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Forget "Finding Forrester"—Our Best Teaching Can Be Ordinary

Plato and Aristotle in detail from The School of Athens by Raphael (1509–1510), fresco at the Apostolic PalaceVatican City.

Every few years there is a movie about a gifted young person striving to reach their potential and being formatively shaped by a teacher or mentor. Finding Forrester is a classic in this genre. The main character, Jamal, is a gifted young writer who meets a famous but reclusive novelist, William Forrester, who helps Jamal improve by challenging him and not being overly easy with the praise. In Whiplash, Miles Teller plays a gifted young drummer named Andrew Neiman whose music teacher, Terence Fletcher, is determined to draw out his genius. Fletcher’s approach is abusive and even somewhat insane. But Andrew wants so badly to be a musical legend on the level of Charlie Parker that he practices until his hands bleed and he endures the abuse.

Though university level instruction should not involve the abusive behavior we see in Whiplash, and we probably have to be more orthodox in our teaching than an old novelist eating soup and pecking at a typewriter, we sometimes dream of working with the kind of student pictured in those films. This would be a young person who has a natural gift and an unnatural drive to succeed. They want to be challenged. When you push them, they keep getting better. They go on to achieve remarkable things. You get to help launch them into the stratosphere.

In reality, very few students are going to resemble the characters in these movies. Some of your students aren’t interested in your class. Some are trying to decide if they are interested. Some are interested, but have other priorities. Some want to get better at whatever your discipline is, but do not believe that your course is part of their hero’s journey. Not everyone is going to read your comments on their paper. Not all who do will take the comments to heart. A few of your students will cheat on class assignments. Some of your students will certainly go on to greatness and many have significant abilities, but most of your students will not practice until their hands bleed.

There aren’t a lot of movies about doing an excellent job with normal students and getting normal outcomes. However, if it’s true that the process is more important than the product, those movies are missing something anyway. There’s quite a bit of true excellence in teaching that never gets associated with students who go on to win Nobel prizes or become MacArthur Fellows. Exceptional outcomes are not the only measure of excellence in teaching. An excellent teacher can teach all kinds of students. You can do meaningful work and inspire people without becoming the backstory of the next Stand and Deliver.

In films with bright students, those students arrive with the passion. Jamal is already a writer before he finds Forrester. Andrew Nieman has aspirations in the opening sequence. In real life, some college students are still searching for their passion. Some of them need that flame to be nourished. Even those with significant gifts are not always a half step from legendary excellence. Sometimes the role of the excellent teacher is an introduction to a subject or guiding the first steps along the path of whatever it is that a student is pursuing. Sometimes what you impart is not even a passion for your own subject.

A lot of the wise mentors in movies are set in their ways and have a pretty fixed and cantankerous approach to instruction. That may not slow down a gifted student who cannot be deterred from learning, but, even then, it may not be the actual best approach. Teaching excellence does not always take the form of pushing students to the extreme limits of their abilities. All students need to be challenged, but not all in extreme ways. Some also need to be encouraged. Struggle can help with growth, but sometimes students are struggling with things that are more important than our classes and don’t need provocatively difficult assignments to learn to push themselves in life. That doesn’t mean that every semester, every course, has to be catered to each individual student, or that everything should be easy, but it does mean that good teaching is much more than setting the bar at the correct height and then noting who makes it over and who doesn’t. There is a real art to setting meaningful but realistic expectations for students and ourselves.

One very unhelpful thing about films with amazing students is that they give us a distorted sense of impact. A good teacher’s legacy is not built on the genius of a single student helped along the way. A good teacher’s legacy includes people who became slightly better writers, casual readers of history, more critical viewers of documentaries, more knowledgeable citizens, and even people who just got better at passing college classes. A good legacy may even include helping direct a student to a better major for them. A good legacy is built on hundreds, thousands of recommendation letters, for all kinds of positions with varying degrees of prestige.

The reclusive novelist in Finding Forrester is roughly modeled on J.D. Salinger. Interestingly, Salinger’s novel Franny & Zooey has a relevant passage. Franny is a college student experiencing a kind of breakdown, and is judging her peers and professors along the way. Though they are part of the Glass family, full of child geniuses, her brother Zooey suggests that she is not necessarily flexing her intellect as much as she is being snobbish. Both had been precocious kids on a radio quiz show and Zooey reminds his sister that their older brother Seymour always encouraged them to do their best for the “Fat Lady”—to do their best for some unknown woman in the audience that they imagined as really deserving and really listening. Zooey even shined his shoes, for the radio program, for the “Fat Lady.” He tells his sister:

“I don’t care where any actor acts. It can be in summer stock, it can be over a radio, it can be over television, it can be in a goddam Broadway theatre, complete with the most fashionable, most well-fed, most sunburned-looking audience you can imagine. But I’ll tell you a terrible secret—Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddam cousins by the dozens. There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know—listen to me, now—don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is?... Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”

There are days it feels like we are doing the Broadway equivalent of teaching—students seem to be lighting up, they’re going on to bigger and better things, they’re asking for outside reading recommendations. It is easy to feel inspired. But there are days we are off-off- Broadway—monitoring low grades and repeating ourselves in class. It is our job to see all of our students as significant, whether or not they seem special to us when we first meet them. Even if they would rather be texting, it is our job to be teaching to the best of our abilities.

Excellence in teaching is in meeting the challenge of real-life classrooms, filled with students of all abilities, and resulting in all kinds of outcomes. Excellent teaching is not just about throwing down challenges to push great students on to more greatness. We don’t work on a film set, we work in a university classroom. We are great when we are consistently excellent, whether or not our students are famous or we are experiencing moments that have the feel of movie magic.