The whining schoolboy with his satchel/And shining morning face, creeping like a snail/ Unwillingly to school." Shakespeare nailed the back-to-school blues way back then in As You Like It.
In Shakespeare's day, though, teachers were "Masters," looked up to by whining schoolboys with awe, fear, and respect. Today, teachers are one more authority figure without authority.
Thankfully, it didn't debut in the Top 5 and last week failed even to crack the Top 10, but the big back-to-school movie is Teaching Mrs. Tingle, a fantasy from Disney about high-schoolers taking revenge on a mean teacher by kidnapping her and holding her hostage. The original title was "Killing Mrs. Tingle," but filmmakers thought that was a little strong for the post-Columbine world. The message, though, still expresses the high-school ethos that led to the killings: If someone makes us miserable in school, retaliate by any means necessary.
The teenage kidnappers in the movie are not blackboard-jungle hoods. They are middle-class high achievers,
hustling for grades and dreaming of success. They see their teacher Mrs. Tingle as some sort of inquisitor who can place them on one of two paths: One leads to college, success and fun; the other leads to waiting tables and lower-class desperation. When Mrs. Tingle catches one of them apparently cheating on a final exam-though the students are actually innocent-she threatens to destroy their academic careers.
They go to the teacher's house to confront her, and end up knocking her down and tying her to a bed, like the Stephen King figure in Misery. But like a true teacher, she keeps playing with their minds and afflicting their self-esteem.
In the end, Mrs. Tingle shoots a student with a crossbow. Since this apparently conflicts with the district's policy on corporal punishment, she gets fired. In the meantime, the lead kidnapper, having changed her grades in the teacher's gradebook, lives happily ever after by becoming the valedictorian.
In the high-school world of the movie, success is a human right. If a person doesn't make it, someone else must be keeping him back. Compare this to the classic teacher movie Paper Chase, where a tough teacher is an obstacle to be overcome instead of an obstacle to be destroyed. In Paper Chase, the challenges offered by the teacher are the very means by which the beleaguered student achieves the success he craves.
Since ratings attend mainly to sex, language, and violence, rather than the movie's message, Teaching Mrs. Tingle minimizes the gore and thus wins a teen-friendly PG-13.
Teen exploitation kingpin Kevin Williamson, who made the film for Disney-subsidiary Dimension Films, based the movie on one of his old teachers. "She was so mean to me, she just hated me, and I never knew why," he said, still juvenile after all these years. "She, like, really discouraged me from being a writer, to the point where she ripped up a short story in my face and almost sent me to the principal's office because she hated me so much.
"She basically just tried to crush the dream, you know? She basically said, 'You'll never be a writer. Your voice should never be heard.'"
Since Mr. Williamson went on to express his voice in TV's sex-and-fashion soap opera Dawson's Creek and the postmodern slasher Scream, as well as this movie, she must have been a very perceptive teacher.
There are few callings more important to society, more difficult to carry out, and more worthy of regard when done well than teaching. But classroom teachers today often feel assailed on every side. Their students often run wild in the classroom. Their administrators thwart their efforts at discipline. And parents complain if their child is made to work too hard and threaten to sue if he gets a bad grade.
What has happened to the stature of teachers? Why do they not receive the respect and the support they need to do their jobs effectively?
In addition to the overall disdain for authorities of every kind, the educational establishment itself is to blame for devaluing the teaching profession.
Regrettably, when educators organized themselves, they chose the model of the industrial labor union, rather than the professional association. For all of their faults, the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association police their members, kick out incompetents, and work to implement the highest possible professional standards. Unions, on the other hand, scrap for job security and better wages no matter what. Labor tactics that might work on the factory floor prove counterproductive in the realm of education. Today, teachers' unions work hard to keep bad teachers in the classroom, play hardball partisan politics in the Democratic party, and consistently stand in the way of every kind of educational reform. This is all to the detriment of the good teachers in their midst and drags down teachers' standing with the public.
Harebrained educational theories also erode the authority of teachers. Many new teachers have been taught to be their students' friend, an understanding peer rather than an authoritarian conveyer of knowledge. But we all know how children treat their peers. When children consider the teacher "one of us," they have no reason to do what they are told, much less open their minds to what a higher authority could teach them.
Teachers are often saddled with theories and curricula that just don't work. The state of California--and thus much of the rest of the country--went over to the "whole language" curriculum, even before the effectiveness of this radically new approach to teaching reading had been subjected to empirical testing. And when the tests came in, whole language was proven to be a bust. Teachers were stuck with textbooks, lesson plans, and state-mandated performance criteria that had no grounding in reality.
Sometimes, nothing happens in the classroom that deserves respect. Meaningless games, endlessly subjective "sharing," and pseudo-"fun activities" are rightly scorned by children, who do not want their time wasted.
Despite Teaching Mrs. Tingle, other markers of adolescent values show the politically correct, touchy-feely, I'm-one-of-you teachers to be the true objects of mockery. On The Simpsons and MTV's Daria, it is the pony-tailed male social studies teacher and the '60s-never-died counselor in her love beads trying to get everyone to get in touch with their feelings who are subjected to the most withering ridicule.
The educational crisis cannot be solved until teachers are respected in the classroom and rediscover their high vocation. And until everyone in education realizes the implications of Christ's own words: "A student is not above his teacher" (Luke 6:40).