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“Monsieur Lazhar” Gets Teaching Right—Or Does It?

Alice (Sophie Nélisse) in "Monsieur Lazhar." (Courtesy of Music Box Films)

Ever wonder how to teach media “representation” without getting into more far-ranging issues involving gender, race, class, and so on? Or maybe just how to introduce the concept to students who need an accessible entry point?

One solution lies in studying the cinematic construction of “teachers.” A corollary might be to study the images of students in movies and TV, and in fact I’m sure I’ll be posting something on that topic down the road. Or, of course, there’s also the media representation of librarians, one that’s fraught with stereotypes that those in the profession have been trying to combat for years. If you’d like to share your own experiences in this respect, that might be a great place to start. In fact, here’s a nice online resource that lists and categorizes the depiction of librarians in feature films.

Still, the case of teachers might be especially fruitful ever since a national debate sprung up a couple of years ago in the form of the “ed reform” movement. So not only is this a topic that kids can discuss from firsthand knowledge—supplemented by polling/interviewing the very teachers they see every day—but it’s one that may affect them directly in terms of shifts in public policy.

Which is why last summer’s popular R-rated comedy Bad Teacher struck such a chord in some quarters. It was accused of painting teachers in a bad light when they could least afford a tarnished public image. (I’ve always held, though, that such clearly extreme examples of representation can have the opposite effect—for example, you reflect on how grateful you are that the teachers you know aren’t like the lead character.)

So into all of this contention strolls Monsieur Lazhar, the Oscar-nominated pic that opens in several U.S. cities on Friday (and then expands on April 20 and 27—see the playdates here). To be sure, Philippe Falardeau’s film is worth seeing for multiple reasons. Well made, beautifully played, and artfully juggling several compelling themes at once, this Montreal-set drama both contrasts with, and reconciles, several recent films about teaching. (What really make it stand out, as art, are the performances by the child actors, which are among the best I’ve seen. Ever.)

The title character, played movingly by Mohamed Fellag, is a human being who struggles with teaching, sometimes winning over students and colleagues, sometimes not. But that itself is refreshing, and continues a trend of showing teachers as people, for better or worse. Think about it:  teachers are usually represented as domineering, if not cruel, or as boringly pompous pendants, or both. Alternately, of course, they are shown as dazzlingly inspirational (Dead Poets Society) or as courageous mavericks (Dangerous Minds).

A recent documentary that helps shed light on the real-life people who stand behind the figure at the chalkboard is American Teacher. If you’re an educator, or a former one like me, there’s plenty that you’ll recognize in this survey of the profession. I also happened to find its historical approach, which provides much-needed context for many contemporary issues, to be quite welcome. And although I feel that American Teacher is a more rewarding experience than the popular Waiting for Superman, with its tsunami-sized sweeping generalizations and facile band-wagon appeals, I was still disappointed by the film’s focus on teachers as victims and omission of the role of labor unions. Nonetheless, screening both docs, or even clips from them, back-to-back would make for a stimulating lesson on bias.

Tony Kaye’s Detachment, which is available on demand and may still be playing in some theaters, is another film that’s worth seeking out for its representation of teachers, as wildly expressionistic as it may be. Like Monsieur Lazhar, it focuses on a long-term sub, here named Henry Barthes. Played with gusto by Adrien Brody, the character is human-to-a-fault, insanely soulful even as he expresses his preference for isolation. Instead of being a sadistic ringmaster or silver-tongued entertainer, he’s a regular guy, and thus teaching becomes a kind of metaphor for the desire that all of us have (or like to think that we have) for doing good in the world. The tagline in the below clip makes this brand of audience positioning pretty clear: “Henry Barthes is… all of us.”

If you’re in the need of further examples—although I’m sure you could list a dozen big screen teachers off the top of your head—may I recommend an excellent reference title I acquired last year? Teachers in the Movies by Ann C. Paietta boasts a filmography with 831 titles, listing films as diverse as X-Men and the French classic Zero for Conduct. Chances are your library already has copies of several of these films.

Few, however, will likely be as sensitive and as level-headed as Monsieur Lazhar. Still, has the film simply tapped into another fantasy? The title character’s purity of approach—he’s prompted by an uncomplicated sentiment, “I love children”—essentially creates an emotional bedrock for the call to the classroom that’s hard to dispute. This thematic strategy in turn might land with audiences as a touching call-to-action, a kind of back-to-basics message… or, for those who watch the film after a long week of actually teaching, prompt a “what-else-is-new?” reaction. After all, most anyone who goes into teaching does so out of motives that are initially noble, maybe even quixotic. The challenge, one could argue, is not about how to stay in touch with one’s love of children, but rather how to actualize that love in a meaningful, day-to-day manner given all the mitigating factors that would interfere with its expression.

But that speaks to the power of most good films, and their ambiguity: are they presenting us with an achievable dream or an indulgent daydream? Either way, this question insofar as it relates to teaching is certainly worth discussing—even with your students. Perhaps especially with them.

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About Peter Gutierrez