I am disappointed that the Canadian film Monsieur Lazhar did not win the Academy Award tonight for best foreign film. I just saw the movie this afternoon and thought it was very good. Set in Montreal this French movie with English subtitles tells the story of an Algerian refugee who gets a job as a substitute teacher for a class of grade six students whose teacher has just committed suicide.
I connected with the film in many ways. The movie makes it clear that the relationship between a teacher and his or her students is the most important factor in effective education. The substitute teacher Monsieur Lazhar uses old-fashioned teaching techniques, makes the kids sit in rows and gives them difficult dictations, but because they come to like him and appreciate him, they learn and grow in his classroom.
I was well into my career before I realized that dozens of activities, elaborate classroom decorations and creative teaching methods weren’t what made the biggest impression on kids. Spending time getting to know them and building relationships with them was the key both to their academic progress and classroom management. I realized as well that my relationship with my students was the most rewarding and memorable thing about my job.
The movie Monsieur Lazhar also teaches us how important it is to talk to our kids candidly about things like death and illness. Children need to feel free to express their own anger and grief honestly. This is something I have learned both as a teacher and a parent. Children are very perceptive. They know when something is wrong and if we aren’t honest they will become more anxious and worried then they need to be. They need caring adults with whom they can discuss how they are feeling.
I really liked the things Monsieur Lazhar had to say to his students about the classroom being a community, a place of friendship, a space devoted to learning, where everyone has something to contribute.
I realized this more and more during my career. The teacher wasn’t the only source of knowledge in the classroom. We were a community of learners who each had important things to share. I learned so much from my students and came to understand that my job was to create a safe, friendly place where we could all learn from each other.
The film also addresses the way the zero tolerance rules for teachers touching students can be problematic. Sometimes teachers are hampered from doing what is best for kids because they feel like their every action is under close scrutiny.
I know as a teacher I found that sometimes what a student needed was an arm around their shoulder, a hand to wipe away their tears, a reassuring pat on the back and yes sometimes even a hug. It is too bad if teachers feel they are no longer free to provide that kind of physical reassurance.
The movie Monsieur Lazhar is a well acted, beautifully understated, moving look at the relationship between teachers and students. I was crying freely at its end. Too bad it didn’t win an Academy Award tonight.