Fellow Teachers, We Are Not Mr. Holland Print E-mail

Magritte-11680digi-L(Inside English May 1996)

Some days I think that I might have been something other (I almost wrote more) than a writing teacher. What? A columnist, a novelist, a screenwriter, an editor, a publisher. Yet these fancies dissolve in a mist of maybes because for me there’s so much to like about teaching. Teaching—at least in college—is remarkably nourishing for student and instructor: Students who use the encouragement and structure a good teacher provides typically excel far more than they could on their own, and teachers who balance the autonomy and collegiality which the profession demands usually find their work very gratifying.

As a writer I also like teaching because I get to work with the craft of writing, both critical and creative. I know poets and painters, dancers and musicians, even scholars, who use their own work and that of their contemporaries to show that endless practice and revision is the only means to originality. In any case, while it’s sometimes true that those who can’t, teach, those who can, when they are enthusiastic and giving, make great teachers.

Thus, a few years back, while anticipating the latest ballyhooed teacher movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus, I hoped for a film that might show audiences the little-known world of the artist-teacher, perhaps a Stand and Deliver for the creative mentor. What I saw was disappointing.

The story line is simple: Mr. Holland, at twenty-six, his consciousness liberated and socially determined by the sixties, wanted to compose music as his vocation but instead, after taking a temporary job teaching high school, found himself suddenly a full-time teacher. A passion born for the classroom, he then dedicated himself to his students’ desire to learn music. Teaching band and orchestra, and not composition, became his life’s work.

Unlike the story, the message of the film is not as simple. Because Mr. Holland nurtures the self-esteem of his students by helping them play instruments, then, consequently his own artistry must suffer. Such an uncomplicated moral evokes our lost sense of altruism (another legacy of the sixties) by sanctifying the self-denier, in this instance an artist-hero who sees that others achieve their particular dreams via his sacrifice. That may sound excessive. But the film, despite the maudlin emotion it evokes, seems to get this teacher-as-Christ characterization right.

Many teachers do come early and stay late. They sometimes save their pupils from drugs, gangs, parents, or their own good intentions—often by caring alone. In the process, a few instructors become a principal’s or a dean’s favorite and, on occasion, enjoy inflated although deserved reputations among colleagues and the expectations of each year’s class. Most teachers know that they have made Robert Frost’s "all the difference" in hundreds of their students’ lives by connecting an impressionable or troubled young person to his or her creative passion.

But, while the film does reveal one teacher’s generosity, it actually trivializes the artist in the teacher, missing the truth of this more complicated individual, as well as misjudges the teacher’s artistry, which cannot be equated to generosity and staying late. A teacher’s artistry usually includes a troublesomely large dose of unpredictable behavior, provoking fear, awe or incomprehension in students, rather than a dogged devotion to eight a.m. duty which is what Mr. Holland holds dear.

Mr. Holland’s Opus exhibits a Disneyfied image of a teacher’s personality, mawkishly one-dimensional. The film errs in overdramatizing the music teacher’s saintliness and in not revealing the fire of his creativity. The film lies when it makes the artist’s willfulness to create (at some cost to dear others) seem no more than self-aggrandizement. Surely, if Mr. Holland were an artist, his compositional zeal would have always been there. (In the movie the only hard evidence we see of his desire to compose, once he’s ensconced in his role, is the oversize orchestral manuscript untended on the piano.) Mr. Holland’s artistic passion is missing in the film’s on-going drama largely because the movie does not tackle the contradiction between self and career it poses. We are led—sentimentally, pathetically—to see only how the students gain from Mr. Holland’s personal loss.

The film’s career-ending glory and applause, while heartfelt, is unjustified: thirty years to write one five-minute symphony? It’s demeaning to Mr. Holland to suggest that he did not have the courage to create. It is also demeaning to suggest that his teaching got in the way of his composition. For many artist-teachers, their work with students does not erase but rather enhances what they do with their evenings and weekends.

Of course a few artists do make a living not teaching. But those people are supported by a market that draws out the artist’s commercial choices. The serious composer, the classical musician, the poet, the choreographer, the performance artist—all must teach in our society because their endeavors go unsupported by the marketplace.

Besides, commercially successful artists are few. The vast majority of creative and artistic people in America work at other jobs or else teach their craft. In either case, if they are true creators, then their creative side occupies a major part of their lives. If artists teach, they are not, as the film suggests, less dedicated because they mind their artistic fires. On the contrary. They are enlivened and deepened by the paradox of personal and professional fulfillment, a finer truth which Mr. Holland’s Opus fails to explore.

Be careful, young artists; you may one day become teachers. Such a fate won’t kill you. What may is buying Hollywood’s version of the teaching profession. Do not think that the key to living well lies in a lifetime of self-censorship as Mr. Holland did. Otherwise, why on earth would you teach when there’s nothing for you yourself to learn? Follow him and you will wrongly conclude that any self-indulgence is bad while only self-denial is good.

Fellow teachers, we are not Mr. Holland. Certainly one of our better traits is our caring goodness. Yet our foremost value lies in the passion with which we practice, revere and continue to learn from the subjects we instruct. Ultimately, our presence as artists in the classroom means not waiting until we’re decommissioned, like some rusted-out naval tanker, to be acknowledged.


If we’re not Mr. Holland, then who are we? That’s easy. We teachers are our conflicted selves in a profession surfeited with expectation and roles, and it this sense of an individual’s conflict with the idea of what a teacher should be (which all teachers internalize) that I will enlarge upon in a moment. But first, it’s important for me to refuse Hollywood’s archetype of the good, co-dependent teacher by offering the following examples of men and women who I believe are the most courageous, the most self-reliant and redoubtable teachers I know of.

The working artist.

The teacher as working artist, master, guildsman, artisan, the bricklayer of forty years’ experience who watches you, the apprentice, and your every circuit of the trowel—the profession itself as classroom. It’s hard these days to find artists who come bearing their contexts intact. Some novelists, reporters and painters like to boast that their experience has taught them all about the merciless professional world and, as part of their teaching, they can pass such advice on to their students. But the contexts—the frenzied world of the publisher, the daily insanity of the newspaper, the juried marketplace of the gallery—are so far removed from the colleges that our schools have become little more than a haven, perhaps an escape, for a handful of tenured artists who more often than not have let go of their crafts and with them that creative yet compromisable dailiness which the marketplace demands.

The best example of the working artist as teacher, which I know of, was Frank Lloyd Wright whose professional and pedagogical mastery were inseparable. I am thinking of his schools, the first at Taliesin, in Wisconsin, established in 1932, and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, begun in 1958. (Both are still in business.) At these schools, young architects resided and actually worked alongside Wright on projects which the school as a for-hire architectural firm contracts. At the Taliesins, students apprenticed themselves for one or two years, or longer, designed elements within actual buildings under Wright’s direction, and learned the process of teamwork first hand. Teamwork, of course, teaches that no one architect can do everything; they must share the macro and micro intricacies of design. Moreover, just "being an architect" was not enough for Wright. He also insisted that each apprentice add another expressive pursuit—painting, singing, music (which Wright loved most of all) or theater. As part of their enrollment, students had to perform or else do something other than just drafting. John Howe has remarked (in Patrick J. Meehan’s Frank Lloyd Wright Remembered) that "In joining the Taliesin Fellowship, apprentices were required to bring a hammer, a saw, and a good spirit. All work was to be considered creative, not menial, whether one was working in the drafting room or in the kitchen." Like Ezra Pound, Wright believed that the artist was made from the whole person, not the person isolated "in college," a waiting room outside the office of his or her passion.

How often through the years and with his many famous creations did Wright practice alongside those to whom he preached! His Johnson Wax Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, the hundreds of homes he designed like Falling Water or those in Oak Park, Illinois, his birthplace, were in many cases co-crafted by his professional and student architects who worked beside him T-square and compass. Aaron G. Green, in Meehan’s oral history, recalled this about Wright’s "teaching":

Since everyone lived together and worked together, we could hardly have been any closer. It was a 24-hour day. We would see Mr. Wright at mealtimes and at worktimes. It was an extremely intimate relationship. . . .

Mr. Wright enjoyed talking to individuals and groups, and we would sit at his knee listening. Wherever we were—at lunch, in the drafting room, working in the fields—he came around. He was always around . . . . Whatever the activity, he had an interest in it, whether it was pulling weeds or mowing the hay or cleaning the barn or whatever it was.

He had no pedagogical method . . . . It was certainly a process of teaching, learning by participation and by absorption and by emulation and, I suppose, by osmosis. By being a part of [it], you were participating in his creative activities, in a sense: the development of the buildings directly under his thumb. This is a highly effective learning process, I think. There were no lectures or classes in any formal way. All the youngsters were so damn dedicated that I think they were really sponges absorbing everything that was around. There was more work to be done than anyone could possibly handle. There was never any necessity for making any kind of work for educational purposes [italics added].

The dissenter.

John Taylor Gatto, author of Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling and the winner on three occasions of the New York City Teacher of the Year award, is perhaps the greatest education-dissenter-cum-teacher America has produced. He can grasp and grouch the problems our education system wallows in like no one else. Here is a juicy portion of his contrarian wisdom taken from his article published in The Sung a few years ago called, "Bitter Lessons: What's Wrong with American Teachers."

The parents.

As Gatto reminds us, parents make incredible teachers, not by assignment but by example. My mother’s struggle with lung cancer and her desperate fight to remain home so she could die with her control—and this from a woman who seemed to me to always be deferential to others—taught me lessons about the dignity of dying which are unavailable in school. And yet, who’s to say they might not be part of our curriculum? Consider the instructional power of elders in the community who come in to share their dying or their lives with students. The paradox of my father’s life, caught between his duty to raise three sons, nine years apart in age, and his eventual dissatisfaction for the excesses of advertising, his chosen profession, showed me what men in America endure in the name of responsibility to self and others.

Why don’t our fathers come to our colleges or high schools and talk with us about their lives, failures and triumphs. The family elders as teachers of personal psychology and of generational and cultural history are the true Mr. Hollands. They have an enormous amount to share and yet are dismissed once they are "retired." I have always wanted to teach a course called, "Assembling Our Heritage," which would be composed of art, music, writing, literature, genealogy, etc., whatever expressive modes the students found relevant to include. Imagine a class in the psychology of the family in which the participants would forego the study of some desiccated textbook and its categories of life stages in favor of bringing in or using expressively their own families to assemble the content of the course. I know it sounds dangerous, barely legal, perhaps lawsuit naïve. But that’s the point.

The extemporizer.

One thinks of Paul Goodman, John Holt, Jane Tompkins or Peter Elbow (who wrote the 1973 classic Writing Without Teachers), the mavericks who reinvent the classroom with their students as co-conspirators. They are the fearless, the non-institutional, the dreamy revolutionaries, the inchoate—those whose lack of classroom technique works to their benefit, who have either radically powerful classes or else produce, in the name of experimentation, abject failures. There’s not much in between. But beware. From this hole in the ice Hollywood likes to do its deepest fishing, ever-ready to sanctify the LouAnne Johnsons and Jaime Escalantes inside America’s chainlink-fenced, metal-detecting junior and senior high schools and to present sanitized versions of these "heroes" in films with lots of tinkly diatonic Windham Hill piano music—and pedagogical moralizing.

My favorite make-it-make-sense-as-you-go teacher is James Herndon. Taking his iconoclastic methods into George Washington Junior High in the sixties (a Los Angeles school 98 percent black), Herndon describes in The Way It Spozed To Be (his How To Survive Your Native Land is just as good) the roles everyone believes he must fulfill. Herndon is hired at the last minute and given an array of levels and classes, all in English. On the first day he hears all about student behavior from the vice-principal Miss Bentley who makes her discipline pitch analogous to the Army. "The Army ," she tells them, "was an organization of people given certain tasks to perform. So was a school. The tasks were vital." It is clear, although unmentioned, that the main issue for that school year (as it always seems in the secondary schools), is not primarily one of education but of "classroom control." Herndon thinks, "In order that learning may take place, Miss Bentley was saying, there must first be order." But Herndon isn’t interested in order. And he says why.

My lack of interest wasn’t simply naïve, at least not in the way which springs immediately to mind, that of the imaginary progressive educator who imagines, or has been popularly supposed to imagine, that given a nice, friendly teacher and lots of freedom of action and very little planning, the students will always be good-natured, orderly, interested, motivated, well-behaved and studious, in short, nice themselves. I didn’t doubt there might be noise, disorder, anarchy, chaos and all that in my own classroom; I just didn’t see that this constituted a "problem" any more than a quiet, studious class was a "problem." Perhaps they were both problems, put it that way. But what administrators mean when they say "problem" is something which is not supposed to happen, something which happens all the time of course, or it wouldn’t be a "problem," but which isn’t supposed to happen. A problem, you were supposed to believe in, and work toward, its nonexistence.

Herndon’s supposition is immediately challenged by his 9D class, the worst behaved and most under-prepared of all his sections. One day a young man named Maurice comes in while Herndon is trying to get 9D to focus on writing a composition. Maurice has arrived from "Juvi" where, incarcerated, he has been told that if wants to stay out of the criminal justice system, he must return to class and, without disruption, prove himself worthy of being educated. This is, of course, his last chance. All this info comes from the other students, in the space of five minutes; they’ve seen it all a hundred times before. They tell Herndon how he needs to watch and evaluate Maurice very closely.


I began to talk about how English meant using the language however they wanted; I was well into my speech about figuring out together what was relatively interesting to do and then figuring out how to do it—which was, naturally, crap since I already had the business of composition in mind and how we were going to go about it—and they were just beginning to get bored (they knew it was crap too), seeing as how I wasn’t going to either lecture Maurice about Crime Not Paying or say anything humorous again, when bang! Maurice and another boy, locked in each other’s arms, fell over their desks and across the desks of the next row and lay there stretched out, struggling. Books, papers and kids scattered. Hell!

. . . as I got there Maurice loosed an arm and belted the other kid in the face. Cut it out! I grabbed Maurice. He didn’t come. The kid on the bottom let go, but Maurice didn’t. I tugged him rather gently. He belted the kid again. I got mad, grabbed Maurice under the arms and heaved as hard as I could. Maurice flew backward over the row of desks and landed with a crash on the next row. He landed plenty hard; I imagine it hurt, and also he must have thought it was all up with him, back to Juvi. He was frantic and mad. He jumped up and started for me. I stood there; he stopped and stood there. He glared. Everybody was scared. . . .

We stood there quite a few seconds and then I nodded, turned and walked swiftly back to my desk and sat down. I hoped I was implying a mutual ceasefire among equals. When I turned around toward the class, Maurice had likewise retreated and was sitting at his desk. We carefully didn’t look right at each other, but still in the same general direction, so as not to be accused of avoiding anything either. Maurice had seen the issue—I’d say we saw it exactly alike. We both had something at stake, and he cooperated perfectly. It was like a play, or an improvisation which came off just right. We were winning.

To "control" the class, Herndon’s on-the-spot pedagogy is this: "Write a story about what just happened." Due the next day. Get busy, he shouts, but the tension will not subside. The students complain that this isn’t a real assignment, that they have no pencils, no paper, no idea how to do it! One student, a thirty-year-old woman, pleads with Herndon to do their spellers, something known, something easy. Herndon explodes and yells at her, "You teaching this class or am I?" The next day, no one turns in the homework. "All denied any knowledge of its being assigned," he writes. "I read Maurice’s ‘Composition,’ as it was entitled: A boy took another boy(’s) (notebook) in the class and so the boy jump(ed) him to beat (him) the teacher broke it up. But the teacher didn’t send the boys to the office." The corrections are Herndon’s.

What do I like about this incident? What is its educational value? Herndon’s honesty, for one. Not only does he know that his motives may be crap and as such are invisible to a class of underachievers but also that by not telling on Maurice he sees in the moment how important "improvisation" is to teaching. To be improvisationally gifted is not the point. To have the insight that such "problems" of human behavior are the very lifeblood of education—the confusion, the complaining, the whining, the failure, the place for failure—signifies for me the most important human-centered classroom experience. Herndon’s ability to allow, at least in Herndon’s mind, Maurice’s influence on the class, such as it is, to be muscle-for-muscle equal to Herndon’s influence is also a remarkable trait of a good teacher. The good teacher is the one who is forever teaching the class that teaching must be reciprocal. That is why I like Herndon’s approach. True, all this may be dated from a sort of sixties’ experiential truth, recalling R.D. Laing’s commitment to providing a place in our institutions for the voices and behaviors of those who do not fit in with the norm. I am, nevertheless, convinced that the movement for Teaching Basics, and I myself teach the basics every day, will fail utterly unless there is adequate and conscious room for the messy psychology of student-teacher expectation.

The self.

Here’s one teacher unabashedly herself. Her name was Elizabeth Keating and she taught Shakespeare as well as composition at San Diego City College for many years. She was known as the teacher (the battle-ax by most!) who never gave an "A." True, her classes would always whittle down to three or four students, faster than those other speeding-bullet teachers who spoke so flatly and reasoned so mundanely that students dropped them out of stupefying boredom. The very few who stayed with Dr. Keating loved her rigor, loved her knowledge, loved the challenge which she issued them: "Go ahead and try to write a perfect student essay. There isn’t such a thing; it’s a contradiction in terms." Was it possible? A grammatically, mechanically and intellectually perfect paper? The very impossibility forced all but a few to attempt it. Dr. Keating never let up. She could be heard in her office telling her students during conference, you have immaculate attendance and yes, you espouse brilliant commentary on Twelfth Night or Leontes’ schizophrenic psychology in The Winter’s Tale. But what does that have to do with writing a perfect paper? So went the catechism and none, so far as I know, ever got her to eat those words.

Did Dr. Keating come to teaching because she wanted to be compassionate and "there" for her students, using an ounce more of sugar than vinegar? Did Dr. Keating believe that students required humanistic instruction? Not on your life. She believed that she was the teacher—this was her practice not her belief—and they were her students; she believed that they didn’t know Shakespeare and she did, and therefore her class wasn’t about getting a good grade, it was about their learning something they didn’t know for which it was impossible to receive a perfect score. And she believed that if she weren’t present, fangs bared, to teach it to them, then they wouldn’t learn it. That was herself and, as I say, how does one argue, change, reprogram, enlighten, soften, shift the recklessly sure sensibility of the harshest autocrat who ever strode the chalkboard runnels (I’m sure everyone one has had their Dr. Keating to remember)—the answer is, one doesn’t argue with her. One accepts her with the proviso that few students will ever survive her lessons. But for those few, she is Socrates.

And are we to know if Dr. Keating was conflicted over her role as teacher and her personality as piranha? I suspect she was, and I suspect that she adopted the piranha role, which talk in the faculty lounge cartoonishly animated, because she was conflicted by the excesses of her personality. I’m certain she wished many times to be less stern than she was just as innumerable other teachers have wished to be far more rigorous and less favoring than their personalities allow them to be. But despite her intractable nature, Dr. Keating’s formidableness in the classroom taught her students as much about her intensity as it did the intensely brilliant artistry of the bard.


In teaching I have had a great subject to engage my personality for the past decade, one which moves from notions of revolutionary pedagogy to relative classroom practice, from the desire to forgive myself all that time of my life, perhaps wasted, sitting in the classroom to being a classroom teacher who must enforce a class of twenty-five or thirty students many of whom are wasting their time. Thus it’s been that teaching engages my mind in a welter of experience and regret, an almost elegiac love of seeking freedom constantly from that which imprisons us. Why do I want out of the formal classroom to set sail in travel, writing, undomesticated study? Why, after a summer spent reading the great English essayist, William Hazlitt, do I fall in love with his prose style and recognize that this is a passion which only one out of one hundred classes ever encouraged in me? Is it something as simple as paradox that for me to love the free spirit, the anti-academic, I need to keep at least one limb in the school system, maintaining like Zeus a titanic struggle between order and chaos?

I may have been drawn to education not because the Mr. Holland schism between artist and classroom teacher is part of the educational system itself but because this schism is in me—and no doubt has been in plenty of others like me over the past century to warrant the creation of a public school system that reflects our contradictions. A frothy deconstructive notion, people create such systems, in part, to understand their confusion with systems. It is then, by working through these confusions, we reveal the human being in the teacher, that stubbornly missed, tyrannical and sensitive person buried under the social mission of teacher/therapist to the young, the lost, the helpless.

I hear so much of these same ideas in my nineteen-year-old son’s confusion about committing to college. He considers his education to be a big unanswerable question, which I applaud. He says that he knows he cannot sustain his interest in a full load of classes at the community college right now, and I agree with him. The big problem with school is knowing, as he does, that much of it will be uninspiring drudgery—bad teaching, outdated modes of technology, constant differences between what you believe and what others think, under performing classmates, etc. I tell him that there’s no sense in going to school when all he can do is criticize the institution. (I know this from having so many dissatisfied students in my writing classes wishing they were anywhere else but in a writing class.) Oh, but he retorts, if he finds himself in a few years still working at the same coffeehouse he’s just started at and not having gotten anywhere, then he’ll feel like a moron. (Moron is a thinly disguised code-word for failure, and it intrigues me that he knows the difference between feeling like one and being one.)

I inject that in terms of learning about yourself, so much takes place outside the classroom: Work experience, though it pays poorly without a higher degree, is the true developer of our character, along with what’s innate. School doesn’t quite know how to fit itself into this shaping mechanism which work does so well on our personalities other than to insist that most middle-class people who are less educated are less. The teacher is the gatekeeper to this greater economic condition for the self, and yet to be educated is to survive four to six years of college and not to necessarily know how to do anything. For my son, who would like to be someone and have a career someday, all this career-focus has nothing to do with the avidity of his mind today. It’s the same old struggle: We go to college less to learn our passion, our one-day life’s work; we go to defer it until "one day."

My son feels exactly as I have felt, young and older—wanting an education because our culture deems it necessary while simultaneously wanting to left alone to pursue what right now vitally interests us. The difference is, however, he’s a student and I’m a teacher, and the teacher gets the spoils, strangely, because answers are supposed to issue from us. My son ended our talk by saying that it would be great if he could just teach a poetry class without the imprimatur of a college degree. He loves poetry, and he knows that he would learn more about it and love it more deeply by teaching it. What I hear him actually expressing in this wish is his desire to control the means of his learning by creating an apprenticeship for the self, which is what probably defines our acquisition of knowledge better than any other idea I know. And yet the real reason he wants to apprentice the self by teaching is to avoid all that wasted time of his life, past and projected, which he’ll spend sitting in the classroom.


"If our present, weary school-reform hysteria is not to end where all the others have ended—in more of the same—we must bell the cat of school restructuring: alterations in time, place, and text are not enough. We won’t get different schools from the same old teachers any more than we’ll get a different piece of cake from the same old recipe. Schoolteachers will corrupt new structures just by being themselves. And whatever is wrong with teachers, it’s clear that colleges and teacher certification procedures have been unable to fix it. We need to accept that there exists no scientific formula by which a good teacher can be ‘trained’ as though he or she were a circus dog. We need to reinvent the teacher. We need the teachers we never had."

His solution is a mix of home schooling, revolution and the power of master artists—people who teach themselves in the classroom to the exclusion of any curriculum. "This is why," he writes, "great parents are the greatest teachers of all. Parents don’t communicate with their offspring through drills, blackboard notes, or worksheets, but through dynamic illustrations of who they are and what is important to them."

Gatto has a simple cure. "It’s time to discard the people who hold the business of schooling tight against their chests, time to discount the advice of those who make a good living out of the current system . . . . Only those dedicated to the struggle for personal, not collective, sovereignty can realistically begin to talk about a different kind of schoolteacher, one who can deliver to children a statement of his or her own aggressive independence. Without that, school reform is a waste of time."