Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Not-So-Bad Teacher

Van Halen--"Hot For Teacher" (mp3)

Bad Teacher does not need to be made into something that it isn't. It is not satire, social commentary, an indictment of our educational system, a witty expose or anything of the sort. It is not especially relevant to our times or mandatory viewing for anyone entering the profession.

But it's pretty funny and it does get a lot of things right.

PLOT: Self-serving gold-digger becomes teacher after fiance dumps her. Convinced she can get another rich man with a "boob job," she begins scheming for the money to do that.

Forget, for a moment, the Hollywood trappings of the film that must make her as outrageous as possible. As a teacher, Cameron Diaz's character, Elizabeth Halsey, shows movies to kill class time, sucks up to the principal by feigning interest in his hobby, minimizes her indiscretions, disparages the teacher who seems to do everything perfectly, doesn't bother to learn her students' names, teaches to a test, pays little attention to her required chaperoning duties, has nothing to say to parents on Parents' Night, tutors solely for the money, does whatever it takes to win the "teaching bonus." And, when a student bring her a homemade gift of cookies, she doesn't hesitate to tell the girl how much they suck. She does the same thing with student essays, with even more extreme language.

In short, she is some combination of the daily actions (and desired actions) of a typical teacher. Not all teachers, of course. Not all teachers do or want to do or say all of these things. But after a quick, mental, ethnographic study of my school, I have no trouble coming up with teachers who do each of her "bad" actions in the list above. In fact, there are many candidates for each of them.

Her hungover-driven malaise captures the challenges of the profession. Some of the work is drudgery. Some students have been so tightly wound for success by their parents that they are practically insufferable. Some teachers have staked out and continually defend some turf so much that it makes them poor colleagues. As the outsider trying to take advantage of the system, she also exposes its pettiness—the little things one must do to be part of the team.

Among her colleagues, we see the ones who are afraid to challenge the rules in any way and the "good teacher" ones who work the system in "good" ways that are rewarded--tattling on other teachers, focusing on state standards to a fault, scheming in their own ways for their own advancement. But even the “star” teacher is a victim of the system—she got into her teaching too much 3-4 years earlier and apparently had some kind of breakdown that her adminstrators refuse to forget.

You know, my wife hates movies and television shows about lawyers. Why? Because she is one. And, as such, she can't stand the liberties that such films take with courtroom procedure or the use of evidence or the obvious conflicts of interest that would keep particular lawyers from actually being involved in the cases in question. She can’t suspend the disbelief necessary to watch them. Similarly, so many teaching movies, despite their best intentions, become cringe-worthy. Even something as uplifting as Dead Poets' Society (the soaring ending with a student suicide and a teacher firing) has not held up over time. These teachers who are so committed, so driven to help their students to be the best, they don't exist. There is no point to showing their lives outside the classroom.

You can’t make that criticism of Bad Teacher. Despite the exaggerations of her circumstances, it’s refreshing to see a teaching character who deals with real-life concerns outside the classroom, who can’t drag her best self to school every single day, whose personal relationships impact her relationships with her students, who needs the extrinsic motivations of money and vanity to kick her into doing her best work.

No, Bad Teacher doesn’t need to be made into something that it isn’t. But neither does teaching itself. Teaching is not about the grand gesture, the noble sacrifice, or even about being one of the ranks of committed professionals. It’s about the daily grind, the small victory, the offhand comment or spontaneous action that may change a student’s life forever. And it’s also about a paycheck and the unpleasant things and mundane jobs someone might have to take on to keep or to augment that paycheck. And about the self-doubt that haunts every real teacher, the worry that someone might discover that we, like Elizabeth Halsey, are the frauds that we often think we are.


BeckEye said...

Despite my severe dislike for Cameron Diaz, I really want to see this movie.

Billy said...

I imagine wizards get really pissed off at how much Harry Potter oversimplifies the complexities of their training process. And seriously, all wizards know Floo Powder is complete bullshit.

Good post, but that last couple of paragraphs especially are golden.

I remember thinking, at the time, that the TV show "Boston Public" made a pretty good go at it, but apparently I was the only human being watching it.

Daisy said...

I was watching Boston Public until the one armed woman escaped from the basement.

Bob said...

Daisy, you made me laugh out loud. Thanks.

troutking said...

I think more people would see this movie and her other ones if Cameron Diaz did NOT do publicity tours. A more annoying talk show guest would be difficult to find.

On another note, I think your post can be summarized thusly: "No Method, No Teacher, No Guru."