6 Ways in Which Teaching Is Nothing Like the Movies

Where’s MY Oscar??

I used to be a big sucker for inspirational movie teachers. The swelling orchestral music, the improbably attractive and articulate young people, the “failing” schools with hardwood floors and class sizes of less than 15 kids … I loved all of it.

I’d probably still love them, except that I’m not allowed to watch them anymore. My family decided to have an intervention after the fourth or fifth time I tried to bring a child home with me during my first year teaching. They sat me down and said that if the movie was set in a school, was described as “uplifting” in the reviews, and seemed to involve turning anyone’s life around, I needed to stay away.

Luckily for me, Sister Act II: Back in the Habit comes on TV pretty much twice a day, so I still get my movie teachers fix. And they forgot to mention inspirational foster-care movies, which is what they really should have been focused on. But now that I’ve got 10 years in the classroom under my belt, I can’t help noticing the ways real-life teaching differs from that depicted on the silver screen.

1. The Acronyms

Remember the part in Dangerous Minds when Michelle Pfeiffer talks about doing the SSTs before the CRCT to boost the CCRPI in accordance with the SIP? No? In fact, do you ever hear her use an acronym? She’s too busy getting those gang kids off drugs and stuff to worry about government regulations. Real teaching, on the other hand, is like speaking in code. Here’s a list of common acronyms I’ve used within the past week:

  • IEP (Individualized Education Plan)
  • SST (Student Support Team)
  • 504 (Shut up, I realize numbers aren’t acronyms!)
  • SLO (Student Learning Objective. Also a way of describing underachievers.)
  • CCRPI (I have no idea what this stands for.  I just know we get yelled at about it in meetings a lot.)
  • CRCT (standardized test)
  • ITBS (standardized test)
  • CoGAT (standardized test)
  • MAP (standardized test)
  • R2-D2 (Star Wars robot)

2. The Grading

You know what’s adorable about inspirational movie teachers? The way they grade papers. When Robin Williams sits down in front of a stack of papers in Dead Poets Society, they’re all neatly arranged and he’s staring intently at one, pen poised, ready to help guide one of those good-looking boys down the road to self-discovery before jotting down a score in his leather-bound grade book.


Look, maybe I’m just doing it wrong. But my grade book is a dog-eared old Squibbs—which I had to buy myself, since the school doesn’t give those out anymore—that is so overflowing with student work it’s about to attain consciousness and try to take over the world.

In addition to beautifully written student papers, there’s a folded-up poster or two (turned in several weeks late), some kid’s school pictures that I was supposed to pass out during study hall but forgot about, three Costco receipts, and two or three notes I intercepted during class and held on to in case I needed blackmail material.


3. The Teacher’s Lounge

My kids have this mental image of a wood-paneled room with a roaring fire and possibly an open bar filled with single-malt scotch and aged bourbon. It’s time to dispel a few of these rumors. Here’s what our faculty workroom—who has a lounge anymore?—looks like:

There are three copiers. One doesn’t work. One goes “on vacation” one day a week because they decided we were abusing the privilege of having enough materials for all our students. The third one’s new and, I have to admit, pretty awesome. But it’s always in use, so some teachers get there before six in the morning to make their copies. I mean, not me.  But some people do.

There’s a paper cutter, the guillotine type that’s basically begging me to get some workers’ comp. There’s a hole punch and a stapler that’s usually out of staples. There’s a single-occupancy bathroom for the entire faculty with no hot water. (For a while they were also watering down the soap, I swear to you.) And there’s cake. There is always, always cake. Which brings me to my fourth point:


4. The Overall Appearance and General Kempt-ness of the Movie Teachers

Some teachers at my school look awesome every day. They wear heels and do their hair and their makeup looks like it’s supposed to, and the rest of us secretly judge them for having their priorities clearly all wrong.

First of all, weight gain upwards of 10 pounds is not unusual during the school year. They put this delicious chocolate cake from Costco in our workroom almost every single day. It’s just sitting there, waiting for us when we go to check our mail or make our copies. And yes, we’re adults and ought to have some self-control.

But here’s how the thought process goes. “Man, I just ate a granola bar for breakfast. It’s an hour and a half until lunch. I could make it. But Kevin’s in my next class. Kevin’s exhausting.  If I’m hangry, there’s no way I can deal with Kevin today. I better eat some cake. It’s not fair to Kevin if I don’t.”

And then you eat the cake. Also, only crazy people teach in heels. You’re on your feet all day. Sometimes you have to chase a kid. It’s true that heels sound really impressive on the linoleum when you’re walking down the hall, but how are you ever going to sneak up on anybody? (It’s actually a really important skill. If you tell your kids to sit quietly for two seconds while you escort somebody to the clinic, you don’t want them to be able to frantically whisper, “She’s coming!” when you’re halfway down the hall.)

5. The Administrators

Administrators in movies come in two varieties. You’ve got your dictators against whom the noble but iconoclastic teacher must fight, e.g., Joan Cusack in School of Rock. Or there’s … wait, no, there’s really just that.

Look, I know administrators. My school’s had so many, we refer to the job as Defense Against the Dark Arts, because nobody lasts more than a year. (OK, actually I’m the only one who calls it that. But we should.) They come in almost infinite varieties. The movie kind exists, definitely. We had one of those two years ago.

But there’s also the awesome one with the dolphin tattoo on her left boob, the one who was using our sweet little Title I school to try to jump-start his political career, the one who talked for 20 minutes on the announcements while I was supposed to be teaching first period, the one who didn’t do anything … and I could go on.

The point is, we’ve got some real comedic gold in the field of administrators, and Hollywood’s missing out by limiting themselves to one archetype.


6. The Kids

In the movies, you get instant buy-in from all but one kid (and maybe his two sidekicks) as soon as the Inspirational Teacher Figure begins his or her sweeping reforms. Then that one kid becomes a big part of the story arc, as the teacher has to win her over or save him from himself by providing an alternative to life on the streets or whatever. Toward the end, there’s a big tearful reconciliation and then that kid is the one who wins the choir competition and goes on to become Lauryn Hill. Really, Stand and Deliver? They all got top scores on the AP exam?  Really?

It doesn’t work that way in real life. Maybe your kids do love you. Maybe most of them look forward to your class and work hard and achieve things they never thought were possible. But it’s not all of them, dammit! There’s always that one who fights everything you do. And there are always six or seven who sit quietly in the back of the class, and you never know whether they’re learning or sleeping or secretly plotting your violent overthrow. Yeah, sometimes the bad kid ends up being your greatest ally, just like in the movies. Other times he takes his pants off in your class. Mysteriously enough, often it’s both.


I still love inspirational movie teachers. I’ll still watch Hilary Swank or Whoopie Goldberg or Robin Williams or Jack Black or Michelle Pfeiffer or Julie Andrews (tell me Sound of Music isn’t just a predecessor to School of Rock) any day. It’s escapism at its finest. It’s all about remaining aware that the reality is infinitely messier, uglier and fatter than Hollywood portrays it.

When they make a movie about my life and teaching career, Reese Witherspoon and I are going to sit down and have a talk before filming begins. “Look, Reese,” I’ll say. “You gotta lose some of that eye shadow. Better yet, move it down an inch or two and give yourself some dark circles under your eyes. Also, quit being so damn perky.”

She’ll look offended for a minute, but I’ll explain, “You’ve been up most of the night redoing your lesson plans because they changed the format again, and now they want literally 20 pages of lesson plans a week. Also, you’re supposed to plan a field trip, but there’s no money so you have to write a grant for it and also ask your mom to pay for half. And by the way, you got a call in the middle of the night from one of your students. He’s OK; he just had a question about the homework. At one in the morning.”  She’ll take a deep breath and try to readjust. Then I’ll say, “Don’t worry, Reese, have some chocolate cake.” And she will.  Because not even Reese Witherspoon can resist.


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