On watching “Mr. Holland’s Opus” in Jersey in June

The reality
The reality
The fiction
The fiction


By now, hundreds of teachers throughout the state, most of them non-tenured, have received non-renewal notices. A few tenured teachers also are likely to lose their positions because their jobs have been eliminated. But thousands of older, more experienced teachers have decided to call it a career because they simply can no longer  put up with the stress created  by New Jersey’s governor and the people who convert his bullying and vengeful attitude toward teachers into state policy.

In other words, it was a good day today to broadcast “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” a 1995 movie about a dedicated music teacher who is fired from the position he held for 30 years after his music program is cut for budget reasons.

There are a few lines toward the end of the movie that say it all. Glenn Holland, the teacher, is leaving and he is talking to his friend, the football coach. He says:

“You work for 30 years because you think that what you do makes a difference, you think it matters to people, but then you wake up one morning and find out, well no, you’ve made a little error there, you’re expendable. I should be laughing.”

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the movie is fantasy. Mr. Holland is given a rousing, loving tribute by his former students, including the governor of the state. The original script has the governor promising never to cut music programs as long as she is in office. Given the $5 billion shortfall in school aid funding for New Jersey and our real Gov. Chris Christie’s refusal to obey the law,  the thought that a governor like Christie would actually want to protect music–except for his own children in their private schools–just makes no sense at all. That scene was cut from the movie, by the way.

The truth is most teachers who have been forced out of their schools, either literally or constructively by a teacher-hating administration that is threatening their pensions and medical benefits, won’t receive tributes from an auditorium filled with people, including the governor. If they’re lucky, their colleagues will have a party for them–and that’s nice.

Of course, teachers are not the only employees–public or private—who “wake up one morning and find out, well no, you’ve made a little error there, you’re expendable.”

Everyone who works for a living, either in an enterprise created to make a profit or in a government agency funded by tax dollars, is treated as expendable–except, perhaps,  for a small, elite cadre of management that rises above the line workers and is eager to do the bidding of either  political or corporate masters. This has been true for a long time in the private sector but has only recently been applied to the public schools through organizations like the Broad Academy that seek to quantify all educational decisions–and render teachers very expendable economic units who do not accumulate value to children through experience. Rather, experienced teachers are considered prime targets for dismissal because they are reaching  the top of the pay scale and will cost the state in pensions.

High-stakes testing fits this model very well. In “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” the teacher appears before the school board and tells the members that, if they don’t support the arts and cultural activities, emphasizing reading and writing will be useless because students “won’t have anything to read or write about.”

This was 20 years ago–before Common Core, before teacher evaluations based on testing, before curricular decisions were taken out of the hands of experienced teachers. The school board in the movie was wrestling with how to balance a budget. Now, the over-riding issue is not budget but rather a conscious, deliberate attack on curricular offerings that permit students to think for themselves beyond the demands of standardized tests. Teachers would probably be nostalgic about nasty budget-cutters–at least there was hope that, once money became available, the arts might be restored.

Indeed, “Mr. Holland’s Opus” was written and produced at a time when there was a general consensus public schools were valuable to the society and should be saved. Come to Newark now and see where a politically motivated school superintendent,  Cami Anderson, following the diktat of her governor, is trying to wipe out free public education.

To all those teachers who are leaving their posts this year–whether willingly or not, whether out of frustration and exhaustion or the small-mindedness of managers–I offer you, not my condolences, but my congratulations and my thanks.

You worked hard for absurdly low salaries. You often were symbolically and condescendingly patted on the head by people who knew nothing about teaching children. Then you had to face the resentful rantings of idiots like Chris Christie who wouldn’t last a minute in a room filled with five-year-olds–or 15-year-olds. You loved the children because, why else would you have worked so long at an extraordinarily difficult job?

Thank you, guys. I know I’m not a room filled with alumni led by a governor–but that’s all fiction, anyway. You know how valuable you were to the children you served. Don’t let anyone take that away. Certainly not a clown like Christie.

You did make a difference.




  1. Thank You, I needed that… deep down I know I have impacted many students lives. However the last 2 years there has been a complete lack of structure in the NPS schools, and the leaders are incompetent. It has been said that if you make enough unreasonable demands on people, they will through up their arms and leave. I believe that is the goal of Cami and her crew. Make it so miserable that teachers leave.

  2. Thank you sincerely Bob – from a teacher who appreciates good journalism when she sees it. If you had told me many years ago when I decided to be a teacher that I would end my career defending myself against politicians, mainstream journalists and uninformed people who know little if anything about education, I wouldn’t have believed you. But the pendulum does tend to swing in this country, from one extreme to the other. So, let’s keep fighting, try not to be too bitter and work towards pushing that pendulum in the other direction. The kids deserve perseverance from those of us who care so much about them.

  3. Thank you, Bob, for the lovely tribute. Like every teacher, I have a handful of notes, a stack of school pictures, and a lot of memories that I return to whenever I think my career didn’t matter. Twenty-five years and several thousand students later, I can honestly say that I helped make the world a little bit better. Soulless automatons and belligerent politicos will never take that away.

  4. One of my favorite posts of yours (and that’s saying a lot!) I will forward this to my colleagues who are retiring. Thanks, Bob!

  5. As a former educador from Newark, I thank you for your words. I find it extremely difficult to comprehend the drastic and extreme measures taken by those in “control” just to save money ( or make money), by destroying a community school district. I have hope things will turn around but fearful because of the governor. Why does he hate public school teachers?

  6. This madness has got to stop. Just last week, this was the scene in Morristown, where a beloved band teacher retired after 29 years of turning our kids into musicians. John Schumacher was the kind of teacher who changed kids’ lives. He had that effect on my own kids. It doesn’t just happen in movies. You want to talk about standards? This guy had STANDARDS, and every kid knew it, not because of tests, but because of effective, personal human interaction with a teacher of vast experience and ability. But in recent years, they’d started to cut the music program and hammer on teachers with seniority, and Schu decided it was time to go. So on Jazz Night last week, a bunch of alumni returned from around the country to play him out. Check out the video. http://morristowngreen.com/2014/06/05/a-teachers-farewell-medley-from-his-morristown-alumni-all-stars/

  7. Concerned with the reference to a movie because the movie industry pushed this narrative of ineffective teachers on us! They continue to portray the same nonsense and people should vilify these movies and characterize them for what they are fascist propaganda! Even in holland opus the music teacher picks to be a teacher because he wants summers off and nights off the play jazz. Come on! Any college student will notice immediately the workload of a teacher. many of my education students ask “how much work for how much pay? ” those uninterested leave the program. Very few stay.

    Bob Braun: It was how the fictional Mr. Holland left that interested me more than how he arrived. Your points are well taken

  8. Your post was so heartfelt. I have been teaching in Newark for close to 20 years. I can write a book about all the crazy things I have experienced, but I love to think about all the kids who still stop by and say hello. I remember their faces and often their names but they never seem to forget mine. I loved the years I spent in Newark and would never do it in the suburbs. You work hard every single day and some days question, “What the hell am I doing?”. But when you go to graduations or invited to prom toast offs or a college graduation party or two, you put the heartache aside and wrap yourself up in the pride in having a positive effect on this child. The good always outweighs the bad times. Great post!!!

    Bob Braun: Thank you for all your hard work and your love of children.

  9. Great post Bob – more on this theme:

    Expendable New Jerseyans

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