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Film Study: Les Choristes
Teaching is universal around the world. Beginning teachers can learn not just from teachers in their own society but also from those in other countries, such as in the foreign film Les Choristes (2004). This French film revolves around Clement Mathieu, a failed musician and new prefect at Fond de l’Etang, a boarding school for troubled boys. Faced with the challenge of managing a class full of unruly, sullen boys, Mathieu learns that the way to their hearts is through music. He begins to teach them how to sing, forming a chorus and changing their lives forever. Les Choristes (2004) is not merely an artistic masterpiece, for it also contains several significant messages about teaching: the importance of a positive attitude towards children, the need for a strong teacher/student relationship, and the way in which a teacher grows and learns from his students.
From the minute he sets foot in Fond de l’Etang, Clement Mathieu, as an outsider, notices the negativity that permeates the school. The headmaster, Rachin, punishes the boys, even those whom he knows are innocent, by beating them and forcing them to do an excessive amount of school drudgery or locking them up behind bars in isolation. Rachin, along with the majority of the other school teachers, views the boys as a lost cause and, as Mathieu points out, “sees evil everywhere” (Les Choristes, 2004). However, “if a teacher expects a student or group of students to behave in a certain way, the teacher’s attitude may serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy—that is, the students may behave in the predicted manner in response to the teacher’s attitude” (Ryan & Cooper, 2010, p. 175). Because the adults assume that the boys will be wild, rude delinquents, the students act that way. They are not used to having someone expect good things from them, and when Mathieu treats them with kindness and believes in them, they do not know how to react. Mathieu, unlike the rest of the administration, holds high hopes for them and is outwardly optimistic. He shows the boys that they are more than petty thieves, liars, or juvenile delinquents and that they can excel through the power of music. By keeping a positive attitude towards the boys, Mathieu manages to simultaneously tame them and bring out their good sides. Leclerc and Pepinot, two radically different boys, form a friendship, a bond that didn’t exist prior to Mathieu’s arrival. Morhange, initially described as a little devil with the face of an angel, learns to overcome his innate jealousy and selfishness under Mathieu’s guidance. When Mathieu allows him to finally sing his solo, he notices, “Morhange’s eyes followed my tempo, and in them, I suddenly read many things: pride and the joy of my forgiveness, but also something quite new to him. A feeling of gratitude” (Les Choristes, 2004). The troubled boy and his peers changed for the better, all because of Clement Mathieu’s strong belief and faith. As a teacher, it is of utmost importance to believe in your students, hold high expectations for them, and not be biased against them because of their histories. In order to overcome his fears and truly excel, a child needs to be aware of his teacher’s support and realize that someone is there for him, even when other adults have brushed him off as a lost cause.
In addition to a positive attitude about students, the student-teacher relationship is an essential aspect of teaching. Clement Mathieu is beloved by his students because he is the only adult in the building who treats them with respect and kindness. Upon meeting them for the first time, he approaches them with humor, hoping to win them over and gain their trust, despite being called “Chrome Dome” behind his back. He remains undeterred even when they break into his room steal his most prized possessions, the sheet music he composed. Despite being distraught and angry over their crime, he does not turn in the mischief-makers when a fellow teacher, Chabert, finds them and demands to know what is going on. Furthermore, when Boniface is being unjustly punished for a crime he did not commit, Mathieu rescues him by convincing Rachin to give him permission to find and take care of the real culprit. Clement Mathieu truly cares about his students and their well-being and may, in fact, be the first person to ever love these neglected children. As a result, the boys come to trust and respect Mathieu in return and obey his wishes. The relationship developed between the teacher and the students is integral to their growth and education; without Mathieu, the boys would never have changed their behavior and would have continued to be disruptive, unproductive, and disobedient. Instead, they formed friendships, paid attention in class, and listened to their superiors. A strong student-teacher relationship is key to a successful classroom and ought to be given great priority by aspiring teachers.
At the beginning of Les Choristes (2004), Clement Mathieu was easily swayed by the headmaster and did not intervene whenever Rachin executed a punishment or spoke harshly to the boys. Rather, he quietly did everything he could to protect the children from the abuse while keeping a low profile. However, living with his students and learning about them changed him, giving him the courage he needed to stand up for what he knew was right. At the film’s denouement, the dormitories, where the children were supposed to be staying, are burnt down by Mondain, a former student seeking revenge. When Rachin hurries back to the school, he finds that Mathieu and the elderly Maxence had taken the children on a treasure hunt and left the dormitories unattended. Despite saving the children’s lives, Mathieu is unjustly fired for “breaking the rules.” Maxence insists that he be fired too, but Mathieu thanks him and says, “It’s nice of you, Mr. Maxence, but you’re needed here. Think about the children, since this gentleman never does” (2004). Before departing, he finally says to Rachin, “Headmaster, before I go, I’ll tell you what I think of you. You’re an incompetent, truly evil man” (2004). The children weren’t the only ones who changed for the better from their experiences with their prefect; Mathieu himself grew and learned through them as well. With the children’s best interests at heart, he is no longer afraid to defy Rachin’s twisted methodology. By standing up to the headmaster, he overcomes his original cowardice, reaffirms his beliefs, and regains faith in himself. Even as he is fired, he conducts himself with dignity and passion and leaves knowing that he has made the right choice. Students can have a tremendous, powerful effect on a teacher, and teaching includes being open to changing and learning from the children as well.
Les Choristes (2004) is a poignant film about teaching. All viewers can take to heart the significant messages it contains about not just education, but also society as a whole. Clement Mathieu’s story depicts the power of teaching to change people’s lives forever while effectively conveying the trials and tribulations a teacher must face. Ultimately, however, it shows the importance of a positive attitude, the benefits of a strong teacher-student relationship, and the potential for a teacher to grow, learn, and develop through immersing himself or herself in teaching.