Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Imaginary Teachers

I was really into those teacher movies as a teenager, the ones where the Amazing Teacher turns the lives of downtrodden-yet-plucky youngsters who just need a little love (and generally the ruination of the teacher’s entire life) to succeed. Dead Poets’ Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dangerous Minds, loved ‘em. They’re terribly unrealistic, though, and definitely not the direction I want my own teaching career to go. (I like a little emotional health, thank you.)

Teachers in children’s literature are a different breed than the Martyr Teacher of the movies. Here are a few of my favorites.

Miss Honey, Matilda by Roald Dahl
Miss Honey is perfect. She never raises her voice, quietly resists the evil Miss Trunchbull (seems like there’s always an evil teacher to balance the good one), and is the only one to recognize Matilda’s gifts. I adored a couple of my teachers the way that Matilda adores Miss Honey, but none of my teachers were that perfect. Thank goodness, since teachers have enough pressure on us as it is without trying to ascend to angelic status. (Matilda also has an opening that I absolutely love, especially on my meaner and more irritable days, when the narrator talks about what teachers would REALLY like to say in their report card comments.)

Miss Stacy, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Another one of those bad-teacher/good-teacher situations, Miss Stacy replaces Mr. Phillips, who is harsh, hates Anne, and spends most of his time attempting to romance one of his older students. (Ewww.) Miss Stacy has her students going on nature walks and acting out battles (teaching with Multiple Intelligences before we knew about Multiple Intelligences!), which worries the good citizens of Avonlea. She’s all about the whole child. I have the feeling that Miss Stacy would not be a high-stakes standardized testing fan.

Ms. Finney,The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger
Ms. Finney is a modern-day (well, 1970s) Miss Stacy, using unconventional methods to teach English and encouraging her kids to question authority (uh-oh). Main character Marcy, who hates just about everything, loves Ms. Finney and is one of the students who go to her defense when she loses her job due to her political views. Marcy is smart, sarcastic, overweight, and socially inept. Ms. Finney accepts her the way she is and helps her start on the way to liking herself as well as teaching her. I’ll never be as cool as Ms. Finney, but like her I want to be there for the Marcys in my classes. (I was a Marcy. Heck, I still am a Marcy.)

Mr. Carpenter, the Emily books by L.M. Montgomery

The trilogy starting with Emily of New Moon is one of L.M. Montgomery’s lesser-read series, but I actually prefer it to the Anne books. Mr. Carpenter is not the paragon that Miss Stacy is. He’s cynical, an alcoholic, a burned-out local prodigy who was expected to have a brilliant career but ended up "a country schoolteacher at forty-five with no prospect of being anything else." Emily is an aspiring writer, and the first time she takes him her writing, he thoroughly trashes most of it. He finds “ten good lines” out of the pile of stories and poems she gives him, and at first she is devastated, until he explains that ten good lines is an achievement at her age, and IF she keeps working, in ten years she'll be able to write a hundred. Emily walks away from that meeting with renewed determination to improve her writing and earn Mr. Carpenter’s respect, and that’s a better outcome than a series of smiley stickers and “Great job!” comments scrawled across student work could ever produce. Also, there's a great quote about his teaching style: "Mr. Carpenter never tried to keep order, apparently. But somehow he kept his students so busy that they had no time to do mischief."

The teachers in Harry Potter might deserve a post of their own, one of these days: Dumbedore, McGonagall, Lupin, Snape, Umbridge, Slughorn and the rest provide lots of food for thought!

Any other teachers in film, TV, or literature that have stuck with you, good or bad?

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