Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Class Acts: Feature

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Class Acts: Feature

Article excerpt

From inspirational demigods to sleazy seducers of the innocent, teachers in film are often far removed from the real deal. Tom Bennett sorts the fact from the fiction.

Next month marks the release of Monsters University. And I've just watched One Eight Seven, a film where Samuel L. Jackson plays an LA teacher tilting at windmills of bureaucracy and callousness.

Changing channels, I find a choice between Wild Things (noir sex-thriller with Matt Dillon as a school guidance counsellor struggling with his conscience and, often, Denise Richards' girdle hooks), School for Seduction (Kelly Brook's repelling turn as a teacher who ... oh, who cares?) and St. Trinian's (ghastly nihilist autopsy of an already grisly premise). In short, teachers are everywhere on television and in film.

I am obsessed with teacher films, which is unsurprising since film was my invisible friend growing up and education is my invisible friend now I pay taxes and drive. But I hope that when the aliens discover the remains of the human race they do not come across my DVD stash, or they will think our profession is populated by bohemian radicals, louche poets and vigilantes.

The abyss between fact and fiction is vast. Very few teachers in films seem to grade papers, supervise detentions or moan about photocopiers. They do spend a lot of time inspiring genius, turning up at their students' homes (some weeks I do little else) and entering them for state finals of competitions. If I ran a state final, the moment I saw the eccentric underdog team arrive on a wild card, I would just give them the trophy and go home.

But why should it be any different? Most teacher films are not written by teachers. Dead Poets Society, the great unofficial teacher recruitment film, was written by Tom Schulman, who based it on his time as a student. Most films based on real teachers (Coach Carter, Freedom Writers, The Great Debaters) are screenplays drawn from biography. They have been distilled for dramatic narrative; they are not dissertations on pedagogy.

There are noble and noticeable exceptions: Dangerous Minds - yes the one with Coolio - may strike you as a B-movie, but at least it was based on the memoirs of ex-US Marine LouAnne Johnson, who went into teaching after demobilisation. I suppose you really can turn a class around with mixed martial arts, but they didn't teach me that when I was training.

Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie can claim provenance from Spark's time as an English teacher. To Sir, with Love, written by E.R. Braithwaite, was based on his post Second World War experiences as an educated black man integrating into white East London society. I have not checked if School of Rock is based on a true story, but I think it is safe to say it wasn't.

My greatest pleasure is hugging myself with joy as I spot yet another blooper, and realising that somewhere between the script and the edit anything resembling reality was jettisoned for the sake of aesthetics. Who can blame the film-makers? Schools are fertile, self-contained theatres of drama that can form the perfect setting for coming-of-age tales, sexual tension, racial dynamics and so on. Cinematically, however, they are very rarely used to discuss actual teaching, unless you count the truism that by the end everyone must have learned something - and everyone has to hug.

There are also a million films set in schools for no other reason than that the protagonists are too young to be anywhere else. I tend to ignore these kinds of productions (The Faculty, for example) as not being true school films: the classroom is merely window dressing to the melodramas of emergent identity. I prefer films where the characters are actually teachers, (a) because I am one and (b) because the script is forced into making observations about the function and meaning of the role.

As such, I have identified the themes that teacher films usually encompass.

Teachers are inspirational demigods, avatars of liberty and mystical conduits between the potential of a child's soul and its realisation. …

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