Thoughts on life after the PhD
Watching Laurent Cantet’s The Class, the documentary-style story of one year in the life of students and a teacher at an urban Paris high school, I immediately felt a sense of stomach-churning recognition. I was planning to be a high school teacher until I graduated from college, did my semester of student teaching, and was so scarred by the experience that I never went back. I went home crying almost every day. My students both disgusted and terrified me. My cooperating teachers were burned out and shot down almost every new idea I presented. The system defeated me before I even became a full-fledged teacher, and it defeats plenty of teachers during their first year.
The Class takes place in Paris, but it could have been filmed at my junior high. The tensions between Arabs, Africans, and Europeans could be the tensions between ethnic and cultural groups anywhere. The battle to maintain discipline in classrooms without quashing student morale is a battle being fought all over the world. And the flawed nature of the public education system, where what is taught and how it is taught sometimes seems to have no relation to the harsh realities of the students’ lives, continues to be a pressing issue for schools everywhere.
There is a moment in the film when a young teacher storms into the teachers’ lounge, throws himself down on the couch, and launches into a tirade against his students. They’re animals, they don’t do a thing, enough, enough, I’m not teaching them anymore. The other teachers watch him in silence–he’s likely saying what they’ve all thought at one time or another. They don’t criticize or condemn. Eventually one of them quietly offers to take a walk with him outside. By the end of the film, of course, he’s still teaching.
I was this teacher. I saw my students’ bravado, constant seeking of attention, incessant giggling, and insolence as a disgusting display of shallowness and ignorance. I couldn’t bring myself to feel any love or sympathy for them. Years later, with the help of this film, I realize that it’s all code. Students aren’t idiots, and they aren’t animals. They have ideas, and they have dreams beyond their next TV-watching session–they’re just overpowered by hormones and the intense pressure to be a seen a certain way by their peers. Being able to see through the wisecracks and the seeming lack of interest to the “real” child underneath is the mark of a truly great teacher.
Francois Marin, the French instructor whose class the film follows most closely, is almost such a teacher. I say almost because he suffers from the same weaknesses as any teacher who deals with unruly students, a frequently ineffective education system, and a meager paycheck on a daily basis. You can tell that he genuinely cares about his students, but that doesn’t mean they don’t get under his skin. After a girl apologizes for misbehaving only to tell him that she “didn’t mean it” as she walks out the door, he kicks his chair in genuine anger. In one of the film’s most intense scenes, he finds himself threatening and inciting a violent dispute between his students, unable to keep a professional distance. He argues that the students have no concept of what it means to respect a teacher, and they shout back that he doesn’t respect them. They’re right, and he’s right.
The Class manages to be uplifting without being saccharine, and without resorting to the glamorized portraits of adolescence and the “savior teacher” that seem to characterize so many mainstream school dramas. There is tragedy, to be certain–mostly in the form of bright students who will never realize their full potential because of the harsh realities of their economic situation. But there are also moments of great accomplishment. Carl, a French-Caribbean student who was expelled from his previous school, looks straight into the camera as he reads the “self-portrait” that all the students were assigned to write. He tells us what he likes–rap music, football, his family. And what he hates–goths, racists, people who show off. He begins as an object of pity, reading the most basic facts about himself. But then you notice the intensity with which he stares at the camera, the way his likes and dislikes become a form of raw poetry, and the way that, behind the anger and the sarcasm, he’s sharing his soul with you. In a profession that has few rewards and more than its fair share of hardships, this is a moment any teacher would be grateful for.
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
tales of travel, research, and life
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