By: Muneeb Arshid
There are countless films out there that have focused on teachers and students such as Dead Poets Society or on student life itself such as in Mean Girls or the more recent The Edge of Seventeen. The aforementioned films focus on student life in high schools wherein both Dead Poets Society and The Edge of Seventeen the students are enamored by the teacher figure in the film. The teacher’s job ends up being more of a guiding light for the students than a dominant vs. submissive relationship.
This will not be your typical review, but rather, using my experience as a teacher to analyze why Fletcher may or may not be the best teacher ever.
My choice for my analysis is the Academy Award nominated film from 2014, Whiplash. Whiplash stars J.K. Simmons as jazz musical teacher/conductor Terence Fletcher and Miles Teller as the student/drummer/band player Andrew Nieman. From an educational studies point of view, Whiplash covers all the main points: there’s a teacher/student dynamic but there are also parents involved just as is found in the “real-world”. The focus will be specifically on the dynamic between Fletcher and Andrew but will focus more on Fletcher’s teaching style and how that resonates and permeates throughout his demeanour outside of school as well. But first, a little plot synopsis is necessary.
Andrew is an aspiring jazz drummer who has dreams of making it to Lincoln Center. One night, while he is practicing, world-renowned conductor Fletcher comes in and “tests” him on his abilities. Eventually, Fletcher takes him on as the alternate drummer at his Schaffer Conservatory. Fletcher and his crew are practicing the titular Whiplash by Hank Levy which Fletcher tries to play it nice and give Andrew a chance as the lead drummer. This is the moment that gives us the famous “Not my tempo” scene and the eventual throwing of the chair at Andrew because he cannot keep up with the pace. The cycle of Fletcher berating Andrew, and Andrew trying to impress Fletcher continues all the way throughout the film, with the two, especially Andrew, taking up more of the persona of Fletcher as his character progresses through his time with the teacher.
The depiction of the teacher/student relationship in the film is not at a high school level as Andrew is depicted as being 19 years old. However, from the looks of the film, and the relationship, it can be construed as being as close to a high school setting as possible. Right from the get-go, the dynamic between Fletcher and Andrew is set in stone as being one of dominance over submissiveness. Fletcher has an air of pompousness to his demeanour, stature, and simply just the way he conducts himself in public. From throwing open the door in the middle of Andrew’s class and walking in and taking over the band, showing his power over Andrew’s teacher, Damon Gupton’s Mr. Kramer. Kramer has no answer and simply walks away from Fletcher when Fletcher asks to take over. This sort of behaviour reveals one of two things about Fletcher: either people have an insane amount of respect for the character or, the more probable reason, that people are insanely scared of the guy and this is how he will treat you because you are “inferior” to him. And this is in the first fifteen minutes of the film. This behaviour is the main plot point that holds the film together and is the primary reason why Fletcher and Andrew’s relationship progresses in the way it does.
Terence Fletcher as a teacher is a disciplinarian, in the finest form of that word. If it’s not walking around as if he owns the world, he certainly does that in his own class at the Schaffer Observatory. He runs his band as if it were a military. All the students make it to the Observatory five minutes before class starts, and while they prepare during those 4 minutes and 59 seconds, the environment in the class could not be distinguished from any other class that we, as teachers, have experienced before. The mood in the class is jovial, as the students reacquaint themselves with each other, talking about plans from the night before, all while they get ready for the upcoming class. However, once there are about 10 seconds to go, the class quiets down and promptly at 9:00am, all the students rise in unison as Fletcher enters the classroom.
This isn’t a typical film review, rather a character piece, but it’s important to note that the editing of the film during this scene is highly important as the quick cutting from Fletch to his students and back to Fletch gives it that militaristic feel that complements Fletch’s behaviour. Now, back to the class, once Fletch is in the class, the students never meet him in the eye, they are always looking down at their feet when Fletch enters the class. Once class starts, Fletch is not afraid to call out his students when the smallest of mistakes are made. One great example of all of this manifesting within the students is when one of the students is out of tune and Fletch stops the band to see if they will identify themselves. Fletch gives the students a chance for the “out of tune” student to out themselves and when he does not, he proceeds to belligerently disgrace the student with more swears than is ever necessary. The kicker, however, comes when Fletch does kick out the student and then reveals afterward that the actual student who was out of tune is still in class. His reasoning is to first berate Metz, the student he kicked out because of his weight, but also says “that because Metz did not know that he was out of tune or not, which is just as bad.”
Imagine your teachers verbally abusing you in class because you made a mistake, and then promptly kicking you out of, not only the class but also the program as well. That’s the tactic that Fletcher resorts to as his discipline. His verbal abuse as a figure who is supposed to inspire his students has no limits. Had he been in a high school setting where there are zero tolerance policies about verbal abuse, that behaviour would surely have gotten him the boot from his job. However, with adults as his students, he feels that he doesn’t have those restrictions against him, and the swearing machine is in full force throughout his lessons. Oh, and included in all that swearing is his exploitation of “personal information” such as someone being gay or someone having family issues at home or someone being overweight, Fletcher will go all out to make sure he makes his students feel like crap before he’s done with them. And, that is something that should not be employed regardless of where this teacher is being employed.
Now, you would think that verbal abuse would be the end of it. No, no, no, we reach the level of physical abuse from Fletcher as well. Shortly after kicking out Metz, Fletcher proceeds to “testing” Andrew about his timing and his pacing. This is the aforementioned “Not my tempo” scene where Fletch asks Andrew whether he was “rushing or dragging” after Andrew also goes out of tune. Initially, Fletcher remains quite calm, relenting to the fact that Andrew is a beginner and maybe reasoning with him that he will be able to fix his mistakes. Andrew also believes that as well because he gracefully takes Fletcher’s advice but that all comes to a crashing halt when Fletcher throws a chair at Andrew’s head and further abuse begins. The next minute is comprised of slaps being hurled across Andrew’s face whenever he can’t answer Fletcher’s question whether he was “rushing or dragging”.
As a teacher myself, this behaviour takes me aback more so than it did a couple years ago when the film came out. Forget the verbal abuse that Fletcher seems to regularly employ, but add in physical abuse and you wonder how this guy even has a job. His antics are worse than being in a military and are more akin to society accepting teaching methods from the previous century. This just isn’t something you want to see your teacher doing and everyone forcibly accepting as being acceptable. However, this shows the amount of control that Fletcher has over his students, that even though Fletcher is using both physical and verbal abuse in the middle of a class and the students are not able to do anything about it at all. Or else, certainly the students would “have the balls” to do something about their teacher, but in this case, Fletcher’s behaviour has pinned the students into a psychological corner from which they cannot get out of anymore and are seemingly “content” with the situation.
What is most striking about the behaviour of Fletcher comes later on in the movie when it’s not Fletcher, but rather the way Andrew begins to conduct himself in his own social life. Andrew turns from being a dorky, musician who wants to be the best but also has a great relationship with his father and a budding relationship with his girlfriend. Now, this is all prior to beginning his classes with Fletcher. Once the classes begin, and Andrew is wholly part of the troupe, his own demeanour begins to change as well. He becomes much more aggressive in his tone, in his own behaviour, where at one point during an altercation with Fletcher, he proceeds to tackle him down. It’s very hard not to think that the behaviour of the mentor has rubbed off on the mentee, and further cement the point that teachers are role models at the end of the day. However, they preach and conduct their teaching style, will eventually rub off on their students and is what happens to Fletcher and Andrew. As for Fletcher, this is his downfall at the end, when he finally loses his job due to the death of a former student citing severe depression and anxiety because of Fletcher’s classes as the cause.
These are all the things that we would have expected from a dynamic between a dominant teacher and a submissive student. All the abuse from the teacher and the behaviour that seems to have rubbed off on Andrew are clear signs of what happens in a dynamic of this sort. But, one of the most outstanding is the reveal of Fletcher as to why he pushes his students to the extent that he does. He mentions the story of Charlie Parker who had a cymbal thrown at his head after a bad performance, which could’ve dissuaded any other student from continuing on with their studies. Parker, however, got up the next day and started practicing even harder and eventually a year later, he gave the best solo performance ever given. Andrew asks whether “there is ever a line where you may discourage the next Charlie Parker from becoming Charlie Parker”, to which Fletcher replies “no”, and says that “the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged”. Fletcher reveals that his two most harmful words in the English language are “Good job”; words that make people feel content and never push them any further. What’s most telling is when Fletcher reveals that his job was never to conduct, that any old person could conduct a band, rather his job was to push all his students and find that next Charlie Parker, which is the point when you realize why his behaviour is how it is, even though that isn’t the way that any person of authority should conduct themselves.
Viewing Whiplash this time around, with my teacher’s cap on, really makes me appreciate why I am in this profession. I can, at the same time understand the passion and commitment that Fletcher is putting in for his class, but can also condone and take a lesson away from how not to conduct your behaviour with your class. There is a way to teaching classes where you can push your students to the extreme, and the way that Fletch conducts himself is not the way to do it. Rather, the way that John Keating in Dead Poets Society works with his students, would be much more ideal as a teacher.
Now, even though this wasn’t a conventional review, I am writing it as a review, and thus I grant Whiplash a grade of A (9.4/10)