“You can’t fire me; I’ve got tenure!”

83m.jpgLast night, MGM movies showed the 1984 movie Teachers, about a lawyer who sued her high school for graduating an illiterate pupil. It starred JoBeth Williams as the lawyer; Nick Nolte as the idealistic but frustrated and jaded ageing hippie teacher; and Judd Hirsch as the pragmatic head teacher just trying to get through with the pupils he’s got (for a more recent, also iconic, role, see here (Daithí)). A fine supporting cast included Ralph Macchio (‘wax on, wax off‘) as the tough kid Nolte was trying to reach; Laura Dern as the kid Nolte helps to have an abortion after another teacher gets her pregnant; and Morgan Freeman (with an extraordinary hairstyle almost as much a member of the cast in its own right as Kevin Costner‘s in Robin Hood. Prince of Thieves) as the school’s lawyer. There is a perceptive review here. Among the many Hollywood-sardonicisms in the script, the large, underfunded high school is named for John F Kennedy; and the illiterate graduate (whom we never meet) is called John Calvin(!). The case settled (JoBeth Williams’ boss, William Hill (in the key scene, he is world-weary, wearing a waistcoat, and sitting behind a desk – for all the world as he would appear in TV’s Law & Order) did the deal, much against her wishes). When the school board tried to fire Nolte for his role in Dern’s abortion, he uttered the line in the title; and a Dead Poet’s Society-style show of support from his pupils emboldened him to resist the school’s efforts to sack him.

Its themes have since become a little clichéd (not least its tagline: “They fall asleep in class. Throw ink on each other. Never come in Mondays. And they’re just the teachers”). (Ah, the teachers: one has his desk repeatedly stolen by his pupils, another dies at his desk unnoticed by his pupils, and a third turns out to be an escapee from a mental hospital). Nevertheless, the movie raises very important issues for lawyers, educators, and lawyer-educators: what is the nature of academic tenture? how best to organise public high school (second level) education? what are the duties of teachers to pupils, and vice versa? is allowing a pupil to rise with the class and eventually to graduate an undertaking on the school’s part of the pupil’s basic ability? if so, to whom? what role can the law and lawyers play in these kinds of policy issues? Answers [in the comments below, or] on a postcard, please …

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