Today a group of students in my Women in Literature class gave a presentation on the film, Mona Lisa Smile, which stars Julia Roberts as an art history teacher at Wellesley in the 1950s. Students are required to watch a film outside of class and give a group presentation, explaining how the film relates to issues discussed in class. This semester we’re focusing on texts about women and education, and we just finished Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. (Other groups have presented on Precious, My Brilliant Career, and Beauty Academy of Kabul.) This time rereading Nafisi, I am struck by her relationship with her students, by the quiet way she seems to guide and enlighten them. Roberts’ film fits well into our class discussions; however, it's not a personal favorite of mine. It fits too well into the Hollywood stereotype of the charismatic, maverick teacher who challenges the way students think and who inspires by the sheer force of their personality (think, Dead Poet's Society).
Julia Roberts' character is horrified by the conformity of the young co-eds and urges them, by her own heroic singleness, to reconsider their unquestioned conservative values about art and gender. Although the film does contain some interesting scenes regarding social class—and the stigma attached to an academic whose degrees are from a state university and not the Ivy League—the film’s message, to me, seems flattened out and simplistic.
What makes a good teacher? Even if most of us were capable of this type of confrontational, flamboyant personality, does it produce deeper, more meaningful learning? According to research the biggest determining factor in whether a student will succeed is the individual teacher: the top 5% of K-12 teachers will advance their students 1½ years. In a recent essay, Malcolm Gladwell highlights the difficulty of determining which teachers-in-training will prove to be the most effective: it cannot be determined by GPA, quality of the education program, or any other measurable variable. Gladwell likens the difficulty in predicting who will become “star” teachers to efforts to guess which college quarterbacks will end up star NFL players. Likewise, certain therapists have much higher rates of success with their patients. These “supershrinks” are not using magic techniques, nor do they have similar dispositions (or natural talents); instead, they share the habit of reflection, research suggests, of taking the time to determine how well their treatment is working.
I find this idea, that great teaching comes from deliberate, steady practice, comforting, perhaps because I certainly have not discovered any “magic” teaching technique. Perhaps parenting is similar: just trying, again and again, to do a good job might be enough.