War Photographer: Abby Norman

Abby Norman got my attention when she broke the internet with this post on not sharing stories. Abby has worked in inner city schools, which tends to get more than a little sensationalized press in our society. I love this perspective on teacher-as-hero-in-inner-city-schools movies, savior complexes, and justifications for passivity. Be sure to check out Abby’s blog, and I thank her kindly for bringing her sharp perspective here today.  



What Teacher Movies Don’t Teach

When I was in college, I borrowed my boyfriend’s car to take myself to the movies on a Tuesday night. I sat in the middle of an empty theatre in Muncie Indiana and wept and cheered for Akeelah and all her spelling glory. I left that theatre inspired. I would be that teacher. I would grow my students to their fullest potential. I would change the world, one student at a time. I could not wait to get into my classroom.

This was not my first foray into the teacher movie. Not only had I seen Dangerous Minds starring Michelle Pfeiffer, when I was 12 I read My Posse Don’t Do Homework, the book the movie was based on. I loved Finding Forrester and Freedom Writer; any movie where the teacher was the hero was a movie I wanted to see.

I suppose I was attracted to these movies because they made me feel special. They made me feel like what I was about to do was important. They promised me that if I wanted it badly enough, if I just dug deep enough, I could be the change I so desperately wanted to see in my future students’ lives. My career would be a teacher movie and I would be the star!

Three months into my first classroom experience, I despised these movies. Every. Single. One. I hated the promises these movies had made me. I hated the details these movies left out. I hated the way people referenced these movies with a wink and a nod when I told them what I did. These people thought they understood my world, they had seen the movies.

These movies may have made the classroom that I taught in more accessible to those who would never enter this world, but it also made the teacher the only person who could make a difference. I once loved these movies because they told me that I would be the one to make the difference, but when I got into the reality, I was crushed under the weight of the pressure I had been so attracted to. During my first year of teaching, the kids called me Freedom Writer like it was my name. (“Who you got for English?” “Freedom Writer.”) It was a constant reminder that I was not enough.

Here are the things the teacher movies don’t teach you: most kids’ problems are far greater than what one English teacher can fix in the span of fifty minutes a day for one hundred eighty days. Physical hunger and feeling safe at home have major impacts on the classroom environment, and are out of the teacher’s hands.  Between lesson plans, referrals, attendance, and field trip requests, there is enough paperwork to necessitate a personal assistant. Sometimes a teacher has to choose between grading yet another class set of papers, and her sanity.

The thing the teacher movies don’t teach you, is that almost all of those “give it everything” teachers they make movies about quit within the first three years. The lifestyle is simply not sustainable.  It takes a village to raise a child, and I have come to believe it takes a village to teach one too.

The truth of the matter is this: teaching in movies is like sex in movies. They leave the boring awkward bits out. It doesn’t always go smoothly. It isn’t always as exciting.

Copying entire chapters out of books that are falling apart and making class sets of them, cutting out the letters to staple onto the class bulletin board, sitting at Starbucks grading 150 research papers (half of which are accidentally plagiarized) these are the things that teachers do with their planning period. There is never enough time.

High needs students are just that, higher in need. Yet high needs schools are least likely to have parents fighting for an opportunity to volunteer in the reading nook. Meanwhile, schools where kids already have every advantage are advantaged again by parents who are willing and able to volunteer.

By casting the teacher as the hero, people give themselves permission to not help. The teacher is special; there is nothing “normal people” can do. Turns out, if you can use a pair of scissors you can be a major force in the elementary school classroom. Every spare minute a teacher has because someone cut out the bulletin board decorations for them, is a minute the teacher can be doing something extra for students that so desperately need it. Imagine the kind of classroom environment four friends and a shared Pinterest board could help create.

Teacher movies don’t tell that story. There isn’t a movie about how a group of volunteers took over a classroom and helped to create a warm and loving environment for the year. When the story of education is framed as a teacher and her students, there is no room in the picture for anyone else. But there is room for everyone else, lots of room, in lots of schools. There is likely an opportunity at your local high needs elementary school (and there is always a local high needs elementary school).

Don’t believe everything you see in the movies. I learned that lesson the hard way.

DSC_0529Abby lives and loves in the city of Atlanta. She has two hilarious children and a husband that doubles as her copy editor and biggest fan. If two in diapers and a full-time job teaching English at a local high school don’t keep her busy, you can find her blogging at accidentaldevotional. Abby loves all kinds of Girl Scout cookies, and carries a dream of one day writing a book about teaching in her heart

For more posts in the War Photographer series, please click here.

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19 thoughts on “War Photographer: Abby Norman

  1. […] Want to know why? You can read the rest here. […]

  2. hopefulleigh says:

    Excellent perspective, Abby! I’m reminded of how I felt while reading Savage Inequalities in college.

  3. Tina says:

    I just had a flashback of my teaching experience in Chicago Public Schools. And Abby is exactly right. It’s not sustainable. I knew after three years in urban schools that I needed to change jobs or I would quit teaching altogether. The people who remain often become the “bad teachers” you read about—not really bad, but burned out. It’s overwhelming.

  4. johnsfrance says:

    The kids didn’t call you freedom writer for nothing and I remember you talking about your own Posse after that first year. Definitely we can all help and a teacher can’t solve all of a kids problems but it ain’t your job. to do that and the kids don’t expect it.
    you never know the value of a great teacher or even an ordinary teacher (if there is such a thing) in kids lives until later. As usual a great read.

  5. Angie says:

    I was becoming a bad teacher which is one of the many reasons I had to leave… I couldn’t really say I loved those movies before I started teaching… everyone I saw after starting I have despised.. they aren’t real. Even the one about a friend of mine… because it doesn’t make a good scene for the chaos going on while the drama is playing out… it’s too much…

  6. Mary Mersereau-Kempf says:

    Amen Sister!!! I knew deep in my soul God had called me to teach and blessed me with special gifts. My passion for ‘making a difference’ became an obsession; my bad. Finally understand God never asked me to sacrifice everything for my class.

    I pray God will inspire tens of thousands to come along sideteachers everywhere.

  7. oooooh – this is one of my favorites! I may have to get in contact with Abby. Thanks for sharing her story, D.L.!

  8. Don Sartain says:

    My mom’s a teacher, and I’m sure she can empathize with this. You do what you can, and pray hard. It’s this type of work that brings a whole new appreciation for God’s grace.

  9. You have such a beautiful servant’s heart. This is really eye-opening for me. Thanks for sharing your insight.

  10. also a teacher says:

    High need students exist in colleges, too – especially two-year schools. Thank goodness for the small schools like the one where I teach where students get one-on-one attention from employees who know their names. All employees: from the librarian to the receptionist to the financial aid officer to the math professor.

  11. Lisa Wilt Oravec says:

    Thank you for this post! I can soooo relate. I have been teaching for 30 years, and I still feel burdened by those amazing-teacher-who-makes-all-the-difference movies. I was a young teacher when “Dead Poet’s Society” came out, and unlike all of my non-teaching friends who left it “just loving” Robin Williams’ character, I left it feeling full of resentment for the way it depicted teaching. I remember thinking, yeah, I’d stand on my desk and recite poetry and be brilliant all day, too, if I taught just one class of 15 eager kids once a day!

    Teaching is a very rewarding job, but it is also hard work, and the work is made harder when we’re made to feel it’s all on us to make our kids successful. I’m new to your blog, and I really enjoy reading your perspective.

  12. Sarah says:

    I love the teaching movies and while am not yet a teacher and do not know if I will ever be one its nice to know that the movies miss some details, the seemingly boring details like they always do.

  13. Mo says:

    I never saw those movies, and became a teacher more or less by accident. Then found I loved it and the kids too, both junior high and high school. I taught 25 years and retired last year. I did not burn out, but I was an perfectionist and workaholic and put in 60 hours weeks from late August to late June. I loved it and felt I was helping many students. But eventually I just needed a rest. There was a lot of stress. I agree with Abby: teachers need helpers and much more support. More respect in the media would be nice too. It does take a village.

  14. […] I’ve worked through a proposal on it, in the hopes of getting this book published. I’ve guest posted about it, and run a series about it, and had countless dinner party conversations where I get angry and […]


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