Hollywood’s Classrooms

By Wanda Dengel - Contributing Columnist

It has been several months since my last column. Last fall I was asked to fill a teaching position that required a specific certificate which I possessed and a position which had to be filled immediately. I was happy to serve, with the understanding that I would do this solely for one year since I had other responsibilities that required my attention. Now that my contract has been fulfilled, I can once again attend to those responsibilities and once more contribute to this column.

Hollywood often simplifies the story of change in the classroom by portraying young superstar teachers as the saviors of an impaired educational system. In fact, real change does not come from individual classrooms, but a more complex overhaul of a system.

Many of the teachers depicted in the movie narratives are real; however, Hollywood’s version is oftentimes quite different from reality. Hollywood likes to simplify and at the same time dramatize real and made-up events for the purpose of entertainment. Even the story of Jaime Escalante in the movie “Stand and Deliver” is fictionalized. Nonetheless, it probably comes closer to the truth than any other movie about a teacher savior.

Many new graduates of the service fields, such as, educators or social workers, for instance, have the “savior complex”. I know that I had that complex when I received my Bachelor of Science in Education degree. I didn’t view it as my destiny but rather as my goal. I had read article after article about the inner-city schoolchildren who were so far behind their suburban peers that I set out as a newly-degreed teacher to “save” those children. Most of my peers, on the other hand, set their visions on suburban schools. I recall my interview with the Superintendent of the Columbus Public Schools. I was quite nervous. I had walked in high heels from my parent’s home in German Village to the superintendent’s office in downtown Columbus which was approximately 20 blocks away. Hair pieces were in vogue at that time and so I gathered my hair to the top of my head and added the fashionable (so I thought) hair piece. By the time I had arrived in the superintendent’s office, the hair piece had loosened; however, I wasn’t aware of it until he asked me a question and I shook my head in a positive gesture. I could feel the hair piece shift slightly back and forth as I nodded “yes” in response to a question. Throughout the remainder of the interview I made certain to keep my head upright and still to avoid any embarrassing catastrophe. The next thing I knew, he opened his center desk drawer and pulled out a contract and hired me right then and there. I was on my way to saving those children!

During my teaching career I’ve received offers to teach and supervise students in Harlem, Chicago, and Dayton. I suppose the supervisory position came as a result of my Master in Education degree. Notwithstanding, I turned the offers down. Perhaps had I been single and more driven, I might have accepted one of those offers. Nonetheless, my heart was in the classroom with the students to whom I had made a personal commitment.

Hollywood films single out idealistic young teachers who encounter the realities of inner-city schools, albeit through sheer determination, inspire and lead their students to achieve beyond everyone’s expectations except that of the “savior-teacher”. Oftentimes, life skills are accelerated in these Hollywood storylines rather than being shown as life skills that are achieved through practice.

“Both popular teaching narratives and inexperienced teachers give in to the temptation to simplify the roles of teacher and student. Effective teachers, though, begin to understand the complexity of their role and its power, by remembering how complicated their students are,” suggests Anne Beatty in an article in the Atlantic Monthly.

Sociologist Robert Bulman points out that it is unrealistic to expect an individual teacher to change systemic problems such as, “ineffective school leadership, poorly implemented programs, or a lack of creativity or control.”

Many of the real-life teachers depicted in these Hollywood narratives left the inner-city schools after their first year. A number of them authored books of their experiences, became consultants and national or international speakers, or established schools where the students are screened before being admitted to the institutions. This is additional proof that change has to be systemic rather than accomplished by an individual “savior-teacher” who leaves the system to pursue other opportunities.

Entire school systems, not just individual teacher superstars, must all work together in order to create environments where real learning takes place.


By Wanda Dengel

Contributing Columnist

Wanda Dengel, long time local and Columbus inner-city schools teacher, can be reached at photographyforeme@gmail.com.

Wanda Dengel, long time local and Columbus inner-city schools teacher, can be reached at photographyforeme@gmail.com.