Cue Soundtrack, Tina Turner, “We Don’t Need Another Hero” [The Atlantic]

Written on 8 April 2016, 08:45am under As Seen In

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When teachers in schools serving under-resourced communities can only be cast as heroes, martyrs, or patriots in books and movies, the result has proven to be far-reaching—namely, damaging myths about urban students and urban schooling.

In my latest piece, I examine how these literary and film accounts reinforce harmful stereotypes of urban teaching, and bring to the surface underlying racial aspects – i.e., the “white savior teacher” – that add to the discord.

The trope of the gung-ho greenhorn in the wilds of urban public education can trace its roots back to popular classics like To Sir, With Love(1967) and contemporary films like Dangerous Minds (1995). In each, a novice teacher is able to overcome and succeed where others have failed. The stories entertain movie audiences, but it is the way in which these tales have shaped the discourse about teaching and urban schooling that is of rising concern among some critics in the education world.


Elden admits that these stories have the elements of a good Hollywood plot, but fall short as a guide for real teachers who “fall into the trap of comparing their unedited footage to other people’s highlight reels.” The maverick teacher “has become the only acceptable story to tell about our experiences as educators,” said Elden, adding that it creates a dynamic where beginning teachers are afraid to admit they’re struggling and soon are exhausted from trying to keep up with a false ideal.


This breed of books and films “hold up … white people as exceptionally brave or exceptionally self-sacrificing or just exceptional and heroic for doing the same work educators have done for years without fanfare,” said Royal, whose work with preservice teachers brings this sharply into focus. “I debunk this idea with my students before we begin field experience in Baltimore City schools each semester,” she said, stressing that “white saviors aren’t bringing light and hope. The hope is already in our students and in our schools and communities. Our job is to cultivate it, to bring out what already exists.”

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(Photo: Clark County School District)

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