The Marva Collins Story (1981)

Based on the true story of a defiant and determined, young teacher, The Marva Collins Story is as much a critique of the institutionalized racism existent in the Chicago public school system as it is the optimistic story of a new pedagogy. We follow Collins as she comes up against many barriers at the local public elementary school, including bureaucratic nightmares, lazy colleagues, racialized tracking, and the persistent ideology that “these kids from the ghetto cannot and just will not learn”. Critical Race Theory helps us to illuminate the structural violence imposed on the young students of color, attributing the cause of their failure to our society’s valorization of whiteness in institutions (Lynn 1999). However, Marva Collins seeks to disrupt and dismantle the perpetual marginalization of her race by starting her own school. Her pedagogy can be understood as an example of the African Womanist paradigm in education.

Annette Henry (2002) describes the African Womanist pedagogue as “demonstrat[ing] the capacity and need to act as ‘othermothers’ (p. 400) for their students while consistently providing them with positive reinforcement, promoting collective responsibility, and sharing, teaching them to be responsible for their own learning, using Afrocentric Womanist pedagogy as a basis for their curriculum, and encouraging the ‘academic, intellectual and cultural’ (p. 400) development of their students” (as cited in Lynn 1999, p. 609).

We join Collins here on the first day of her new school as she outlines the expectations for her students and consequently provides us with an overview of her pedagogy and ideology. She grounds her purpose in a context specifically pertinent to the African struggle when at 1:45 she says, “You see children, the system has people conned. Welfare is just another word for slavery”, tying her purpose to a project of Dubosian-like racial uplift. As she circles the classroom, she gives each student a physical gesture of maternal love by patting their backs or touching their cheeks. At 2:38, she gently holds a disruptive student’s face as she tells him “I love you. I love you. You’re a bright boy. You’re a handsome boy. But you do not have the right to disturb the other children’s right to learn”. This disciplinary tactic is particularly feminine and falls within the Womanist ideology due to the positive reinforcement and emphasis on collective responsibility. She never once raises her voice in anger, nor does she intimidate or threaten any of her students, which successfully diminishes one student’s clear oppositionality towards her. This film participates in a greater narrative of teaching as feminine work by promoting mothering and nurturing as key to community and identity building through academic success.

  • What does it mean to promote behaviors tied to the performance of femininity as the work of a teacher?
  • What lessons can we derive from Collins’ pedagogy that can be applicable or relevant to teachers today as schools become more and more divided by economic and racial inequalities?

Works Cited

Lynn, M. (1999). Toward a critical race pedagogy: A research note. Urban Education33(5), 606-626.


Dead Poets Society


A gender-focused reading of Dead Poets Society yields precarious results for the case of women.

Robin Williams strays from his familiar comedic genre in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society, portraying John Keating, the rebellious rookie teacher in a renowned all-male preparatory school. Keating begins to cultivate in his students a lust for learning and self-expression through poetry that defies the traditional pedagogy praised by the institution and reappropriates “the arts” as acceptable forms of masculinity. However, it is the marked homogeneity of Welton Academy that sets Dead Poets Society apart and provides us with a rich text to analyze the promoted ideals, latent lessons and hidden transcripts in all-male education.

The all-white, all-male classroom covers topics such as Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and other successful white men, ultimately giving the students both role models of success and the cultural capital necessary for the college examinations that stand between them and their successful careers as doctors, lawyers and bankers. Poetry is presented not only as a means for self-expression but also as a way to “woo women” and “make them swoon” as in the first video clip provided. Keating creates a sort of “boys club” environment in which he can poke fun at the students and make sexual references and they can all laugh about it after. In the second clip, we understand the immediacy and the reality of the privilege these white males have been afforded; the fact that they will succeed is never brought in question. As they look upon the faces similar to their own that have come before them, they are again reassured that their achievement is imminent. Implicitly, we understand this is due to their master statuses of social positionality, race, and gender.

It is important that we acknowledge the clear, epistemological differences between the two different types of single-sex education: male and female. All-female education provides a safe space for women, the marginalized sex, to express themselves freely and think critically and consciously about their navigation of this male dominated world. All-male education, in turn, can actively perpetuate this dominance, creating a space in which the students are afforded perhaps even more freedoms that they then internalize as superiority after leaving the institution.

The film also aptly characterizes how the all-male environment sets up genderized expectations for teachers. The all-boy model promotes male authority figures and deemphasizes the importance or presence of the maternal female teacher. It is understood that males respond to exaggerated performances of masculinity, such as physical force in the case of the corporal punishment exhibited, or the integration of sports into the classroom setting, in order to truly “reach” them; none of which could be performed by a female teacher.

  • Can all-male education successfully promote a masculinity that is profeminist and gay affirmative? Or must it always maintain the subtle, institutionalized patriarchy that we seek to escape?

Blackboard Jungle (1955)


Set against the backdrop of a dangerous, urban environment, Blackboard Jungle tells the story of the Great White Hope come to save all of the juvenile delinquents from the evils of inner-city schooling. We follow Mr. Dadier, new to the school and to the teaching profession in general, through his struggles to engage his ruffian students in the topics of his English class.

Throughout the film, it is evident that specific gendered behaviors are either promoted as superior or critiqued as problematic. The overall lesson by the end of the film seems to privilege physical strength, bravery, intimidation, and fighting skills as necessary in order to “conquer” the bad students and win the respect of the class. Meanwhile, the women in the movie are one-dimensional figures that fall into three paradigms: the Fragile Woman, the School Marm, and the Young, Sexy Teacher. In fact, one could go as far as to argue that the women serve no purpose in the film if not only to cause problem for the hard-working men.

Before we as viewers even enter a classroom setting or hear from the students themselves as individuals, it is the teachers in the main office that begin the dialogue surrounding the sexualization of the new female teacher. The veteran male teacher, already spouting cynical advice to his fresh-faced and recently hired coworkers, says to her, “You aren’t gonna teach in that outfit are you?” and goes on to imply that the boys in her class will surely “fight over her”, as he states in the scene above. He objectifies her in an instant; not only do none of the other (male) teachers jump to her defense, but also she herself does not even seem the least bit miffed by the presumption and holds her tongue.

In this specific clip, she stands up in front of the male students as they hoot and holler like caged animals crazed by the prospect of fresh meat. We understand that the “boys club” mentality is not only left unchecked but also fostered at the faculty level. In fact, the most senior of the teachers believes teaching in an urban environment to be strictly men’s business when he says, “they hire fools like us with college degrees so we can sit on their garbage cans, keep ‘em in school, so women can, for a few hours a day, walk around the city without getting attacked”. His character simultaneously associates teaching with a type of prison-guard-like toughness, while promoting his belief in the Culture of Poverty Theory (residents of inner city communities are impoverished because they have the wrong values).

Ultra-masculinity becomes the key to saving the hoodlums, domesticating them, and dominating the classroom. It is Mr. Dadier’s ability to “hang with the tough guys” and build a rapport with some students over baseball, car engines, and a tough attitude, that ultimately leads to his “success” as a teacher. One film reviewer aptly explains that “the manner in which the teacher eventually gains the respect of his whole class is simply by disarming the toughest hoodlum. This seems a bitter and superficial solution for the problem at hand” (Crowther 21). Instead of focusing on the perceived academic breakthrough that Dadier began having through the use of the movies, which evoked heated discussions of morality and opinion from even the most apathetic of students, the film decidedly shows that Dadier’s hyper-masculinity ultimately wins out.

  • Though the film is set almost 60 years ago, what parallels can we draw to masculinity in the teaching profession between then and now?

Works Cited

Crowther, Bosley. ‘ Blackboard Jungle’ as A Film Raises Grave Questions of Fact. New York Times. 27 March 1955: X1. Online.

Stand and Deliver (1988)

Rámon Menéndez’s Stand and Deliver is both a commentary about at-risk school and student culture in East L.A. as well as a narrative of the one teacher that can save us all.

Against the advice of his coworkers, rookie math teacher Jamie Escalante develops a rigorous program for AP Calculus to raise the bar for his students. In order to foster participation, Escalante first has to gain the trust of the students whom other teachers referred to as “rough” by proving he was one of them. He reminds his majority Latino high school classroom that it was their Mayan ancestors who were the original masters of algebra, tying their ethnic ancestry to their present academic challenge. Escalante demonstrates what Lynn (1999) would call his “cultural solidarity, affiliation or kinship, and connectedness” with his students in many ways; one of which includes alternating between English, Spanish and Spanglish as an effective mode of communication, making his lessons both culturally relevant and familiar to the students (p. 607).

While Escalante fits the profile of the classic teacher-hero paradigm present in Hollywood education films, in this scene it is the clear structures of patriarchy, hyper-maleness, and heteronormativity in the classroom propel Escalante’s pedagogy forward. His sense of humor that borders on bullying simultaneously demands respect and orderly behavior from all of his students for fear of being his next target, while promoting a setting where the class can laugh with each other.  He struts around the classroom, taunting and daring students to try to solve the problem and then throws out offensive retorts when they fail to answer correctly. At 1:36, he says “it’s not that their stupid, it’s just they don’t know anything”, demonstrating a sort of tough-guy challenge to his students to prove him wrong.

His comments sometimes have a sexual and/or sexist undertone. When a female student tries her hand at the math problem, Escalante tells her not simply that she’s wrong but instead that, “you’re good now, but you’re going to end up barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen!” (0:58). The class laughs, she laughs, they move on. This overtly sexist language, whether joking or not, is also in the context of a proposed math problem that promotes both the stereotype of the hypersexual Latino male as well as clear heteronormativity: the task is to figure out just how many nameless girlfriends each “gigolo” (Carlos, Pedro and Juan) has.

The issue at hand is less about whether the fictional students feel victimized by Escalante’s teaching methods and instead more about the consequences of the implicit endorsement of these intolerant behaviors as acceptable and suggested methods of teaching. Because of Escalante’s positionality as a male in a primarily female field of employment, he, as other male teachers, finds himself performing an exaggerated form of his maleness in order to compensate. We are left with the understanding that aggression, bullying and inflexibility are the qualifications for a male teacher to reach his “urban” students.

  • Could a female teacher have employed this same pedagogy in this same classroom? Why or why not?
  • Does this pedagogy run the risk of perpetuating the cycle of violence and aggression, or does it diffuse it by using aggression to promote achievement?

Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)

Mr. Holland arrives at John F. Kennedy High School not only convinced that teaching will bring both physical and emotional terror, but also motivated by his plan to quit after four arduous years in order do what he really loves: compose music. As bills pile higher and he and his wife plan to have a child, Holland decides to stay at the school indefinitely, a little less miserable as each year passes.

In this clip and throughout the progress of the film, Holland challenges our preconceived notions of male teachers (as presented in this blog) as aggressors, bullies, and jokesters. He develops a true paternal pedagogy, using some skills usually associated with mothering pedagogies of female teachers such as nurturing and emotional reassurance. Though exhausted from the hours he already spends at the school, he decides to come early to help young Gertrude develop her passion for the clarinet. He takes the time to talk to her as she processes years of pain through her tears, giving her the space to grow emotionally, like a dad would for a child. His archetypal role is essentially the opposite or the foil to the male teacher that appears in Up the Down Staircase. A brief clip showing his insensitive behavior can be found at the very bottom of the blog.

Holland’s fatherly demeanor illustrates teacher’s work as emotional work and relationship work. Oftentimes we don’t consider the divisions of labor that are involved in the teaching profession that become so necessary for success yet are so overlooked in the popular representations of teachers or diverge from our already formulated conceptions of what they do. Holland becomes the example of a beloved but overly dedicated teacher, spending all of his free time at school and leaving his wife and his son, born deaf to the disappointment of his father, to fend for themselves.

We also understand teacher’s work as gender work through Holland. As he challenges the boundaries of the feminized teaching profession, he maintains his male master status always as he becomes distinctly heterosexualized. Even as his relationship with his wife and his son are precarious, a young, beautiful student becomes enamored with Holland and tempts him to run away with her. Accordingly, the film presents his character as simultaneously macho and paternal.

Up the Down Staircase (1967)

A male teacher analyzes a letter from a love-struck student.