By now you know the components of the Inspiring Teacher film—creative, caring teacher; under-achieving, rebellious students; principal and other teachers who have written them off; hapless parents, often suspicious of and in opposition to the teacher. We have seen these elements in film after film, from To Sir With Love; Up the Down Staircase; Stand and Deliver; to this year’s Take the Lead. The teacher is often up against the System, and though sometimes losing (Conrack; Dead Poet’s Society; and Mona Lisa Smile), wins the moral victory. And, if you are like, me, you loved most of them. There is something about the noble-minded underdog overcoming great odds to enrich young lives that is always thrilling—and so it is in this production in Johnson and Johnson’s fine series airing on TNT (Door to Door was part of the series). I think what continues to draw us to such films are the varying details, especially of what and how the teacher will break through the hostile barriers.
Ron Clark was an outstanding teacher in North Carolina who felt that he could make an even bigger difference in New York City. Despite his credentials, he is forced to take a job as a costumed waiter at a medieval-themed restaurant when the New York City Board of Education does not jump at the chance to hire him. He manages to talk his way into a position at a Harlem school, his becoming a permanent teacher depending on his ability to bring up the failing grades of the class that no one else believes in. The kids resist his attempts to make the class into a family, their hostility so great that at one point he quits, returning only because the waitress he has befriended encourages him to do so. Through a series of innovative techniques, cajoling, and visiting the students in their homes the class improves. Their cold hostility melts into warm devotion, even more so when he comes down with pneumonia but continues to teach. The class becomes the highest achieving group in the school, scoring better than even the gifted class, but far better, is the sense of self respect and achievement that he engenders in students who once thought of themselves as trash.