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Film Paper

rachaelkoone's picture

Rachael Koone

Schools in American Cities

Jody Cohen

April 9, 2015


Education As The Great Equalizer: What Does It Mean To Be An Urban Teacher?


            Stand And Deliver is a classic story of the heroic teacher who helps his underprivileged students find success through a great education. I chose this movie because I appreciate that Jaime Escalante, the teacher, shares a Hispanic ethnic identity with his students, which contrasts the white “savior” teacher/students of color dichotomy that is familiar with this sort of movie genre. I also chose this movie because at my placement with Southwest High School, my teacher Mrs. Burke* is African-American, as are nearly all of her students. While I do not believe that teachers who choose to teach in urban schools must be of the same race as their students, both Mr. Escalante and Mrs. Burke are able to use experiences based on their race as a way to empathize with their students, and encourage them as a positive, successful example. They bring a desire-based view into their classroom. Having lived through the hardships that their students may face, both teachers remind their students that each one of them has the potential to do great things. Both Mr. Escalante and Mrs. Burke also bring their students cultural background into class material, a way of reclaiming curriculum material that was not made to consider nonwhite perspectives. While Stand And Deliver may be slightly dramatized for Hollywood, it definitely gets the point across that Jaime Escalante genuinely cares about his students, even before he meets them, considering he left a well-paying job to teach. Mr. Escalante and Mrs. Burke are excellent teachers because they genuinely want to teach urban students, and are invested in their well-being and want them to succeed above all things. When students know that their teachers support them, and they can trust them, they can thrive in any classroom.


            Both Mr. Escalante and Mrs. Burke have a great deal of agency in designing their class. Mr. Escalante is given quite a bit of leeway because many things at Garfield High School need more immediate administrative attention. Southwest High School is very progressive, so Mrs. Burke has a lot of control over the material that is taught. While Mr. Escalante teaches math, particularly AP Calculus, Mrs. Burke teaches history and a social organization lab that is primarily project based. While it is easy to see how Mrs. Burke can implement factors of culture and community into her lessons, math has always been considered a very cut-and-dry subject. However, Mr. Escalante definitely incorporates his students (and his own) culture: “Did you know that the Greeks and Romans could not use the concept of zero? It was your ancestors, the Mayas, who invented the zero”. Through this, he reminds his students that they are not less smart or less capable, even though he knows they are aware of the discrimination they may face as Latino students. “There are people who will believe they are smarter than you because of your name and your complexion. Math is the great equalizer”. Likewise, Mrs. Burke incorporates a lot of cultural background into her classes, in both history and her Organize lab. During one of her history classes that I had the good fortune to sit in on, as I usually don’t get to observe them, she played a personal videography that she took while visiting Selma, Alabama, where her family is from. Her mother participated in the march, and she interviewed her mother during the video as well. Mrs. Burke was able to bring a piece of history that her family was intimately involved with into her classroom, connecting a personal experience with curriculum. She followed this video with a speech reminding her students that young people such as her mother years ago marched so they could have the opportunities that they now have, which was very powerful to watch, and I’m sure the message struck her students even more closely than it did for me. The fact that Mr. Escalante and Mrs. Burke share racial backgrounds with their students does not make them better teachers, but it does perhaps allow them to share in that culture, and form a bond that they would not have with a teacher of a different racial background.


Aside from shared race, another quality that sets Mr. Escalante and Mrs. Burke apart is the fact that they are not afraid to use slang and converse with their students the way their students do with their peers. By coming off as approachable, they earn their students trust through examples such as “How many girlfriends does each gigolo have?” in reference to an algebra problem that Mr. Escalante sets up for his students, or when Mrs. Burke talks to her students after class about their relationships and social lives. Because the students trust and respect their respective teachers, this openness is not inappropriate or a danger to the teacher-student bond. However, it could be misconstrued as such, and I think such an open bond works because Garfield and Southwest are both fairly lenient schools – albeit for different reasons. Mr. Escalante and Mrs. Burke also sacrifice quite a lot for their respective students. Mrs. Burke often buys school supplies with her own money, as Southwest is incredibly poorly funded, and Mr. Escalante teaches summer classes, as well as getting to school early and staying late every day, to the point where he suffers a mild heart attack during the school year. While it is not necessary to go to such extreme lengths, their students know that their teachers are there for them because they are willing to go to these extreme lengths.


            Dramatization of the film aside, I believe that good teachers do go to these lengths to motivate their students and ensure that they succeed – urban or not. I do however feel that because the public school system may have betrayed or neglected them in the past, that particularly strong and committed teachers need to be entering the urban school system. Recently, we have been discussing TFA and its corps members, particularly in the context of urban classrooms and what it means to be an urban teacher. I believe that TFA corps members, no matter how good their intentions often become overwhelmed and burn out because of a lack of preparation, the fault of TFA’s training material, and a lack of connection. Many TFA corps members come from elite schools, with not a single education class, or experience attending or working in an urban school. This sets them up to fail a majority of the time. Jaime Escalante chose to teach at Garfield High School, and was able to find a connection to his students because of his cultural background. While it is not strongly emphasized past the beginning of the film, his ability to speak Spanish was helpful in translating some of the concepts to English Language Learning students, furthering their connection to him. Mrs. Burke is a product of the public school system, albeit not Philadelphia’s. She was actually a TFA corps member, and has told me that while it was a great program that helped her get her master’s degree, she has not elaborated on any weaknesses within the system. She applied to work at Southwest High School, a school that offered jobs to five teachers out of hundreds that applied. She is committed to her students, and goes to great lengths to provide internships and other job opportunities to them, just like Mr. Escalante goes to great lengths to convince his students of why they should attend college. These teachers want their students to succeed in life, not just in their class for one year. Mr. Escalante and Mrs. Burke look towards the future by committing a standard of excellence to their students. Can TFA corps members who stay only two years, if that, leave the same impression?


            I chose to analyze Stand and Deliver because I saw many similarities between Mr. Escalante and Mrs. Burke not only as teachers, but also in their classrooms. Each has eager students who are excited to learn after they have been motivated, and can clearly commit. Mr. Escalante’s students commit to extra long school days and summer school, and Mrs. Burke’s students take on internships and fellowships in addition to a full day of school. These students succeed, regardless of their urban status. Poor urban schools can be high achieving even without increased funds, provided that they have strong, supportive and truly committed teachers, which is why the idea of TFA corps members’ goal to close the achievement gap bothers me slightly. While TFA boasts that over half of their corps members stay after the two years they must commit to, students in urban schools benefit when their teachers are 100% committed, not just 60%. Students need teachers they can connect with.  Kirp describes Union City’s teachers and faculty as people who chose to stay in their community and help others in their own community. While urban teachers need not necessarily have grown up in the schools they teach in, ALL teachers absolutely need to make the informed, conscious choice to teach where they do - urban or suburban.








Works Cited


Kirp, David L. Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.


Stand And Deliver. Dir. Ramón Menéndez. Perf. Edward James Olmos, Estelle James Harris, Mark Phelan. 1988. DVD.