What can Night School teach adults who work with or are raising struggling students? It’s a raunchy comedy starring Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish. But—spoiler alert—it’s also a story about the importance of resilience.
The movie opens with Hart’s character Teddy Walker refusing to take his high school exit exams. He’d rather drop out than flunk out. To save face, Teddy lies about almost everything and to everyone, including his girlfriend. He lies to make himself look more successful than he really is.
We in the audience come to understand that Teddy is quite bright and charismatic. And the movie reaches a turning point when he finds out—as an adult struggling through night school—that he has , , and “a processing disorder.”
I am an educator and the father of a college student who struggled with learning and thinking differences all through high school. My daughter’s high school was also the high school where I was the principal. Having your dad as your principal means you never get to escape the eyes of a parent who wants the best for you.
Kevin Hart’s character didn’t get the support he needed as a kid. But as an adult, he’s lucky to have Carrie (played by Haddish) as his GED teacher. She’s what academic researchers would call a “warm demander.” She sets high expectations for her students and pushes them to reach their potential, even if they don’t believe in themselves yet. She keeps it “100!”
Night School made me think of the countless students who think they have to hide who they are. The way the movie portrays dyslexia and dyscalculia may not be 100 percent accurate. But there’s a lot that Night School gets right about the challenges and triumphs of kids with learning and thinking differences.
For a silly movie, Night School has five important messages that could help families have meaningful conversations about dyslexia, resilience and other key issues:
1. Teddy learns that he isn’t dumb.
The most important message of the movie, which debunks all kinds of myths, is that having learning and thinking differences has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence. Teddy is a gifted salesperson. But like so many people in real life, he struggled for years before he found out why reading and math are so hard for him.
When he finally gets diagnosed as an adult, it’s with more than one learning difference. Many kids have co-occurring issues. And I’m glad the movie included dyscalculia, which some experts say is just as common as dyslexia.
2. Teddy learns to rise to high expectations.
Teddy’s night school teacher would not put up with his lying or cheating. “No shortcuts,” she said. But she believed in him even when he did not believe in himself. She also realized he had many strengths along with his issues. And she found ways to help him master the material.
Her role honored the many teachers and other educators who would never look down on or blame their students, but who warmly demand that their students always do their best.
3. Teddy learns to value individualized education.
Night School does not stigmatize . During a regular school day, Teddy sees his night school teacher help a young student work on math skills by playing Texas Hold’em in the resource room. The one-on-one instruction looks relevant and relatable. Teddy wishes he’d had that kind of support when he was a kid.
After Teddy is diagnosed with several learning differences, his teacher tailors instruction for him, too. “Learning in a conventional way just isn’t going to cut it for Teddy,” she says. This leads to a hilarious scene where she uses mixed martial arts as an extreme form of multisensory instruction.
4. Teddy learns to stop hiding.
By lying and cheating to try to hide his struggles, Teddy messed things up not just for the people he cared about but also for himself. When the world came crashing down around him, Teddy owned up to his lies. He also made friends by talking openly about his challenges.
Kids with dyslexia and other issues often feel ashamed of struggling in school. But having learning and thinking differences doesn’t mean they can’t be great at many things, like being kind to others or being a great friend, artist, athlete or entrepreneur.
5. Teddy learns to believe in himself and never give up.
By the end of the movie, Teddy has overcome many obstacles. One of the movie’s most painful jokes was about a family member who told Teddy he wasn’t smart and wouldn’t amount to anything.
“I was ashamed that I didn’t learn like my classmates,” Teddy confesses. But a supportive teacher and friends helped him believe in himself and try, try, try again. By my count, Teddy took the GED at least eight times. But when he finally got a passing grade, his victory was all the sweeter.
Night School is rated PG-13. Because of the themes and strong language, I recommend parents think carefully about whether to take children under high school age. But for teens and young adults, I think the movie could be a good conversation starter.
And if you have a child with learning and thinking differences like I do, or if you work with children who struggle like Teddy did, Night School is a good reminder that many kids need more individualized support. And one way they often need help is in believing in themselves.
See what this African American expert tells Black parents who worry about their child getting labeled with learning and thinking differences. Watch a success story about a high school dropout who had to take the GED test several times before going to college and becoming a youth advocate. And explore a list of nine movies that feature dyslexia in a leading role.
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About the author
Brian Thomas, MS is assistant head of school at Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School (MICDS).