Some Lessons Suck

Cayt Mirra

In my VCAL class we watched the beginning of the film Pay it Forward and it got me thinking about the ‘inspirational teacher’ trope. I joked to a colleague as it was playing that it would be great if uplifting music would play when I was talking to my class. Maybe then they would be suitably inspired.

I was once unfortunate enough to attend a professional learning session where we were shown a clip from some film where Chandler from Friends is a teacher who takes a class of disengaged kids and gets them all into college because he believes in them – you know the kind of film I mean. It was supposed to be inspiring. It wasn’t. I remember in one of my lectures at uni our teacher showed us a clip from Dead Poet’s Society. I think it was the ‘Oh Captain’ one where they rip the pages out of the books. Everyone was talking about how he was a great teacher because he inspires the kids. And then the teacher basically says ‘That’s a load of crap. Beware this type of movie.’ She elaborated. The kids’ parents would have paid for those text books. He then goes on to talk about following their own passions but essentially just gets them to follow his passion, and a kid kills himself (spoiler).

We are bombarded with visions of these magical teachers, and it sends the real teachers a terrible message. Firstly, the idea that teaching is a ‘calling’ is dangerous. It makes us put up with crappy conditions – it’s not about the money, you guys – and it makes us put pressure on ourselves to make teaching our entire lives. There is this belief that teaching isn’t just a job, and that we aren’t doing it right if we don’t take work home every night to ensure that every lesson is a perfect bubble of learning. This vision of the teacher who changes the world puts pressure on teachers to feel as if they are never doing enough, and to think that if we do everything right, we will have a class like the ones in the movies where every kid’s life is changed.

Because the reality is that, while you can have a significant impact on your students, you are not going to change every single one of them. You’re not going to turn everything around and put every student on the path to success. You can only do so much. You can teach, but they must learn.

We all start out teaching a little starry-eyed, and there’s something wonderful about that. But only so far as it motivates us to keep trying even when the lesson goes wrong or the students are bored or the test results weren’t as good as you had hoped. It becomes a problem when we encourage teachers to aim so high that we feel bad about good teaching practice because it does not meet some ridiculous Hollywood image.

As teachers, it is important to remember that we are also humans with full lives outside of the school. Students often find this strange, asking with fascination what we do when we aren’t at school. A teacher I used to work with often joked to them that we just plugged ourselves in in the staffroom overnight.

Ultimately, some lessons are really good and the students learn new skills. Every now and then there is a lesson that is in some way wonderful – maybe a student gains some confidence or a topic finally makes sense – and then there are classes that are just okay, and some that suck. And that’s fine.