“Tough guys don’t do math. Tough guys fry chicken for a living.”

Stand and Deliver (1988) is a film following teacher Jaime Escalante as he teaches a class of mainly Hispanic students in a fairly impoverished school/community. He has a radical teaching style much different from the norm of teachers across the globe, where he frequently makes fun of children and has a ‘no tolerance’ policy for anything less than perfect.

Image result for stand and deliver film

Real Jaime Escalante with Edward James Olmos, the actor who played him in the film. Picture courtesy of http://www.olmosperfect.com/stand-and-deliver.html

Escalante, born in Bolivia in 1930, became one of the most famous educators in America, moving there in pursuit of a better life. As shown in this film, he taught disadvantaged pupils, whom some teachers had given up on completely, and managed to have a handful pass an extremely difficult Calculus test. Escalante’s success has earned him many accolades, including being entered into the National Teachers Hall of Fame in 1999.

It is interesting to analyse Escalante’s teaching style in the film as it is far from conventional. He does not accept poor behaviour, and even why one student, Angel, walks out of the class, he merely says goodbye rather than chasing after him. Escalante is more concerned about the children who want to learn and believes that it is a privilege to be in his class. The children respect their teacher and want to do well for him. While his teaching style may be considered to be scaring his pupils into working hard, I believe he does this with a true sense of compassion and care for the future of these children. This caring nature is highlighted in the scene where Escalante gives Angel 3 textbooks – one for class, one for home and one for his locker – as he did not want to be seen carrying them around. This compromise can be useful in the classroom as it encourages conversation between teacher and student, rather than a one sided lecture from the teacher, which can cause the students to disengage.

When looking at specific teaching points in the film, it is clear that there are lessons to be learned from Escalante’s teaching. For example, a quote from the film that resonates with me is “Students will rise to the level of expectation”. It is crucial that teachers have high expectations for their students as it shows a confidence in them that they may not have themselves. I hope to remember this along my teaching journey.

Another example is how to help the children understand what he is teaching them, he uses language and problems that make sense to them – he gives the problems a sense of relevance. One example of this is when he uses numbers of girlfriends in a problem (see the below clip).

Using girlfriends instead of other objects such as apples or pens engages the children, making them laugh and therefore creating a relaxed classroom atmosphere where the pupils are confident in answering questions. Another example is where the pupils ask the real life benefit of learning these things and their teacher takes them on a trip to show them exactly how that maths is used in the real world. This idea links to the principle of relevance within the Curriculum for Excellence (Scottish Executive 2004, p15).

It is important that we teach children why they are learning things. While this seems to be an accepted part of the curriculum, maths, in my opinion, seems to miss this principle. In a broader sense, you can often hear students, especially at high school, saying “Where’s the point in this? When will this ever help me in real life?” This shows a distinct lack of teacher communication with the children about why they are learning these topics. In terms of more basic level mathematics, learners need to know what all these different rules and formulas actually mean. Pupils could be given rules and memorize them, which tends to be the case, however, they have no true understanding of why. This may be the case because many teachers themselves do not know the reason why, as they have been taught just to memorize the rules, therefore getting trapped in an endless cycle of knowing but not understanding.

I believe that I myself fall into the above category. While I enjoy maths and teaching it, I would say that I do not have a depth of knowledge in why maths happens. I hope to look into areas of mathematics in more depth in order to improve my knowledge of maths and my ability to teach it to a strong degree.


Biography.com Editors (2014) Jaime Escalante Biography. Available at: http://www.biography.com/people/jaime-escalante-189368 (Accessed: 15/09/16).

Scottish Executive (2004) A Curriculum for Excellence. Available at: http://www.gov.scot/Resource/Doc/26800/0023690.pdf (Accessed on 15/09/16)

6 thoughts on ““Tough guys don’t do math. Tough guys fry chicken for a living.”

  1. Richard

    I think this is a comprehensive analysis. It is interesting that you think you don’t have a deep understanding, but using the film as a comparison Escalante didn’t have any teaching experience to begin with, but he got great results. Perhaps it was the range of qualities he brought that helped him achieve. I was interested to see you linking to the principle of relevance and wonder if there were other CfE principles on show here. Also, I suspect there are lots, maybe there are other films that demonstrate some of these principles. There are some good maths films too. I hope that you might be inspired to track them down.

    1. Emma Kilpatrick Post author

      Thank you Richard, I enjoyed watching the film and look forward to doing more research about other films and further reading on the teaching of maths.

  2. Tara Harper

    You have identified some really important issues in regard to teaching in general and mathematics teaching in particular.
    Setting out clear expectations, sticking to them and holding the children accountable for meeting them is really important. Having something to aim for is important for all of us and making your expectations of behaviour, attitude and responsibility towards learning provides direction and purpose.
    In regard to providing purpose for learning in mathematics, as you have highlighted, making learning relevant to the children and young people has a positive impact on their willingness to engage and look for connections to real-life uses themselves.
    I know that Richard and his crack team will make the connections and relevance clear throughout the Discovering Mathematics module and I hope you make the most of the opportunity to experience more ‘intriguing maths’ rather than ‘school maths’.

    1. Emma Kilpatrick Post author

      Thank you Tara, I am looking forward to this module and learning more about how we can really engage children in the wonderful world of maths.

  3. Linda Lapere

    Great blog post Emma and couldn’t agree more! Escalante’s teaching showed a connection to the students and, as Suzanne Zeedyk and John Carnocahn say, relationships are everything. High expectations are what has made Marva Collins’ school in New York so successful too – she expected her P7s to be reading Shakespeare etc and had a firm belief that every student CAN achieve.
    You have hit the nail on the with regards the Maths! And love the girlfriend reference! All too often we teach as we were taught or teach procedures without spending long enough developing the conceptual understanding. If this is an area you are interested in, I think you’d like Richard Skemp’s article ‘Relational Understanding and Instrumental Understanding’ https://alearningplace.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Skemp-paper1.pdf – even though it was written in 1976, it makes so much sense! The nrich website and First Steps in Maths materials are a great source for making Maths ‘real’ and conceptual as starting points.
    Really enjoyed reading your post – thank you!

    1. Emma Kilpatrick Post author

      Thank you very much for your comments Linda. I enjoyed looking into this film and in particular Escalante’s tecahing. I will have a look at this article and update my blog on my thoughts.


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