In a New York Times column titled “Classroom Distinctions” (January 19, 2007), teacher Tom Moore, a 10th-grade history teacher at a public school in the Bronx in New York City, reacts against the film portrayal of teachers in inner city schools, focusing in particular on Hillary Swank’s role in Freedom Writers.

He begins by suggesting that such films tend to over estimate both the resources actually available in these schools (including available security guards to break up fights) and the willingness of the students to respond, but then goes on to write:

The great misconception of these films is not that actual schools are more chaotic and decrepit — many schools in poor neighborhoods are clean and orderly yet still don’t have enough teachers or money for supplies. No, the most dangerous message such films promote is that what schools really need are heroes. This is the Myth of the Great Teacher.

Films like ”Freedom Writers” portray teachers more as missionaries than professionals, eager to give up their lives and comfort for the benefit of others, without need of compensation. Ms. Gruwell sacrifices money, time and even her marriage for her job.

The problem with this image of the super teacher, according to Moore, is that it implies that such dedication can overcome the other obstacles and lack of resources these students have. He writes:

I won’t argue the need for more of the first two [love & idealism], but I’m always surprised at how, once a Ms. Gruwell wins over a class with clowning, tears, rewards and motivational speeches, there is nothing those kids can’t do. It is as if all the previously insurmountable obstacles students face could be erased by a 10-minute pep talk or a fancy dinner. This trivializes not only the difficulties many real students must overcome, but also the hard-earned skill and tireless effort real teachers must use to help those students succeed.

Moore also provides a useful reminder that such teachers are not dealing with one class of the same kids all day, but four or five more, along with all their other duties (including dealing with the administration, parents, paperwork, not to mention preparation and grading).

BTW, the title of this post intentionally refers back to Jonathan Kozol’s classic book on education and inequality, “Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools.”