Most films about the teaching profession are very positive. A forceful and charismatic teachers lands in a (usually) lousy (inner city, no doubt) school with a class filled with delinquents, lazy jocks, the misunderstood creative outcast, the nerds and the rest of the usual cast of student "archetypes", at least by way of Hollywood scriptwriting. To Sir, With Love is perhaps the most iconic of redemption-of-students-by-saviour-teacher, the formula of which was replicated by films like Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds (based on true stories, yeah okay).
I bet there wasn't a dry eye in the cinema by the closing credits.
And then you have Dead Poet Society and the female copycat version Mona Lisa Smile where the teacher inspires the students to think outside the box and abandon the shackles put upon them by the hidebound society that cossets their privileged arses. While most of these movies share a running theme that is mocked by the most cynical as mawkish sentimentality, they do underline an important aspect about the teaching profession: teachers are potential cult leaders.
I'm just kidding.
(the rest is under cut for extreme movie spoilers)
Only morons would parrot, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." If you have never had to control a class full of little tykes hopped on sugar or a roomful of angsty, hormonal adolescents, never say that a teacher has a cushy job. Many imagine them enjoying school holidays like their students, hanging out by the beach, sipping mai tais (non alcoholic version for the tykes and bigger kids). The reality is that they have to prepare lesson plans, go for training, prepare teaching materials, understand the new revisions plonked on them by the powers that be, become gardeners to school project gardens, nannies to kids on field trips, choreograph school concerts, go back to school and get another degree and the list goes on.
Everyone has a story (or more) about the teachers that impact their lives, and Hollywood recycles this to great effect. The greatest denominator is that all the imperiled youths are saved, inspired by great teachers who sacrificed and pushed them unflaggingly. It is true that students are better off with good teachers in mediocre schools rather than being in a good school with mediocre teachers. However, I am sure that if we were to recall our school careers, what were the likelihood that you have had a teacher like Mark Thackeray? If you did, did he/she make a significant impact towards improving you?
I am sure that most of the teachers who had the unenviable job of hammering some knowledge into your head did their best with what they had within the constrains of time and resources that limited them. Some of the lousy ones do the bare necessities merely for a regular pay cheque, but do reflect on how we ourselves behave when we are in a job we hate, surrounded by people we loathe and are lethargic about our career prospects. But the demands of society now dictates that teachers have to pick up the slack of the parents, teaching beyond what is set in the curriculum. Teachers have to teach their students manners, deportment, how to negotiate the treacherous waters of society and inculcate ethical conduct in their behaviours. A lot of parents are content to let the teachers parent their children, blaming the teachers when their child fail. Gone are the days when parents come in on the first day to gift the teacher with a cane, saying only, "Just don't do permanent damage to my child, anything else is okay so long as he/she learns."
The reality is that children are facing challenges that we have never seen before. They have less family security (what with the divorce rates and the isolation of the nuclear family from the extended one), less physical security (heavier traffic, poor transportation options, unfortunate daycare arrangements), too much stimulation (cable channels 24/7, the Internet, iPads), too little physical exertion (too dangerous to play by the roadside, lack of infrastructure and space to play) and too little time spent with the parental units (busy chasing money) or an adult whom they can pattern their behaviour after (the maid doesn't count). The younger generation is constantly bombarded with conflicting messages from all media but with little guidance on how to process all these information and how it shapes their world view.
Detachment was a movie that I feel comes very close to examining all these issues without giving a pat outcome for all the characters. The protagonist, a substitute teacher, hides a fragile heart that has been bruised and broken too many times, thanks to his fragmented family life behind an aloof and detached demeanour. The film touched on a lot of facets of a school: the principle who's struggling with forced retirement, faculty members who are verbally and physically abused by their students and parents, day in and day out, an unorthodox ombudsman outsmarting wily students and a guidance counsellor who was at her breaking point.
I loved how the film peeled away the dispassionate facade of the protagonist to expose an honourable man struggling in a dishonourable world. His interaction with the prickly teen prostitute gave him an outlet for his tenderness, tenderness that was misjudged by the suicidal student who thirsted for some attention and love. The chaos of school in the current world, the machinations and politics of education, quiet desperation and grim doggedness of the characters, were sublimely crafted.
In short, detachment can be a survival mechanism, but it can also isolate one from the potential of joy and happiness. But for a person who has been dealt hideous blows in life, the indifference brought by detachment could possibly be the only way to cope and keep on moving with their life.
Watching the film reminded me of how grateful I should be with my life. Though it was a fictional account, underneath every story is a thread of truth, life can be pretty miserable for a lot of people. It made me wonder about some of the detached teachers I have met in my school career, whether their ideals and enthusiasm has been ground under the indifferent wheels of the system, leaving a walking and talking husk. Perhaps like Henry, they have reached a point in their life where entering the class was just about maintaining order and stopping them from killing each other before the next period.