If you’ve ever watched a movie in the genre of the Inspirational Teacher, you’ll recognize the formula: there’s a teacher who’s up against an evil administration; or unfeeling, conservative parents; or callous budget cuts (usually in the arts,) with a group of hard-to-please but not altogether unreachable students on whose behalf the teacher fights to create opportunities to thrive, be inspired, and believe in the greater good.
They’re so precious and so predictable, and yet they get me every time.
Despite the obvious myths about teaching reinforced in these films (the teachers never have more than one prep, they are often completely isolated from their colleagues, and their administrators are archetypes of out-of-touch, heartless old people,) these movies, without fail, make me emotional about the power of inspiration.
Why? Well, the music and special effects certainly help, and there’s usually a line or two that cuts right through my cynicism. (Like: music goes where words cannot.) But I think it’s because these films are not practical. They’re not about “best practice” or leading edge research. The teachers aren’t celebrated because they’re highly organized or proficient in various technological systems. These things don’t matter. Instead, they’re cherished because they’re masters of inspiration–the most ancient, intangible magic that occurs between teacher and student. And although we are trained to challenge the cliché, Hollywood keeps making these films and we keep watching them because inspiration is as essential and as familiar to our collective experience, as love.
The most recent Inspirational Teacher movie I watched is called Here Comes the Boom. It’s a comedy about a degenerate biology teacher, Scott Voss, (Kevin James) whose glory days as an educator—back when he stood on desks to get kids energized– ended ten years ago. He now spends his teaching days reclined, reading the newspaper, and reminding students that nothing they learn in his class will matter in the real world anyway. But when his colleague’s job and music programme are threatened to be cut, Scott commits to raising the $48,000 himself by learning mixed martial arts and competing in the UFC.
I know, the jokes write themselves. This film is the slapstick offspring of Rocky meets Dead Poet’s Society.
And we all know how it’s going to end. The teacher will develop throughout the film as the endearing underdog; he’ll fail many times and take a series of nasty beatings. And then, in the third round, just in time, and with the swell of orchestral music behind him, he’ll find the strength and perseverance he didn’t think he had and he’ll win against Ken “The Executioner” Dietrich–UFC super fighter and scariest man I’ve ever seen–and the crowd will go wild, and he’ll kiss the girl, and the students’ faith in humanity will be restored.
But unlike other films in this genre, where the teacher’s commitment to his students is steadfast from the beginning, Here Comes the Boom represents a perhaps more realistic kind of teacher: the one whose inspiration has already dried up and burned out, and who coasts through his teaching day with minimal effort and no desire to innovate. In order to get his inspiration back he needs to fight for it—in this case, literally—and after so many years of being uninspired, his apathy has developed into a powerful and treacherous adversary.
At least, that’s how I’m choosing to see it. It’s not so much a film about a teacher inspiring his students, as it is a story about an uninspired teacher fighting for his own practice.
I suppose this is why I liked it. The film portrays a reality of the teaching profession that I don’t think we talk enough about. What happens when the inspiration dries up, when the energy burns out, and when the things that are beating us down–weak compensation packages, poor administration, difficult students, a heavy workload, a busy home life–hit us so hard that we cannot, or will not, get back up? Where do we find the will to fight for our practice?
This film suggests that to renew his passion and to bring back the boom, Scott needs to do three things: he needs find his own teachers, he needs step back into his beginner’s mind, and he needs find a purpose that is beyond himself. To me, this is an effective prescription for the uninspired teacher to follow.
I think we forget, as busy teachers, how essential it is to stay curious and humble students. We say we are committed to constantly learning, but how many of us are actively engaged in mentorships with people who are more experienced than we are? How often do we seek opportunities to remember what it’s like to start at the beginning, because this is where humility is most easily cultivated and where inspiration often comes from. And while these films create a standard of teaching that is hard to reach, I think it’s important that we strive to meet it, at least sometimes. Because, this the work; this is the practice.
While it may not endure as one of the classics of the Inspirational Teacher genre, Here Comes the Boom said the right thing to me at the right time: an inspiring teacher is an inspired person, and maintaining inspiration is a commitment, and at some points in our career, it’s a fight. And it isn’t something that can be easily faked. As we all know, inspiration is not new technology; it’s a vibration that occurs when we connect with something that reflects who we want to be or what we want to create. It’s both the singing and the song.