The fictions of teaching from ‘Dangerous Minds’ to ‘Downton Abbey’

University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky enjoys the PBS mega-hit “Downton Abbey,” but says a current plot line about a character becoming a teacher romanticizes the profession and minimizes the struggles to become excellent at it.

By Peter Smagorinsky

As the final season of “Downton Abbey” winds down, the manor faces the dwindling of the service staff as old estates face new social and economic realities. The eternally snake-bitten Mr. Molesley finally finds satisfaction, appointed as a teacher in the Downton School. But his first day in the classroom is a disaster.

Back in the Abbey, he is consoled by Mrs. Baxter, who suggests he share his experiences as a man of humble origins with his students. On Day 2, after acknowledging he has come to the classroom from a lifetime of service and is not a well-bred intellectual, the students respond they, too, have known lives of scarcity, and quickly resonate with him on a personal level.

Within minutes, he has their rapt attention and proceeds with a lesson that leaves his students “spellbound,” according to Daisy. He is, she cries, a “natural” teacher.

Sharing his humble beginnings with his students, "Downtown Abbey" character Mr. Moseley wins them over, It's not that easy in real life.

Sharing his humble beginnings with his students, “Downton Abbey” character Mr. Molesley wins them over. An education professor says it’s not that easy in real life.

I’m a fan of “Downton Abbey,” but this storyline bothers me. It is part of a long line of cultural narratives in which simple changes by teachers can rapidly convert students from brutish swine to dedicated scholars: Michelle Pfeiffer’s appearance in a leather jacket in Dangerous Minds, Hilary Swank’s acknowledgement of a mistake in Freedom Writers, and many more classroom myths.

Teaching is not as easy as slipping on a leather coat as Michelle Pfeiffer's character did in "Dangerous Minds."

Good teaching is not as easy as slipping on a leather jacket as Michelle Pfeiffer’s character did in “Dangerous Minds” to relate to her students.

In my most recent interview with a teacher whose career I have followed for the last seven years, she spoke of the exhaustion she has always felt as a teacher from being compared to these cultural narratives.

Failing to live up to those images has always left her feeling inadequate. Why doesn’t the leather jacket work for me? she wonders.

The prevalence of such narratives has become rooted in many teachers’ conceptions of their own value, even when they know Hollywood provides miraculous scripts of success that aren’t available in the teeming world of the real school classroom.

It also seems to suggest that scripts can change how teaching and learning unfold. Much instruction these days is heavily scripted so there is great alignment across teaching and assessment.

Now, it’s important for teaching to be aligned with assessment, don’t get me wrong. But assessments are now written by people far removed from the classroom, and their scorers come from such sources as Craigslist ads.

And yet, simple fixes dominate the national narrative on how to address challenges facing schools. These challenges themselves are usually grossly exaggerated in order to make the solutions more attractive, whether it’s charter schools, vouchers, accountability testing, or other romanticized solution to problems that may or may not even exist.

This belief in the simple solution is now well-ingrained in the public mind, to the detriment of the teachers who daily tackle the real challenges facing schools, suggesting all we need to make hungry, malnourished children gritty enough to become eager learners is a really cool teacher.

Education does face problems. Among them is the myth that educational problems are easy to fix with a simple solution. That works in Hollywood, but basing policy on fiction is bad policy in Georgia and other states. I just wish the policymakers could recognize that among the major problems facing education is that fiction more than fact provides the basis for the policies that they impose on teachers and students.

 

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23 comments
class80olddog
class80olddog

Are the solutions simple?  Yes, but also very hard.  You have to have an ADMINISTRATION with gonads.  Discipline - you have to get the problem children OUT of the classroom before they drag down the other students.  Attendance - you have to address the problems that poor attendance creates (using EFFECTIVE means, such as putting non-compliant parents in JAIL).  Social promotion - retain students who have not learned so that they are not lost the next year.  Create special classes for attempted remediation.  Teachers' grading - administrators have to back up their teachers and definitely not hamstring them as far as grading goes (such as "no-zeros" policies, and "no grade below 50").  A teacher should feel free to give a "F" when it is warranted (and then retain the student).

elementary-pal
elementary-pal

@class80olddog 

I am such a fool for thinking that anything I say will get you off your soapbox.  Your response to everything is to denigrate administrators as if we don't do any of the things you suggest.  Most days I can ignore your drivel, but today, I just have to share.  I apologize in advance for the length of this post.

Being female, I have no gonads, but I promise I can hold my own with discipline.  Where do you propose we put these children that we remove from classrooms?  It is not like we have extra teachers standing around waiting for children to teach. (and just so you know, most of the time they end up sitting in my office doing work so the teacher can do what needs to be done in the classroom.)  AND most of the time misbehavior at the elementary school level is more about the lack of academic understanding than it is about "wanting" to disrupt other students.  So, if I take them out of the classroom I am going to continue to decrease their understanding of the concepts and therefore, create even more behavior problems.  Now, this is not to say that I don't remove students from the classroom, I do - regularly.  But my goal - my job - is to educate children - ALL children - not just the ones who are driven to school in clean, shiny cars.  Not just the ones who come to school knowing colors and letters and how to hold a book.  But the ones who come dirty and hungry (and YES, that happens on a daily basis); the ones who have never had a book read to them; the ones who, at age 10, will go home and babysit their siblings while Mom and/or Dad is at work; the ones who know nothing about geography but can translate important information for their family.                                                                                                  

Now, let's talk about attendance.  How exactly would you like for me to enforce that?  I can call parents, send the required letters, report them to DFACS or the court, but if the parent is in jail, do you think the child is going to be at school?  Children of poverty tend to miss more school because they are sick.  Yes, there are parents who keep them out of school for terrible reasons, but the great majority are at home because they are sick.  I would love for all the children in our school to be here every day - and most of our kids would tell you the same thing.                                                                                                          

And finally, retention and grades...Again I ask you, where are you going to put these children who are retained?  You suggested a special class.  That would require at least one  more  teacher.  Who is giving us that money? (and yes, we do retain children at our school -  about 8% of each grade level.) Where grades are concerned, our faculty is great at not "giving" grades but having students "earn" them.  There is not a problem with a child getting a low grade if that is what they earned, but since our job is to teach them, SHOULD we be satisfied with a child having a failing grade or should we reteach information and try again?  We also have to be careful that the grade is a representation of what a child knows and can do and not if they have followed all the rules.  Work habits and knowledge are not the same thing.                                                                                                         

It is obvious that you dislike administrators and think that we work against teachers instead of with them.  Teaching is a difficult job. Everyday teachers hear others telling them what they should be doing; how they should be doing it; and what they are doing wrong - and usually this comes from folks who have never walked in their shoes - or stood in their classrooms!  My job is not easy, either.  Because while I am trying to protect teachers, make their life a little easier, make sure the toilets flush and the building is clean,  take care of parents,  make decisions about curriculum and instruction,  and let's not forget about discipline and attendance and grades, I am also responsible for the learning that takes place in the building.                                                                                                     

So, when you are ready to let go of the broken record and climb down off your soap box, come spend a day in our school and see if you can do what we do.   When you have picked up kids because they missed the bus, taken sick kids home because the family only has one car and Dad is at work, helped a parent de-louse a house, sat with a crying 5-year old on the first day of school  because he/she can't understand a word of what is being said, helped a 5th grade girl wash off the street-walker make-up she wore to school,  paid for a few field trips, and listened to a child explain their thoughts on a presidential candidate who wants to send them back to Mexico and then make them build a wall without crying, then you can do my job.  Until then...well, my mama told me not to say anything if I couldn't say something nice. 

class80olddog
class80olddog

@elementary-pal @class80olddog  Thank you for your response - I don't agree with your ideas but you at least make a case.  I am surprised that you do not blame your superintendent and the board for forcing you to do things you would rather not (or lose your job).  From some of the things you say it sounds like you are TRYING to do the right thing.  I applaud your efforts at discipline and at retention.  Are you at a "failing" school?  I would think not. BTW, I do not dislike all administrators, but SOMEBODY is the cause of the issues I have raised, and teachers insist that it is not THEM, so who are the culprits? Have you instituted a "no-zeros" or a "minimum 50% grade" policy?  Then I am not talking about you personally.

palepadre
palepadre

Improve parenting. Here comes the ACLU! Why? Because to do that,you need to know how well or poorly their parent(s) did in school. Genetics does matter. My half-sister and half-brother. Same Mother, Father they had 5th grade dropout. All he knew for 35 yrs, was work in the Steel Mill for himself, pre-marriage and to his death, for us three.  Mother was a high school attendee, in Vocational pursuits. Sewing actually and sometimes made a low hourly wage, or piece work. None of us went to college. None of us was able to ask our parents for homework help. My brother remained a janitor until his death at age Fifty. My sister a Hair Stylist to this day, Thirty Years. Ambition was not present in those parents.That is the start, the parents. Should a child pursue a physical education ? i.e. A Trade. Which assumes, that the subjects for them would be reading,writing and basic math and a time block for hands on apprenticeship.  I did not know my father, until i was in my sixties and he was already deceased. He did retire from the U.S. Navy after Twenty one years, with gold stripes. I joined the Navy, as has my son. Ten years and then I got out and eventually joined  the Georgia Guard. My father was more motivated and educated than my sister and brother's father. I benefited by my having not a great mathematics education, but a father who had ambition.Finally ! Whew! Different strokes for different children, based on their parents school records and counseling the family, that sending their child to a high cost college would be of little value and advise them of the vocational route. 

readcritic
readcritic

@palepadre Schools today want all children to be college and career ready. Not all students are mentally intelligent enough to go to college, yet it is dictated that all children will take "College and Career" ready classes. How unrealistic! Gone are the days of vocational education and that is a shame for those who cannot afford or perform at college level.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@readcritic @palepadre I HATE the phrase
"college and career ready"!!!!  Maybe it is just semantics, but I think it gives some people the impression that EVERY student MUST attend college.

readcritic
readcritic

Many problems exist beyond nutrition. There was no "free lunch" program when the "Boomers" went to school. I know many from Appalachia who were often hungry and tired as children of coal miners who earned very little, but these youngsters were polite and eager to learn. They did their homework and paid attention in class. That is not the case now. Discipline is sorely lacking in schools today. The administrators don't want to deal with parents and the label of being a "dangerous school." No one but the teacher is responsible for anything. Students with parole officers, anger management counselors, ankle bracelets, knuckle tats and gang activity, discipline records from other states and/or schools, failing grades two and three years in a row, prison records, truancy, special ed designations, pregnancy, etc. are jammed 35 or more into select classrooms. These teachers are evaluated the same way a teacher with IB or AP students in smallers classes. It is easy for the administrator to set-up a teacher "not favored" and then find fault with the lessons or classroom behavior of such students. Many comments on the evaluation are definite "gotcha's" and are manufactured to blow the observation out of proportion. The teacher has no recourse. He/she is docked salary and will, within two years, lose his/her teacher certificate based on the type of students assigned to him/her. Accountability of the classroom teacher is not a dirty word, but the way it is being done is not a fair and equitable system. 

palepadre
palepadre

@readcritic Some see discipline as unfair, because a single parent is too busy working and the child comes home to an empty house. So, they find companionship with some gang,which teaches them that the gang members are their only friends. Then there is the lawsuit, if a teacher "Humiliates" the parent(s) by pointing out their child's bad behavior.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@readcritic Discipline is one of the "Trinity" of issues that I assert are the main causes of failing schools.

WardinConyers
WardinConyers

The best solution to improve education is to improve parenting, but how?

class80olddog
class80olddog

@WardinConyers You could start by eliminating incentives to have more children that you cannot afford.(food stamps, TANF, EITC). 

class80olddog
class80olddog

@dg417s @class80olddog @WardinConyers The question is how to improve PARENTING, not how to improve CHILDREN.  You can take children away from parents who don't feed them and create institutions where they can be properly taken care of.

redweather
redweather

Teachers have to be able to "make it real." Some can, some can't. They also must have short memories when a particular lesson falls flat. Or as I sometimes do, follow up an unsuccessful lesson with a classroom discussion about why it fell flat. Honesty is a true asset in the classroom. Finally, just because some teacher somewhere makes something work in the classroom doesn't mean you can make it work in your classroom.  

palepadre
palepadre

@redweather I take it, your students are well behaved and have parents that "Climb all over them," when they see their grades or when you notify them that "Quincy" was texting in class? The source of the children will control the results the teacher can produce. After realizing, that the "Mandatory" subjects, Physics,Geometry,Algebra, were not ones I was mentally able to understand, I just,remained silent. and did what I could. Not wanting to deprive my fellow students who actually were accomplished in those subjects and needed the teacher's  attention.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@palepadre @redweather 

Redweather has noted in earlier posts that he teaches in a local college; and you were writing before (great post!) about earlier grades. As a retired professor myself, I can attest that the typical problems for these levels differ...and that we build on the work those earlier teachers have done.

redweather
redweather

@palepadre @redweather I wrote only to encourage the teacher Mr. Smagorinsky mentions feeling exhausted and inadequate, especially when compared to the fond narratives Hollywood has often given us.

Legong
Legong

Public schools are failing because children are "hungry and malnourished?" 

Americans have never been better nourished. Obesity is increasingly common among our youth, and free & subsidized meals widespread. What world does the author inhabit?

The most dangerous fictions are ones Smagorinsky repeatedly puts forward in this column: that accountability is somehow unnecessary and parental choice an impertinent notion.

dg417s
dg417s

I'll tell you what.... you survive for a month on just the meals provided by your local school and see how clearly you're thinking.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@dg417s I just visited a high school and was served a lunch - a great meal.  Then we were told by the school nutritionist how hard it was to abide by FEDERAL regulations on sodium, and how they had to take away ketchup packets, and make the meals as bland as possible.

dg417s
dg417s

@class80olddog @dg417s I am not saying it's not a decent meal - what I am saying is make that your only meal for a month (well, you can have the school breakfast as well).... but no dinner, no meals on the weekends when school is out, etc.

palepadre
palepadre

@dg417s @class80olddog Meals. Yes, no food, if the parent(s) are following the same education path their child(ren) are on. Single mother or grandmother raising children.Let the father of her child(ren) move back in, even if she gets government aid. Because, it likely? costs that money and some more to prosecute young people in the criminal justice system. With a man who fathered children in the home, you get two things. One another income and two a man who if he is normal, considers the woman his, and also his territory. It is rare to find polygamy practiced, such that one woman has several husbands.