor Clark is actually a journalism student with great talent. Gig Young has a great role as the intellectual boyfriend (no holla for Gig, alas). It’s no great shakes, but has two or three excellent scenes about the “how” of writing, particularly towards the end, when Clark tells a young Nick Adams how much time he had to spend learning to write.
Best Movie about Teaching Ever: The Browning Version
But the most perfect movie ever made about teaching focuses, paradoxically, on a failed teacher. Written by Terrence Rattigan, The Browning Version explores the last days of classics teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris, who is leaving a mid-tier “public school” post from which he has been prematurely retired. It’s the kind of play with a few parts, the type about which one says “the TV version has Ian Holm as the Crock, Judy Dench as the wife, and Michael Kitchen as the lover” and anyone familiar with the play goes oh, great cast! Albert Finney played the Crock in the 1992 remake, but Michael Redgrave offers the definitive version in Anthony Asquith’s 1951 film.
To describe the plot is to unnecessarily depress the unprepared. One must witness four or five scenes of brutal psychological cruelty and then blink away tears at moments of extraordinary kindness. Rattigan was gay when homosexual activity was a crime, and that may be why that in the pantheon of Brit Lit, Crocker-Harris’ wife is ranked second only to Lady Macbeth as the Ultimate Evil Female, from whose clutches Crocker-Harris must be rescued by a sympathetic male friend if only to view the wreckage of his failed life from a safe distance.
The Browning Version examines that failed life through the prism of the Crock’s status as a failed teacher. His failure lies not in his ability or knowledge, but in his failure to teach with joy and passion and, most importantly, in his failure to show his students that he cared for them (although it’s clear that privately, he did). Faced with students who didn’t care about his subject, he gave up. Eduformers talk about such teachers with cheap abandon and no understanding; Redgrave, a theater legend in the best of his few film roles, does nothing on the cheap, and his pain, which rarely cracks his stiff British reserve, is ever present. If you’re up for it, watch the Himmler scene, and see what eduformers miss about these failing teachers.
But if we must bear witness to the Crock’s failure, we also are given the relief of his redemption in the film’s great insight: students bear a responsibility to their teachers, too. Thanks to the glorious accident of a young man who normally loves science but thinks the classics a bit of a bore, Crocker-Lewis learns that he is, still, a teacher who can find and inspire passion for his subject, given a willing student. Of course, if one teaches Greek and Latin—or algebra II and math support— willing, engaged students are about as thick on the ground as dodos. In the early scenes, we see Crocker’s class paralleled with the science teacher’s (who is also Crocker’s wife’s lover). The science teacher, who has an easy, informal rapport with his students, also has a way cooler subject and offers up a whiz bang experiment. Crock has nothing but old plays and conjugations. How much of a teacher’s ability to hold on to enthusiasm is dependent on the subject he teaches? How much easier is it to hold onto your own motivation when most of your students are actually interested in your subject?
I’ve been at three schools now, all of them with a high percentage of low ability students, and the math teachers are always on the outside looking in. They aren’t the ones the principals thank profusely at the end of the year for inspiring the students. When math classes have a 40-60% failure rate, math teachers don’t make “favorite” or “best” lists. They are the ones who are on the hook for test scores, the ones who are simultaneously expected to keep standards high but not fail too many students, the ones most likely to see students two years in a row in the same class. I became a teacher knowing full well this was in my future, knowing that most of my students, at best, would think of me as someone who makes a horrible hour and hated subject marginally bearable. Yet even with that hardnosed realism, I still often end the day feeling a tad beat down. I cope with the knowledge by continuing my work in private instruction and tutoring, where my kids think I’m the bomb. Many teachers don’t have this out, and leave for schools with higher ability kids–or leave teaching altogether—unable to stand the dreary hatred reflected back at them class after class.
The Browning Version assigns all blame to the teacher for his failure, but at the same time shows how little it takes to put the Crock back on his game. All the man needed was one student who cared; he responded tentatively and then more openly, as the teaching relationship gelled. We are left with the impression that Crocker-Lewis, reminded of what teaching feels like when students care, will go to his new post with a determination to at least show his kids he cares, and search for the very few who might be engaged. That is, we trust and believe he’ll do his job.
The Browning Version is neither easy nor feel-good. It will thus add nothing to the current educational policy debate. But every teacher should watch it, if only to remind themselves that giving up damages souls, their own even more than those of their students.