Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Myth of the Magical Teacher

Last summer I wrote a post entitled "The Cult of the Magical Teacher: Our National Delusion." Although this may come as a shock, I wasn't the first to recognize this alarmingly debilitating myth. It's been on people's minds for decades. It's only been exacerbated (along with its harmful effects) in the age of Teach for America and the deprofessionalization of the wonderful thing that is the art and science of teaching. 

If you're unfamiliar with the myth, it goes a little something like this: there is an achievement gap in the country because our schools suck; teachers are the most important things in schools - so if the schools suck, the teachers must suck; but since we know that teachers are the only thing that matter in a child's education, it's teachers alone who can save our kids, if only they're willing to actually work hard (which, in most magical teacher narratives, involves something like working two or three jobs and getting a divorce), our schools would be good and our society would reach "end of history" status.

Rachel Levy recently posted on the questionable claims made by professionals (with mostly no background in education) about the capacity of excellent teaching to remedy some of society's most disturbing ills. But, as far as I can tell, research's voice on the magical teaching phenomenon is relatively new. It certainly doesn't go back as far as people have been telling magical teacher stories. It's only emerged as people have begun to call for increased federal and state accountability for public schools. Now that we're playing a massive national money game with kids' futures, we want to know how much teachers matter, how to assess their ability, and how to train them for excellence. Unfortunately, because much of this research is in its prenatal stage, we have a lot of non-educator research specialists talking out of their asses about moronic conclusions they can draw from the data. Give it a few decades and subtract the politics, and I'd wager everything I own that the research will do very little aside from provide more and more evidence that well-spent money, smaller class sizes, and better trained, more respected, and more experienced teachers are what work in schools.

Until we get to a place where we actually strive to provide a quality education for all students (rather than just pretending), you can bet we'll see more and more money heaped on the arguments made by people like Michael Petrilli and Eric Hanushek as an investment against spending what would be required were our actions to actually live up to our words. 

However, while researchers have their place in influencing the more facts-based minds among us, I'd argue that the far more culturally pervasive (and therefore destructive) force driving the American public's opinion about teaching in the wrong direction is the collection of magical teacher narratives that make their way onto the movie screen and into the book stores on a yearly basis, most of which are inspired/written by people who spent only a few years in the classroom. (On the plus side, they're easy to make fun of - see here, and here.)

A friend and former colleague of mine recently completed his master's thesis on this topic. He's an English teacher who is also a student of creative writing, which makes for an interesting perspective. I requested that he allow me to share part of his thesis on my blog, and being the incredible guy that he is, he agreed. The rest of this post is from his thesis. I hope you find it as interesting and informative as I did.

The following is an excerpt from Derek Smith's master's thesis, "The Myth of the Magical Teacher." Smith has been teaching Language Arts for eight years in Washington state and is in the process of completing his master's in non-fiction creative writing through Seattle Pacific University. 

Consequences of the Magical Teacher Myth in Popular Teacher Narratives: Stretching Reality to Meet the Myth

Authors writing in the shadow of a pervasive myth grapple with it in various ways. Those striving to meet the narrative demands of the myth may end up altering the realities of their teaching in significant, unethical ways. One episode of the radio show This American Life on NPR (“Faustian Bargains”), for example, features LouAnne Johnson discussing with host Ira Glass the ways her book is different from the Dangerous Minds movie and television show inspired by her book. On screen, her character does things she would never do, she says, like host a fundraiser at a strip club. In the book, she never has her life threatened by a student. In fact, she taught an Honors program for students who have some but not all of the academic and behavioral struggles depicted on the small and big screens. She says that when she got her royalty check from the television show, she returned it. 

Stand and Deliver has similar discrepancies. Jerry Jesness, in Reason magazine: 

Stand and Deliver shows a group of poorly prepared, undisciplined young people who were initially struggling with fractions yet managed to move from basic math to calculus in just a year. The reality was far different. It took 10 years to bring Escalante's program to peak success. He didn't even teach his first calculus course until he had been at Garfield for several years. His basic math students from his early years were not the same students who later passed the A.P. calculus test.

But the myth requires results by the end of the year, so Stand and Deliver screenwriters conform to the demands of the narrative. They do not show Escalante developing and expanding his math program over the course of a decade. The change to one year allows the film to parallel the myth of the magical teacher but perpetuates misunderstanding in the public about what is possible for a teacher to accomplish in a year. The film Lean on Me starring Morgan Freeman condenses events in a similar way, compressing years of teaching into a single year on the screen.


In another episode of This American Life (“True Urban Legends”), Glass investigates Steve Poizner’s Mount Pleasant. He starts by paraphrasing Poizner’s description of the school:

What [Poizner] finds in the school are leaky roofs, hardened, unresponsive students, gangs and violence, a dropout rate twice the national average. He worries that one student is going to punch him, and later, that this student and his “thug friends” are going to push him up against a wall… At the end of his first visit, he’s relieved to find his Lexus still in the parking lot… 

Glass visits Mount Pleasant and describes purple wildflowers, the golf course several blocks away from the school, SUVs in driveways, and a water park. Glass interviews Poizner: “Are you overplaying the desperate poverty of this neighborhood?” he asks. Poizner responds:

No, I don’t think so… The neighborhood is rough and tumble in that there’s definitely a lot of crime. No question lower income… People were struggling economically… We definitely documented, you know, that not only did it appear to be a rough up-and-coming area, but the police will tell you that too.

The police tell Glass that no, this is not the case. San Jose was dangerous in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but this view is out of date, they say. San Jose is now one of the safest cities in the country.  


Glass asserts that when it comes to describing the school, Poizner is equally misleading. Poizner, for example, cites a dropout rate readers might assume is the dropout rate for Mount Pleasant. It is actually the dropout rate for the school district. He does not include Mount Pleasant’s average and does not say that the school’s average is lower than state and national averages, a number that’s impressive, Glass says, since the school’s population is two thirds Latino. (Glass adds that national Latino dropout rates are higher than those of other students.) 


Glass asks Poizner if maybe these discrepancies are due to his naivete. Maybe he misperceived things, Glass suggests. Poizner says no. Glass then interviews Mark Holston, an English teacher at Mount Pleasant: 

There’s a narrative [Poizner] had in his mind. He saw teacher movies and that was a narrative he had. And it fits his narrative to show that this school is a horrible school. I wouldn’t work at the school he described. I would be afraid to work in the school he described in the thing. It’s almost as if he’s stepping over bodies and there are gunshots as he goes to classroom every day. But it fits his narrative.

In his book, Poizner wishes he could have a “Stand and Deliver moment.” Such transformation does not initially seem improbable. Poizner has one class of students for one semester; he can give that one class energy equal to what a full-time teacher might give five or six classes combined. After all: Escalante came from another profession and made it happen. Why not Poizner? Escalante did it in a year. Why not Poizner? According the myth, the inexperienced teacher willing to give up his personal life can accomplish anything. 

Poizner does not say in his book whether he is aware of the inaccuracies in the Stand and Deliver movie, but he does refer to the film three times. The myth of the movie towers over Poizner’s memoir. Maybe Poizner sees Escalante’s character as a true representation of the magical teacher and strives for it in the classroom. Maybe rather than pointing to narrative bands and exposing the gap between a personal experience and a cultural myth, Poizner points to narrative bands and then alters his experiences to match them, resulting in an inaccurate portrayal of the school. Maybe he sees Mount Pleasant and the middle-class San Jose neighborhood where he teaches as a ghetto because he is a billionaire and lives in a more upscale neighborhood. Maybe he is sincerely na├»ve. The reader does not know. The back jacket of the #5 New York Times best-seller says Mount Pleasant is “a fascinating true story about one teacher who dared to break all the rules.” We do know that according to Poizner’s colleagues, the main rule Poizner breaks is the one where writers of memoir tell the truth.


Derek Smith can be reached for comment or question at derekleonsmith@gmail.com.

8 comments:

  1. Another well done post! I listened to that episode of This American Life. Poizner, to me, seemed to be calculating and dissembling. I think he needed to have Mount Pleasant be another tale of teacher heroism - against the odds. People love these stories. Look how often Jay Matthews invokes Escalante in his columns, feeding the myth beast. Ira Glass did a very good job of poking a hole in the story that Poizner was trying to tell. Unfortunately, the book is #5 on the NY Times bestseller list. Lying and dissembling - ala Michelle Rhee, Jason Kamras and Steve Poizner - pays.

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  2. Wow what a great excerpt. I haven't had a chance to read the entire thing yet but will definitely make time next week to do so. Thanks for posting.

    Also...I am so lucky to teach with such talented and amazing colleagues!

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  3. Good article; thanks for posting it.

    It has struck me for some time that a lot of the discussion on education demands Lake Wobegone teachers - all above average. No one is an advocate for mediocrity, but in any school - in any population - there is a limited distribution of superiority. Although it is arguable exactly what this means, policies that seek superior teachers as the norm are wishful.

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  4. If only human cloning had advanced to the point where we could have a Michelle Rhee in every classroom, all our problems would be solved.

    As another possibility, I recently attended a dog-and-pony show where the principal said that good teachers should embrace technology because then they could make good money by becoming virtual-online teachers. Of course, this begs the question of why we need schools at all - we could just hand the kids a "Lunchables" and plop them in front of Barney (who really is magical) or virtual Jamie Escalante as we head out the door for work.

    What are we doing? Sigh...

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  5. And don't forget the Magical Principal's or not as the case may now be with McKinley, another reason you don't want to tie test scores to teachers and schools.

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  6. Really, really excellent post (to avoid superfluous commenting: the union post also said exactly what I've been trying to express for months, brava). As someone who works with the kids who really are the kind portrayed in these melodramatic inspirational-type movies (I work at a gang-intervention agency with kids who have been incarcerated since they were 14..), it is so abundantly clear that one teacher, as much as they can be a positive influence and stir some excitement, cannot do anything to remedy the factors working against success; these kids have no health insurance, think hot cheetos constitute breakfast, have outstanding warrants, no drivers license, and two kids by the time they're 19-- and how, exactly, is an english teacher supposed to make sure they end up at Harvard? Teachers cannot and should not be expected to bulldoze the infrastructural issues that affect the communities they teach in.

    an aside: you should check out one this (rather subversive) TFA corps members blog- he is a good friend of mine and has some great takes on educational issues:


    http://twoyearsattheblackboard.blogspot.com/2011/03/mr-ns-curmudgeonly-rant-about.html

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  7. It's been a long time since I participated in a business talk. Perhaps the best thing to do now is to withdraw and create a more appropriate strategy to gain the upper hand.

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