I don’t believe in teacher movies. You know them: Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Freedom Writers, and Stand and Deliver, to name a few.
Even when they’re accurate (which is almost never), these movies send the wrong message: that if you’re a (usually white) teacher who really cares, you can get your students to do extraordinary things (while being a martyr, too).
We all know things don’t quite work that way.
Progress is slow. Growth takes time. Breakthroughs are few and far between.
Most of the time, we see success only after the fact — at a graduation ceremony, or when students visit us many years after taking our class. Feel-good, movie-worthy moments rarely happen in real time.
That’s why the other day was special. A student texted me for help on her essay. She was stuck on understanding the passage’s syntax and didn’t know how to find solid evidence.
For the first hour, we texted back and forth. Texting, of course, is not the best medium for deep teaching and learning. But I was surprised how horribly we communicated with each other. I didn’t understand what she was trying to say. She thought I was being snarky. At one point, the exchange even got testy.
But I knew that I had to stay in, that I couldn’t let my student go. So I gave up on my frustration and tried a different tack. We agreed to cool off and try again later on Google Docs. (Believe me, at this point, talking on the phone likely would have made things worse.)
Once on Google Docs, we quickly got some momentum. The interface offers three discourse spaces at once: informal conversation in the chat window, academic dialogue in the comments, and student work in the essay window.
We had a good flow going for more than an hour. My student had persevered and gotten past the most challenging parts of her essay. The road looked clear. And then it happened.
She asked me what I thought about a specific piece of evidence she’d selected. Although it wasn’t horrible, it wasn’t too strong, so I told her so. I wasn’t even mean about it.
But my criticism set her off. In the chat window, she wrote that she was giving up, that there was no point to all this work, and that every time she worked hard, I shot her down.
I could have gotten defensive. I could have told her she was acting irrational.
Instead, I took a deep breath. And then I wrote, “I’m still here.”
There was a very long pause. Yes, I felt like I was in my own movie. I half expected Google Docs to tell me my student had signed off.
But instead — luckily, I think — my student responded, “OK, let’s go.”
And then we spent another finishing up her piece.
In her reflection afterward, my student wrote: “In the end, I finally pulled through. I think that I need to fix how I give up so easily when things don’t go my way. I just need to fight through.”