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Teaching and the movies: Dangerous Minds

Sharon Lalor
Pre-service teacher, University of New England

This paper is one of three articles by pre-service teachers examining the representation of teachers in popular films. The three authors are each completing their first year of the Bachelor of Education (Primary) at the University of New England, Armidale. EDCX100: Passionate Pedagogies, a core unit of the course, contrasts film representations of teachers to the NSW Quality Teaching Model. In the current article, Sharon Lalor examines the film Dangerous Minds (Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Films, 1995).

 

Dangerous Minds is one of the many popular films about teaching. It is based on the novel My Posse Don’t Do Homework (1992), in which author Louanne Johnson draws on her own teaching background.

Johnson’s character, unqualified and inexperienced, is thrown before a class of urban black and Hispanic children. She emerges as a triumphant hero, who miraculously rescues her students from their underprivileged surroundings and also, in a sense, from themselves.

Popular though this film may be, realistic it is not. Although there are moments when one sympathises with Johnson’s foreboding when faced with the task of teaching her students, this film lacks any credible connection to the realities of teaching.  

Unfortunately, the fantasies of Dangerous Minds are similar to those in many other popular teacher films such as Mr Holland’s Opus and To Sir with Love, which pass over the hard work required of real-life teachers. These movies suggest ‘teaching is natural; you do not need training if you’ve got "the right stuff" ' (Mitchell & Weber 1999, p183). 

Like other teacher films Dangerous Minds suggests that teachers must ‘rescue’ disadvantaged students, whose lives would remain meaningless and ultimately futile without a white middle-class way of life. Giroux (1997, p47) argues that Dangerous Minds ‘attempts to represent “whiteness” as the archetype of rationality, authority and cultural standards’, evinced by Johnson’s obstinate desire to save her students throughout the film and her insistence on pervading their personal lives. Ayers (2001, p79), speaks of this notion in a real-life context:

Too many teachers, unfortunately, seem to see their role as rescuer. My child does not need to be rescued; he does not consider being Indian a misfortune. He has a culture, probably older than yours; he has meaningful values and a rich and varied experiential background. However strange or incomprehensible it may seem to you, you have no right to do or say anything that implies to him that he is less than satisfactory.

Ayers highlights one of the most important principles of teaching, which is to value students for who they are and where they have come from, rather than considering their cultural, religious or socioeconomic status a ‘misfortune’.

Johnson’s character did not consider her students’ cultural experiences worthy of incorporating into classroom lessons and assignment material. The film’s lack of acknowledgment provides a ‘stereotypical portrayal of black and Hispanic kids as intellectually inferior, hostile, and childish’ (Giroux 1997, p47).

In order to capture her students’ attention and induce them to work, Johnson’s character relied on external, material motivators, rewarding them with chocolates, a trip to an amusement park and dinner at an expensive restaurant.  As suggested by Giroux (1997, p48), ‘baiting students with gimmicks and bribes does more than cast a moral shadow on the pedagogical value of such an approach or on the teacher as a kind of ethical exemplar, it also makes clear how aggressively indifferent Louanne is to her students’ experiences, interests, cultural resources, or the skills they need to survive'. 

The NSW Quality Teaching Model

Hollywood continues to perpetuate teaching fantasies in order to entertain and provide its consumers with heroes and hope for a better future through characters akin to Johnson. Authenticity is often overlooked for the sake of entertainment.

In contrast to Hollywood representations, the NSW Quality Teaching Model provides a sound framework for teaching pedagogy. Through the Model teachers may utilise the research and theoretical contexts of teaching, rather than expecting to ‘have the right stuff’.

The Model consists of three broad categories: Intellectual Quality, which is pedagogy that promotes and maintains higher order thinking in students; Quality Learning Environment, which requires students and teachers to develop positive relationships while achieving high standards of learning; and Significance, which is pedagogy focused on creating meaningful learning experiences for students (NSW DET 2003, pp9–10). 

Fantasy and reality

As a student teacher, I believe that to base an expectation of being ‘a teacher like Miss Johnson’ would be akin to presuming that a police officer’s job is as exciting as the crime-related shows saturating television. Having been a police officer, I can verify that the fantasy could not be further from the reality and, therefore, I understand how teaching will be similarly distant from Hollywood portrayals. There may be moments of satisfaction; however, in real life you are rarely, if ever, a hero. 

There are many aspects of teaching that I am yet to learn, though I am now confident that my expectations of teaching are not based on fanciful notions. Students do not need to be rescued. They need to be recognised in the light of their differences rather than despite them.

Popular teacher images ‘can set us up for disappointment, encouraging expectations that teaching should fulfil a deep desire to love and be loved, or a need to be needed or to save people’ (Mitchell & Weber 1999, p181)  In contrast, film analysis provides an opportunity to identify and put into context our idealistic beliefs of teaching, thus, ‘softening the blow’ when the time comes to teach.

References

Ayres, W 2001, To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher, Teachers College Press, New York.

Giroux, H 1997, ‘Race, pedagogy, and whiteness in Dangerous Minds’, Cineaste, vol 22, no 4, pp 46–49.

Johnson, L 1992, My Posse Don’t Do Homework, St Martin’s Press, New York.

Mitchell, C & Weber, S 1999, ‘Reel to real: popular culture and teacher identity’, Reinventing Ourselves As Teachers: Beyond Nostalgia, Falmer Press, London.

New South Wales Department of Education and Training 2003, Quality teaching in NSW public schools. An annotated bibliography, NSW Department of Education and Training. Retrieved 10 March 2005.

 

KLA

Subject Headings

Social life and customs
Teacher-student relationships
Teaching and learning
Teaching profession
Teacher evaluation
Teacher training
Mass media study and teaching
Films
Education philosophy
Arts in education