Peter Lindsay On Bad Teachers and the Language of Young People

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A good way to think about what makes for a really good teacher is to ask what makes for a really bad one. Not only is failure in education easier to see than success, its presence is far more effective at highlighting just what the art of teaching is all about. Nothing, for instance, demonstrates the importance of enthusiasm more readily than a monotoned teacher lulling a class into peaceful slumber.

If you want other examples, have a look at this summer’s movie, Bad Teacher. That isn’t an artistic recommendation; the movie has little to offer from that perspective. What drew me to it was curiosity: What does bad teaching look like to Hollywood? To the extent that Hollywood reflects and even influences the surrounding culture, the answer to that question is not inconsequential. As an educator, I want to know whether a society with ever tightening purse strings has a grasp of who we are and what we do – or don’t do – well.

I was, then, disheartened in the opening few minutes when one teacher asked another, “What went so wrong in your life that you ended up educating children?” The question may have been ironic, but I can’t imagine such irony being effective in the context of doctors and lawyers. And if we can even joke that teaching, however virtuous in theory, is in fact a career of last resort, then what does that say about our commitment to education?

From there it got worse. The bad teacher in question – Elizabeth Halsey, played by Cameron Diaz – manages to demonstrate most of the major ways in which a teacher can subvert learning. She is unenthusiastic, uncaring and hostile. She dresses in a manner more appropriate to the world’s oldest profession. She takes teaching to state tests to new heights by actually teaching to one particular state test (which she has stolen). She smokes pot in the school parking lot and, while her students are viewing yet another film (which is all they ever do) she perks herself up with a nip from of liquor in her bottom drawer. She even embezzles money from a car washing fund raiser to pay for her breast augmentation.

All of this would be fine if the movie made it clear that schools generally frown upon such behavior. Oddly, though, she doesn’t get fired. In fact by the end of the movie she is rehired as the school guidance counselor. So what gives? Is this anti-meritocratic vision in which truly awful teachers rise triumphantly to the top really how Hollywood/America views our educational system? Is this Bad Teacher or Failed System?

I mulled this thought over until I stumbled upon what became my preferred and somewhat wishful interpretation. Perhaps the movie is intending to subtly suggestion that Halsey, for all her problems, has at least one redeeming quality for which her job was saved: her ability to communicate with young people.

Because she has no desire actually to be a teacher, Halsey speaks to the students with the same blunt honesty she uses with everyone else, making no attempt to cushion her views with educationally sensitive language. She eviscerates student papers with comments like “stupid!” “stupider!” and “are you f#$&ing kidding me?!” A student’s home baked cookies are brutally panned. She tells a young boy exactly why his intense crush on a classmate is beyond hopeless.

Not the most astute choice of words, to be sure, yet, as with all caricatures the depiction contains a kernel of insight, one not frequently enough discussed: Kids, at least from high school on, often respond well to the uncensored truth. They do because for so much of their youth they are showered with a bevy of euphemisms (people “pass away” rather than “die”) and outright lies (“there are no stupid questions”) that conspire to breed a lack of trust in teachers, parents and most other adult authority figures. And if anything undermines their education, it is surely that.

I have no idea if this was the message intended by the movie’s makers, but this is the interpretation I’m sticking with. We all know that enthusiasm, care, sobriety and the like are the virtues of a good teacher. What we need to hear more about, however, is the hidden virtue of treating teenagers like the adults we expect them to become.

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