A Touch of Class

A slightly different blog this time: a collaboration between my self and my Hanoi-based teaching nephew – on the portrayal of teaching on the big screen. Colin is well experienced internationally, as well as having started his career in Glasgow, and he has youth on his side when it comes to his perspective. We wondered what would happen if we both chose our five favourite ‘teacher’ films. Would there be overlap? Would we be viewing from the same angle – or would our different experiences lead to a completely different take? You can view his choice at http://tinyurl.com/3mxgj3f.
Go compare!!!!

Writing about teachers in film can prove difficult. The few films that are centred on teachers, like, say, ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ or ‘Dead Poets’ Society’, tend to lionise their subject, whilst, frequently, when teachers appear in other films, they are either there to drive the plot, or part of the crazy background in a fun-filled high school romp. Nevertheless, the portrayal of teachers can have an effect, and I’d have to say it was a television teacher, John Cairney in ‘This Man Craig’ in the late sixties, who really set me thinking about teaching as a career. When it comes to the movies, however, my top five might raise a few eyebrows – and none more so than my opening choice from 1959: don’t laugh – Carry on Teacher.

In my defence, it should be remembered that, in the early days, the ‘Carry on’ franchise, and this was third in the series, produced films, that, in general atmosphere, were closer to Ealing comedies than the later bawdy romps. The ‘carry on’ in the title referred to a main character who was about to leave a barracks, hospital or, in this case, school, and the comedy came from tricks the inmates perpetrated in order to ensure they didn’t move on. Beloved British comedian, Ted Ray, plays Wakie Wakefield, the caring headteacher at inner city Maudlin St School, who is about to take up a new post in a smarter school in the country. The pupils, partly because he is so easy going, don’t want to lose him, so, when the Inspectors arrive, they create mayhem, hoping that a poor report will lead to the withdrawal of his new job offer. After a predictably nightmarish inspection, Wakefield is devastated by the pupils’ behaviour, till the reasons for it are explained, and with much blowing of noses and shuffling of feet, he decides to stay where he is wanted. It’s dated now, of course, but many of the familiar faces are on good form with some geniuinely funny scenes and lines, and a tour de force from Leslie Phillips which started my lifelong admiration of him.

Why choose this?

Well, it was one of the first films I ever saw in what we knew as ‘the picture house’, so it had a big impact on me. As a seven year old, the farce and overexaggeration went over my head and I just saw it as ‘real’ and very funny. It was the first time I had considered teachers as human beings I suppose, and that must have left its mark. Actually, as you would expect, the teachers were proper caricatures, but, at 7 years old I wasn’t to know that, and, in any case, many of my actual teachers at the time were just as idiosyncratic!

My next choice is much more predictable, but I don’t think I can over-emphasise the effect it had on me when I first saw it – at teacher training college. ‘Kes’, made by Ken Loach in 1969

Loach’s second feature film is one of his best known and best loved, and he made it in collaboration with Barry Hines, the original author. Most folk will know the story of Billy Casper, a downtrodden lad from a poor estate in a northern mining town, whose narrow, hopeless education is enhanced by the support of his English teacher, as he finds, trains and rears a young hawk.

Whoever decided on a viewing of this film for the Moray House postgraduate teaching class of 1975 did us all a huge favour. I think more of my approach to the profession and my manner with pupils was shaped by this film than by all the year’s lectures put together. There is a particular scene with Colin Welland and David Bradley, after Billy is bullied in the playground, which is probably responsible for my becoming a guidance teacher. It showed me a whole way of being a teacher of which I was unaware – certainly from my own schooldays, and even from the studying in which we were engaged.

‘Kes’ succeeds primarily because it is such a good film, lovingly made and carefully considered. Welland, as Farthing the English teacher, against the trend amongst the staff, is empathetic; he not only ‘hears’ Billy, he listens to him. He’s no pushover, we see him pretty viciously taking on the school bully, but he is prepared to share his time with Billy; it is clear that he cares about him.

With the exception of Welland, the film’s characters were largely played by local people and most of the staff and pupils were portrayed by their actual counterparts in St Helen’s School in Barnsley. Barry Hines, the writer, had taught in that situation; Ken Loach was perfecting his improvised/documentary style well known to us these days, and used Cameraman Chris Menges, fresh from World in Action and factual films. I always remember Menges saying how he automatically lit scenes from the windows, or where they would be, to give a ‘natural’ light effect and the uneven sound in the classroom scenes only serves to heighten the realistic impression given by the film.

Bizarrely, despite the impact of Welland, perhaps it is the opposing elements in the film that make the point most strongly. No-one who has seen the film will ever forget the comically pathetic cameo by the wonderful PE Teacher bully, Sugden, played with devastating cruelty by Brian Glover. Equally thought provoking is the archetypal headteacher pre-belting speech, given by the school’s actual headteacher, Bill Bowes, as Mr Gryce, in which he explains that he knows the belt doesn’t work, but he’ll keep using it as he can think of nothing else to do.

This film must have set thousands of us on to a reflective path that made us better, more humane teachers, teachers who listened!

So – from the end of the 60s to the beginning of the 80s and Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl (1978). There are many comparisons between ‘Kes’ and ‘Gregory’s Girl’ – not least the amateur actors (in this case from the Glasgow Youth Theatre) and cameraman Menges, but there are also crucial differences.

Whilst Loach and Hines portrayed the bleak outlook promoted by secondary modern education and the dead end of industrial decline, and placed it in a grim north of England setting, Forsyth chose to examine the angst of the teenage years in a more joyous manner, choosing the light touch of new town Scotland, and the metaphor of a girl playing football.

I love Gregory’s Girl because it captures the happy confusion of the teenage years, and illustrates the madness of every day moments in school against the bewildering backdrop of a new town setting. Gregory doesn’t know what’s happening to him, his parents have no idea about Gregory, the teachers are as flummoxed as anyone, and the town’s architecture veers from little boxes to sylvan glens with no reasonable explanation at all. Whilst Hines taught me of the desperation that can be engendered when children are ignored, Forsyth’s message covered the resilience of the young, their ability to deal with the mundane and the bizarre with equal panache, and the need for teachers never ever to take themselves too seriously. The hopes proclaimed by the new towns of the 70s are allowed to take flight, the grim reality of the industrial heartlands is presumed to be left behind, the reality that was to come can be safely ignored – for a brief interlude. We will get there in the end, says Forsyth, though, as in Gregory’s experience, it may be a different destination, and we may not be clear how we arrived there.

The vignettes in this film are pure joy – like one liners collated together: Chic Murray as the piano playing headmaster; John Bett and Alex Norton examining Jake D’Arcy’s incipient moustache, the joy of cooking, an electric toothbrush left to vibrate on a kitchen surface, the penguin in the corridor, the car-less streets over run with weans, the two desperadoes seeking success in Caracas, and, perhaps the sweetest moment in any teenage film, when Clare Grogan’s Susan whispers “Good night, Mr Spaceman!”

Bill Forsyth recently said he has always wanted to make a film that was a joke but in which there was no laugh at the end – ‘perfect humour’ he called it. Like the best of educational experiences, ‘Gregory’s Girl’ leaves us wanting more, smiling vaguely, but not totally sure why we feel so good.

Two of my three films so far have centred on the ‘realism’ portrayed – in characters and film technique. Perhaps my fourth choice illustrates how well we can do that approach now in the twenty first century.

‘La Clase’ (2008) centres on a multi-racial additional needs class in a tough Paris suburb. Written by its star François Bégaudeau, and largely based on his own experiences, it echoes ‘Kes’ in its use of real students and improvisation and a director, Laurent Cantet, who seeks the same ‘cinema verite’ approach that Menges and Loach pioneered all those years ago.

I liked ‘La Clase’ because it eschewed sentimentality and gave an accurate view of the demands of teaching difficult pupils whilst also demonstrating the positive energy that can be gained from even partial success in meeting those challenges. As in real life, the pupils veer from likeable to annoying, vulnerable to downright threatening. In his teaching, the Bégaudeau character sometimes gets it right, but is also capable of misjudgments.It’s a film which leaves you with a familiar feeling of frustration joined with affirmation: yes it IS worth trying; no, you won’t always be successful -but not to try is unforgivable.

The film performs the difficult task of sharing the students’ troubled backgrounds with the viewer without ever seeking to explain their shortcomings as inevitable. It’s the most important strategy in teaching, perhaps: to link cause and effect without ever letting that drive your approach; to do your best for all pupils, without developing the God complex that leads to stereotyping and single minded ‘I can cure it’ style; to refrain from trying to shape pupils in your own image and likeness. One size does not fit all.

The French school system, particularly in discipline, is significantly different to ours, and the scene where staff sit around arguing about what should be written in each pupil’s report card will, I guess, promote hilarity and reflection in equal parts amongst watching teachers. However, these differences, as in the perspective lent by passage of time in the previous three choices, make it easier for us to reflect on our own practice and the motivation for what we do and how we do it. Of the films I have chosen, this was the hardest to watch, and maybe the one that provoked most self reflection – or maybe that’s just my current age and stage!

My final choice, again, homes in on challenging pupils and the demands they make on both individual teachers and the system that purports to support them. In Mike Leigh’s ‘Happy-go-lucky’ (2008), the wonderful Sally Hawkins plays an additional needs teacher who brings on her pupils by force of personality, enthusiasm and a kind of crazy commitment.

More heralded than some of my other choices, because of Mike Leigh’s reputation, and also the fact that this was far from his usual grim approach to social topics, this film was very well received and burnished Hawkins’ flourishing reputation. She is a phenomenal actress who carries the film really, and could have been born to work within Leigh’s famous improvisationary approach. Critics claimed that in reality such relentless good cheer would become annoying in the extreme, but I feel that kind of misses the point. Firstly, I’m not sure Leigh was actually aiming for a realistic feel to this story; it seems to me more symbolic of the joys and pressures of working in a difficult educational setting. Secondly, I felt that I detected a manic quality to Poppy’s approach to life and work which you could say was a coping mechanism for meeting the challenges – provided by pupils, colleagues and the system, in such a career area.

In addition, the film focuses partly on Poppy’s life away from the classroom and I felt that this was a strength of the film. The best teachers are the same in classroom and in ‘real life’, and while classroom craft can be studies and assimilated, there is no denying the impact of teacher personality, beliefs and personal style on what they bring to the education of pupils. Poppy outside the classroom made sense of Poppy in the classroom and the balance she trod between the professional and the personal, good judgement and whacky feelgood intuition, portrayed a very interesting area in teacher psychology.

Not really a slice of real life, maybe overdependent on the charm of the lead actress, but, nevertheless a powerful polemic for the power of the individual approach in the classroom – emotional intelligence and emotional teaching you might say!

So there we have it – five films that I feel get to somewhere near the nub of what it’s like to be a teacher. None of them really capture it – but between the five there’s probably a fair approximation. I’m not sure why the film industry have never fully got to grips with the world of education. Maybe the cross cutting demands of marketability in the cinema and the serious job of education don’t fit neatly together.

I have to cheekily slip in an extra nomination – that of ‘Heavenly Pursuits’, Charles Gormley’s cracking wee piece set in a special needs class in a Glasgow Catholic secondary, with an aetheistic Tom Conti pursuing the saintly Helen Mirren as she promotes the miracles of Blessed Edith Semple in her teaching of challenging pupils. I loved the atmosphere in this small film – and the content was nowhere near as fluffy as one might be tempted to think!

For what it’s worth, I believe most teachers do a serious job in a downplayed manner with copious use of humour. We don’t need the messianic or the oddball or the psychologically interesting approach; we just need a film that recognises the power of relationships: between pupils, staff and pupils, schools and parents and education and politicians – and all in 93 minutes! If Hawkeye and Trapper can use the Korean War to make entertaining cinema and serious points, I wonder why we can’t do the same for education.

Any offers?


Published by seánmcp

Former deputy headteacher; Edinburgh born Leitrim man; family man; writer, photographer and sports fan: cricket, football, GAA, athletics. Education & Welfare Officer at Hibernian FC; follow Hibs, Southport FC, Leitrim GAA, Dunedin Connollys GAA, Drumkeerin GAA, Cricket Scotland and Scottish Wildcats.

5 thoughts on “A Touch of Class

  1. Didn’t you like Freedom Writers? OK it might veer towards the cheesy but for the fact it’s about a real teacher’s experiences. It’s great for English teachers, particularly on the power of writing.

    1. Don’t know it – will have to investigate – also forgot To be and To Have – the French docu dram that my nephew mentioned – that was brill! You’ll have to start blogging on July 2 with all that time. Btw, I nearly mentioned girls who go out with racing drivers in my motor racing blog………

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