Thursday, February 23, 2012

"Goodbye Kotter" The Transformation of the Image of the Inner City Teacher in American Popular Culture

When I was driving to work today, I was thinking how strange it is that the inner city teacher has become the subject of a discourse of demonization in almost every portion of American society, from Hollywood, to the press, to business and foundation leadership. to the White House and the US Department of Education. The defining moment for me, in terms of the teacher as scapegoat for the nation’s problems, was when the Secretary of Education and the President praised the mass firing of teachers in Central Falls Rhode Island, but the barrage has continued with the production of the movie “Waiting for Superman,” the Hollywood film “Bad Teachers” and the vicious attacks on teachers and teachers union recently made by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. If you followed this argument, you would think that “bad teachers” and their defenders, were responsible for the persistence of poverty, the Black white test score gap, and the weakness of the US in the global economy.
It was not always thus. While teachers have always been a subject of bemused contempt, with expressions like “those who can do, those who can’t teach” being part of the national vocabulary, it is also true that there were once many powerful images of the inner city teacher/principal/.coach as hero in American popular culture. From “Up the Down Staircase” to “Dangerous Minds” to “Stand and Deliver,” Hollywood gave us portraits of teachers who devoted their lives to helping students in tough circumstances gain confidence and realize their potential. This positive portrayal also extended to sports and the arts, where three of my all time favorite movies showed the power of teachers who worked in those areas to work miracles—“Fame,” “Wildcats” and “Remember the Titans.” And finally, in the world of television sit com, there was the show “Welcome Back Kotter” which presented a humorous, but ultimately inspirational picture of a person who returned to teach in the Brooklyn high school he attended.
I feel a deep sense of sadness in writing this. There are still heroes teaching, and serving as principals, in some of the nation’s toughest neighborhoods I know scores of such individuals in the Bronx- one of whom, Principal Paul Cannon of PS 140 in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, has become a dear friend, yet popular discourse about education erases their accomplishments in inspiring and motivating students, n favor of a narrow obsession with test scores
How can we inspire young people devote their lives to the teaching profession if 90 percent of what we say about teachers is disparaging or contemptuous?
The answer, of course, is that we can’t and we won’t. If we stay on the current path, teaching will become a temporary job and students will have teachers who have little emotional stake in their jobs and who view them in strictly instrumental terms, as takers of tests upon whose results the teachers professional status rests
Then if we are going to produce a sitcom, we could call it “Goodbye Kotter” because the real teachers, the ones who love their students and see their careers as a lifetime calling, are going to be driven out

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