It’s that strange time of year in “Teacher Land” where numbers of students are weighed against a shrinking budget. This weird time of year is a time of uncertainty for many teachers who do not have a permanent position, and also for those who do have a permanent position but were the last ones into the school, because the numbers don’t add up, meaning that teachers will not be returning in the Fall. Besides just being a time of uncertainty and awkward conversations, it is also a time of reflection on the profession of teaching.
It seems fitting that during this bizarre time at work and reflecting on my own practice and experiences teaching that I stumbled upon Tony Kaye’s film Detachment with Adrien Brody. I know that teaching is a job. It is a career and a profession that requires constant reflection and development. Yet, although at times I hate to admit this, it is so much more. One of the lines that stood out in the film was spoken by the main character Mr. Barthes, played by Adien Brody, who is substitute teaching in a school plagued with apathy: “We have such a responsibility to guide our young so that they don’t end up falling apart, falling by the wayside, becoming insignificant.”
There a lot of films about teaching (Dangerous Minds, Mona Lisa Smile, Bad Teacher, To Sir with Love, Freedom Writers, Sister Act II), yet I believe that Detachment gets teaching. Yes, it is important that students learn skills and content that will allow them to meet the Curriculum outcomes, yet it is so important as a teacher to see students. Yes, in all the films I mentioned they show the importance of building relationships with students and the difference that a caring teacher can have in the lives of students, yet what I liked about Detachment was that it showed more of the picture. Students don’t become invisible on their own.
In an awkwardly haunting and familiar scene, the teachers are all present one evening for “Parent Night.” The teachers reminisce about how years previous the halls were packed on “Parent Night,” which is a stark contrast to the handful, if that, of parents who show up in the film. As one teacher notes, “I was in my room for 2 hours and saw one parent. Where are they? Where is everybody? It’s uncanny, no air raid sirens, no bombs. It doesn’t happen that way. It starts with a whisper, and then nothing.”
“It starts with a whisper.” How true. I’ve been reading Fahrenheit 451 with my Gr 12 English class and trying to instill in them the importance of books, of ideas, of imagination, and of free thought. Just as Mr. Barthes in the film, I feel like I am teaching a lesson that shouldn’t need to be taught.
Too often the role of parent, counselor, mentor, and healer falls onto teachers, and unfairly so. In the film, the lives of the teachers show the consequences of living to teach instead of teaching to live. I believe that it is easy to fall into the trap of becoming “Super Teacher” out to save every student. Yet, I don’t think it’s always about the best bulletin board decorations, the most marked assignments, or the extremely detailed report card comments. Teaching is about encouraging imagination and fostering understanding. It is about assessing skills and being kind to students. To see a student can become a genuine reaction that gets lost in the content of the course. As Chase Mielke says in his blog “What Students Really Need to Hear,” “The main event is learning how to deal with the harshness of life when it gets difficult.”
Detachment. Detachment can be healthy or it can be unknowingly devastating. I believe that the good teachers, the teachers who get it, are the ones who can detach at the right times and in the right places. They are the teachers who see their students, but make it a priority to also see themselves.
When asked in an interview with Eric Larnick how has working on the film affected Brody’s view of the American education system, here is how Adrien Brody responded:
I think this is about enforcing that education has to stem from the home, before the school system. You can’t expect the teacher to just take on the responsibility of the parent, you have to be the parent. You have to be accountable; I know it’s a tall order with financial problems and personal problems, and overcoming the pain from the neglect we had as children. But you got to work against perpetuating that, and that’s how the film spoke to me.
As I sit here writing this blog instead of marking or making my lunch for the school day tomorrow, I am left with a feeling of hope. There are parents and teachers who see the teenagers around them. There are people in this world who are curious, who are questioning, who are imagining, and who are rebelling. We just need to take a moment to see them.
There should be more encouragement and support for young developing minds and it shouldn’t just be thrust on a public school teacher. (Adrien Brody)
Point your kids in the right direction—when they’re old they won’t be lost. (Proverbs 22:6)