One of my roles as a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh is teaching an introductory education course to future teachers. Most of these students come into my class with an idealistic picture of schooling; they want to become teachers to contribute to the future, or because they want care for children. Throughout the course, I challenge students by having them read texts and watch films that complicate their assumptions. Using sociological and philosophical lenses, my students begin to see the many inequalities and injustices within the institution of school, and that the purposes of school are highly contested in both the public sphere, as well as in private conversations. My hope is that as future teachers, each student will learn to avoid a reserved cynicism on the one hand, while also being more critical of their initial naive optimism on the other.
A review of the many Hollywood films on education and teaching soon reveals where most of my students get their inspiration. In these films, schools typically become the context for a social game (Mean Girls), or a redemption narrative, which casts the teacher as a savior of “bad” students from their complacency and ignorance (Freedom Writers). In other words, the dominant narrative of education is that “the system” is inevitably broken, and only an individual with the courage to challenge this system, by “breaking the rules,” can work toward any lasting and real change.
Two recent films directly and indirectly challenge these kinds of naively optimistic stories by offering a more complicated picture of school and the role of the teacher. The Class (now in North American theatres) is a French film based on FranÃ§ois BÃ©gaudeau’s semi-autobiographical book about his experiences as a French teacher at an urban middle school in Paris. Happy-Go-Lucky (now available on DVD) is a British film about an elementary school teacher with a very creative, outgoing and optimistic personality. Both of these films confront the challenges of education in two very different, but hopeful ways.
The Class (the French title is Entre les murs: Between the walls) takes place exclusively at the school. The film highlights FranÃ§ois Marin’s (played by BÃ©gaudeau) relationships with his fellow teachers and administrators in staff meetings, in contrast with the relationships he builds with his students throughout the year in his classroom. The lack of a soundtrack and some of the longer scenes give the film a sense of realism. His students have real questions and not all of them are on topic, in fact, the viewer soon realizes that teaching teenagers is more about managing students than communicating content.
This is made more difficult as the students represent a diversity of ethnicities and cultures. The climax of the film occurs when there is a confrontation between FranÃ§ois and Souleymane, a student from Mali, which illuminates the fragile nature of authority and power dynamics between a teacher and their students. Rather than portray the teacher as a heroic figure that is able to transform the students lives, The Class suggests a more accurate picture of education. The story takes into account the systems that often weigh down teachers who care about learning, as well as their students, who sometimes feel they are a pawn in society’s game. The film challenges the viewer to consider the tension and complexity of bureaucratic institutions and individual agency in trying to do the right thing.
While The Class is dominated by educational themes, Happy-Go-Lucky hints at them by exploring the character of Poppy (Sally Hawkins) and her role as a teacher, friend and student driver. Poppy is outgoing and bubbly, often giggling and pestering complete strangers with questions and comments in a friendly way. Poppy comes across to her friends and family as an optimist, and in a few instances this creates tensions as her happiness is seen as judgment of other’s situation. This tension works itself out in two educational contexts, which illuminate that Poppy is not in fact a naive optimist.
First, as an elementary school teacher Poppy has to deal with a student that is bullying others. She confronts this student and seeks out help to understand the young boy’s life outside of school and the reasons he is acting out. Poppy realizes that life can have serious consequences and she responds by bringing in the principal and a social worker to help.
Second, Poppy decides to take driving lessons from Scott, a very stern and serious instructor. It is through these weekly interactions that Poppy starts to realize how she is perceived. Scott, who is both attracted to her and annoyed by her seemingly flighty personality, is challenged in his pessimism about life. This tension comes to a critical confrontation between Scott and Poppy, and it seems that this will finally be what breaks Poppy’s spirit. It is through Poppy’s experiences that the viewer is shown that it is not optimism that defines her, but an ability to see potential in others and a capacity for hope.
The Class and Happy-Go-Lucky explore and challenge the narratives that dominate our views of school and education. These films fight our false optimism that schools provide society’s salvation. In addition, they offer a complicated picture of what it means to hope in the midst of institutional structures, while also acting and caring responsibly for one’s vocation and the fragility of learning.