complicating the teacher as hero:
the cross genre nuance in drama and documentary
By Ayla Sullivan
While many are familiar with the “Teacher as Hero” genre centering whiteness and the well meaning white woman trying to save “underperforming” children of colour, there are two films within the canon that call into question this form of analysis on the genre. To Sir, With Love both challenges and reinforces key features of the "Teacher as Hero" genre, mainly in its relationship with teacher as more privileged than their students, teacher as saviour archetype, and the teacher implementing new pedagogy. Meanwhile, Precious Knowledge examines the nature of education itself by centering real teachers and their interactions with students, administration, and politicians who either support or oppose their revolutionary educational practise. The common factor between both films is centering teachers of colour, rather than a white woman with a saviour complex. Therefore, despite differences in dramatic genre (drama versus documentary), focusing teachers of colour as hero reframes the Teacher as Hero genre in a more nuanced approach.
To begin with, To Sir, With Love focuses on a Black American protagonist navigating the educational system in England. Not only is "Sir" a foreigner based on nationality alone, he also is Black man in the 1960s teaching for the first time in a white affluent school with only one Black student and a few students of colour in the classroom. Under no circumstance can the audience erase his lack of racial privilege, even though he has perceived class privilege (as seen in the cooking scene where he reveals he used to work as a dishwasher to the amazement of his students). Additionally, he is met with wild microagressions from his administrative staff (continually referred to as "the Black sheep" with malicious tones at the beginning of the film), and he also receives racist remarks from his students about how his blood must bleed a different colour or simple, strange comments about his skin colour. By positioning Sir in both a position of power and a position of oppression, there is interesting nuance to the role of educators in dismantling or reinforcing systems of oppression like education that would otherwise not be explored without challenging the teacher as privileged trope within the genre.
Furthermore, To Sir, With Love also complicates the genre of "Teacher as Hero" by focusing on Sir's unwillingness to be a teacher throughout the film. Sir repeatedly says he simply answered an ad in the paper, that he is not qualified, that he does not want to be a teacher or ever wanted to be a teacher. He does not exhibit the typical tropes of the eager teacher who sees students as people who need to be saved and then loses hope/becomes callous, but rather is very forthright on how he is counting the days until he hears word from a job that has nothing to do with education at all. Originally, he agrees with the staff that the children are lost causes. Of course, his opinions toward education change over the course of the film, which creates a new lens on the genre that interrogates why teachers choose to be teachers, what are "real" teachers, and what constitutes a "bad" teacher or student. None of this could be achieved without challenging the genre and the stereotypes of teacher as saviours.
Yet, there is of course a necessary emphasis on how Sir reshapes education with a new pedagogy in order for this film to maintain a place within the "Teacher as Hero" genre. Sir's first change begins with him ending the scheduled lesson to open up the space to any question about any subject about adulthood. Once he reframes the classroom as a dialogue space, rather than the binary of teacher and student, the students become more engaged with him and one another. He begins to teach them practical lifestyle skills (albeit steeped in misogyny and homomisia) and creates a thriving community centered environment. Additionally, he brings a cooking class lecture into the room and brings the class on a field trip outside of the room to broaden perspectives and historical contexts in a kinesthetic way. By shifting his role in the classroom, he begins to enjoy teaching and solidifies his place as a community leader, rather than a villanised educator.
Similarly in Precious Knowledge, the emphasis of the Arizona Ethnic Studies Program largely rests on community engagement. Like many fictional teachers within the genre, the real educators position themselves as facilitators, rather than an ominous authority figure. When teachers shift the focus on learning through community understanding, instead of forcing interpreted facts as knowledge, education becomes radically decolonised and marginalised students have the ability to reclaim history that was previously inaccessible. Examples of reclaiming education is seen through the classes beginning with reciting an indigenous themed poem (“In La’Kech”), critically engaging with texts as a way to critically engage society (“Read the Word, Read the World”), and incentivising the increased accessibility to true history as homage to their ancestors.
Yet, this radical pedagogy is not solely based on how the classroom itself is set up, but also through the inclusion of its students’ narratives, another common theme across the Teacher as Hero genre. Once the students were given tools, their roles within the community were revitalised. Not only did the Ethnic Studies program increase standardised test scores across subjects, but it also increased graduation rates. The students became more engaged within the school and created a Unity Festival that created a platform for marginalised students to discuss their own personal experiences through poetry, music, and art while including the broader neighbourhood community.
Even when the Ethnic Studies program was threatened, the main advocates organising were not the teachers or administrators, but the students it directly affected. Students were demonstrating in public areas, protesting in government offices, and even being arrested for their radical involvement. Their empowerment became a threat to the state and only because they were given the proper education of how they are disproportionately affected by education through a white lens.
Of course, implementing new pedagogy in education is never an easy task because of bureaucracy and white supremacy, which we traditionally see in the Teacher as Hero Genre. First, there is the administrative tension in To Sir, With Love because of Sir’s suggestion of field trips and the students’ love for the way he positions them as adults and not children. Meanwhile, the real life consequences of rigid administration are more exposed within Precious Knowledge because of an outside political lens imposing itself on the school. The white politicians and even educators perceive the Ethnic Studies program as a “danger to white students”, “primitive”, and the students as “culturally damaged”. Their racism and bias lead to yet another form of colonisation, which is the root of how education as an institution disproportionately affects teachers of colour. When the oppressor is threatened, they immediately believe the oppressed seek revenge rather than equity because they cannot think any other way. They cannot imagine a world in which there is not the conqueror and the conquered.
In traditional forms of the Teacher as Hero genre, we see white women oppose their administration and perceived as hyper emotional or invested; but the reality is that white women can never be perceived as a threat to white supremacy and only when teachers of colour are against the education system can they be truly in danger. In To Sir, With Love, Sir is an immigrant to England who must keep his job secure for his livelihood. There are devastating consequences at stake if he loses his job. Whereas in Arizona, the educators not only have to deal with angered politicians, but with rampant racists in the community calling for violent death threats, deportation threats, burning property, and burning Mexican flags.
The films To Sir, With Love and Preciou Knowledge are the only within the genre that challenge the creation of the “Teacher as Hero” and decentering teachers of colour profoundly misses the mark in telling inclusive stories of the experiences of people of colour in academic communities. Therefore, it is imperative to recognise the key features within the "Teacher as Hero" genre (teacher as more privileged, teacher as saviour, and teacher implementing new pedagogy) as a way to inspire nuanced conversations about the role of education in film because of how they challenge and emphasise these tropes.
Clavell, James, director. To Sir, With Love. Columbia Pictures, 1967.
Palos, Ari Luis, director. Precious Knowledge. Dos Vatos Productions, 2011.