Teacher Movie Mythology and Won't Back Down

Peter Cohee

The Muses, Hesiod says, walked up to him and declared their role in the cosmos. “We know,” said they, “how to tell lies that seem true. And we know how, when we feel like it, to tell the actual truth too.” By this allegory Hesiod defines myth: a falsehood in which we still recognize and say something permanently true.

Man seems mythopoeic by nature, which may be a feature of human cognition. For myth is a kind of efficient thinking: the mind fits complex or chaotic reality into recognizable patterns of action and stores them as meaningful narrative. Aristotle used the word mythos to mean just that: the plot of a tragedy. With its rigid infrastructure and yet variability in outer details, a story can then be remembered, transported, passed along through generations, and adapted to different circumstances, but still convey core truth about human life.

In stock Indo-European folktale and myth narratemes, some damage, lack, disturbance or challenge occurs. To restore order, the young hero, unpromising at first, must undertake a quest, suffer and nearly fail, kill or capture an evil (saurian) monster, rescue and then marry the beautiful princess, exact revenge on an enemy, and finally settle down to rule wisely as king. The original damage must be repaired, right must prevail.

Most teacher movies exhibit this mythic structure in interesting ways, and a recent one, Won't Back Down, diverges from it in ways that may prove significant. I'll restrict this survey to British and American ones, which I list chronologically at the end. I exclude education-reform documentaries such as Waiting for Superman, The Cartel, American Teacher, and the Teached series, though they, too, seem to conform to mythic patterns. Four television series about schools (Mr. Novak, Room 222, Welcome Back, Kotter, and Boston Public), while also deserving attention, are likewise set aside.

Teacher movies as such, many of which are based on real persons' experiences, conform to a basic story formula:

A young, idealistic first-year teacher arrives on the first school day at a troubled public high school. There is often an assembly. The kids are Hobbesian savages, the administration feckless and remote. They and most older teachers are cynical and despise and fear the students. The hero(ine)’s first class is a disaster: the kids disrespect and take advantage of him or her. But the young hero has a fighting spirit, refuses to be beaten, and comes back with fresh teaching ideas and methods. He believes in his pupils, tries to reach them at their level and in novel ways. Sometimes the teacher visits students’ homes or places of work, or even allows a student to stay with him or her. There is a confrontation with a thug chieftain, which the teacher wins. A dramatic turnaround occurs. Beginning with one or a few, students gradually respect the teacher and learn. The class settles down, the students improve remarkably.

The school itself has serious problems: violence (a switchblade is iconic), rape or threat of rape, drugs, gangs, graffiti, and teachers who don't care. There are racial conflicts. Parents, when present or involved at all, are hostile. Some would rather have their child working than learning. A point comes when our hero(ine) is ready to quit but is talked out of it by a wise older teacher or administrator, or a problem kid suddenly shows interest and ability. Bad boys are removed. There might be a heartbreaking dropout and and/or a student who is saved from that or a worse fate. A student might die.

The story concludes at the end of the first year. Bright and happy youngsters greet the hero teacher and say they look forward to coming back in the fall. A student is presented as the first in the family to graduate and, having won a scholarship, matriculate. College aspirations in defiance of low expectations are the constant lodestar.

While the substructure is preserved, some external variations are allowed. The hero might be a principal (Lean on Me, Hard Lessons, The Principal). The teacher might be a substitute (Richard Mulligan in Teachers, Jack Black in School of Rock, lugubrious Adrien Brody in Detachment). Sometimes the school is not a troubled public one but an exclusive private academy (Goodbye, Mr. Chips, To Serve Them All My Days, Dead Poets Society, School of Rock, The Emperor's Club). In private-school movies the problems are individual, not institutional or systemic. One interesting story blend is Dangerous Minds: barrio kids are bused to a tony Palo Alto public high school, within which they are confined to their own “academy,” a scholastic ghetto made all the more painful by proximity to the happy, well-behaved (mostly white) kids who make up the rest of the school's population. Taking these changes into account, twelve films set the paradigm: Blackboard Jungle; To Sir, With Love; Up the Down Staircase; Hard Lessons; The Principal; Stand and Deliver; Lean on Me; Dangerous Minds; The Ron Clark Story; Music of the Heart, Freedom Writers, and Detachment. 

Schools in these movies are outlaw country until the hero rides in. And it is interesting how closely these films correspond to classic Westerns (think High Noon) wherein a peace officer, alone like Will Kane or with some support from the townspeople, stands up to a criminal gang and its boss bent on keeping their control. The best Westerns, of course, are about the rule of law and the paradox of violence used to restore and maintain civil decency (Shane, The Shootist). Glenn Ford’s transition from western movies into his role as Rick Dadier in The Blackboard Jungle was natural. Perhaps teacher films are our new Westerns. In teacher movies the conflict comes to a last-stand showdown, as if in a high school Hadleyville: education and its promises versus barbarity. The teacher or principal as hero, by demonstrating the necessary moral and physical courage, shows most of the students that they have – and must make – this choice.

A good myth is about more than its plot, of course. Just so, teacher movies are not really about schooling per se, that is, teaching and learning. Almost all of them are "social justice" dramas, salvationist and redemptive in essence. They are about hope vanquishing despair, with the public school as theater of battle. They express our deepest worries about disintegration of family and neighborhood or urgent problems of race and poverty or class. They give voice to our fervent American faith that public education will reduce or even eliminate wealth disparities.

With a few exceptions (Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Corn is Green, Good Morning, Miss Dove, and The Emperor's Club), the dragon in teacher movies is a Vogon bureaucracy. It obsesses over state test scores, puts up with a dysfunctional status quo, stifles innovation, kills enthusiasm, is helpless to remove or improve incompetent teachers, and passes pupils on who haven't learned anything. Oddly, though, these films also evince a progressive belief that the school, as an agency of state, is – perhaps alone – able to redeem young people from blighted lives and neighborhoods. Family offers no stability or high expectations here, has no power of its own. This follows the firm educationist dogma that the school and the teacher matter far more in a child's education than the quality of parenting and home life. Everything thus depends on a single heroic classroom teacher.

Won't Back Down is a very different teacher film in several important ways and, I think, represents changed attitudes about school reform. The story turns on recent "parent trigger" laws that allow interested parties to wrest control of failing schools from their existing administration and faculty. The film is a walk through all the conflicts of emotion, loyalty, and personal interest inherent in public school reform. It preserves the basic myth structure: a courageous David-like educator battling a Goliath of complacency, gradually gaining respect and support, finally winning. At the end, the school is bright and happy, children are learning, and there is joy in the 'hood. But there are some really fresh takes in this piece.

First, it's about an elementary school. Third-graders usually don't carry switchblades, so the typical gangsta problems are absent.  It certainly needs to be recognized that reform must start much earlier. Second, educational bureaucracy, the usual monster, is joined by another, the teachers union. Now this is significant. Teacher union obstructionism, only obliquely hinted at in other movies (e.g. Richard Masur's building rep in Hard Lessons), is here quite plainly a serpent in need of slaying. This indicates a new willingness to say and to hear it said, even in popular media, that teacher unions are part of the problem. The NEA and AFT, impotent in their rage to articulate any cogent response, sputtered and foamed about the film's funding by oilman Phil Anschutz and other conservatives. And actually WBD does try to represent the genuine loyalties many teachers have for their (local) union. Third, a parent starts the fight, not a teacher. But she does soon coax a teacher at the school who, reluctant at first, eventually becomes a champion of the piece. This is a dynamic duo, not a lonely hero. Both are divorced and raising a child with a learning disability. Neither absent fatherhood nor single motherhood is addressed as part of the problems their own and other children are having; rather these seem a necessary condition of the mothers' heroism. But the important difference here is actively involved parents, versus the absent and irresponsible ones usually depicted.

Given its sentimentality and clichés, Won't Back Down is not a very good film and didn't do well at the box office. But I think it's important as an index of changing attitudes about school reform, of frustration with and anger at educational officialdom and teacher unions, and of recognition of parents' responsibilities in their children's education. We'll see if it starts a trend.

* * *

Here is my list of teacher movies, from earliest to most recent. Many have antecedent novels, plays, biographies, or autobiographies. Important education reform laws or papers appear to have had some effect, so I list the last three sets of movies after such actions.

Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939), The Corn is Green (1945), Good Morning, Miss Dove (1955), The Blackboard Jungle (1955), To Sir, With Love (1967), Up the Down Staircase (1967), To Serve Them All My Days (1980).

After A Nation at Risk (1983): Teachers (1984), Hard Lessons (1986), The Principal (1987), Stand and Deliver (1988), Lean on Me (1989), Dead Poets Society (1989).

After Goals 2000 (1994): Dangerous Minds (1995), Mr Holland's Opus (1995), Music of the Heart (1999).

After No Child Left Behind (2002): The Emperor's Club (2002), School of Rock (2003), The Ron Clark Story (2006), Chalk (2006), Freedom Writers (2007), Beyond the Blackboard (2011), Detachment (2011), Won’t Back Down (2012), Here Comes the Boom (2012).

Peter Cohee teaches Classics in the Boston area and studies American educational history.

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