Review/Opinion: How “Rise of the Old Masters” is actually about every first year teacher ever. [Star Wars Rebels]

[Warning: Subtle, nonspecific spoilers for the episode, disguised as best as I can.] 

I don’t know about you guys, but Star Wars Rebels is my new favorite thing.  This show has outstanding writing, charming characterizations, and great voice acting.  All the episodes so far, including the initial movie-length pilot, have been engaging and entertaining, not to mention paying their deepest respects to the ‘old masters’ of Star Wars itself, such as Ralph McQuarrie and even the Star Tours rides.

But “Rise of the Old Masters” hit me particularly hard – as I like to say on Twitter, RIGHT IN THE FEELS.  I recently resigned my 5th grade classroom position due to some pregnancy complications, but I still consider myself a teacher at heart.  Star Wars was a staple in my classroom – my kids knew I lived and breathed it, I cracked jokes and made comparisons (including Avengers and X-Men because that’s how I roll) to clarify and connect to classical literature and history, and even found myself falling back on the Jedi Code for the hard moments (I’m telling you, repeating ’emotion, yet peace’ should be a thing they teach in professional development).  I strove to be a Jedi teacher, and while I didn’t always succeed, I believe I had a deeper connection with my students because we had something in common.

“Rise” begins with Kanan – a Jedi who never was able to truly complete his own training after Order 66 was executed – attempting to instruct the orphaned Ezra, a Force sensitive boy from Lothal (as an aside, I am absolutely in love with the way they demonstrate Ezra’s Force sensitivity in the show, with subtle sound cues and movement.  Just what I always pictured).  The lesson isn’t going well, with Ezra struggling to focus and Kanan becoming increasingly frustrated with his charge’s failures.

Kanan, in a fit of exasperation that many new teachers will recognize, blames Ezra for his lack of focus and leaves both teacher and student feeling unsatisfied and lost (for reals, though, Zeb isn’t helping and needs to shut up). When they discover a possibly surviving Jedi Master, Kanan suggests this individual would be a better teacher for Ezra – a reasonable course of action, but it’s not clearly explained to the youngling, who feels more abandoned than supported.

Upon finding that the rumor is a hoax and Imperial trap for unwary would-be Jedi, Ezra and Kanan face off with the Inquisitor and manage to escape unscathed by combining their powers (with the help of the rest of the crew, of course).

Ezra_and_Kanan_force_wall

The whole episode was wonderful, exciting and action packed while still carrying on a clever banter and surprising us, but it was the last five minutes that set my heart on fire.

Kanan tells Hera that the Jedi Master they’d hoped to rescue is in fact gone, and Ezra is stuck with him, for now.  Ezra’s disappointment – whether in the loss of the potential master, or simply in Kanan’s statement – is palpable.  Based on their earlier interactions, it seems more that Ezra is feeling rejected.  The boy is only 15, has been orphaned, rescued, made part of a crew and accepted as a student, only to potentially face being abandoned again (as he can’t help but see it).  That would be rough on any teenager.

Upon landing safely, Ezra walks out of the ship to do what teenagers do best – brood.  Kanan follows him, only to hear that Ezra is going to ‘let him off the hook’ of teaching and Ezra knew Kanan just wanted to dump him on a new master.  Their lack of communication is a fairly common new teacher/student complaint – neither is clearly expressing himself to the other, hiding feelings of disappointment or overreacting to them.

Here’s where I find myself in Kanan’s boots: Kanan was walking a path parallel to my first year at a teacher.  Despite masters classes and a teaching certificate, I still struggled to understand my students’ perspectives.  This came to me especially hard in matters of reading and literacy.  I’d always been a strong, enthusiastic reader; I don’t ever recall a time when I didn’t love books.  It’s always been extraordinarily natural to me, and during my first year teaching second grade, I fought to bring myself in line with some of my struggling readers, those without the skill or development to decode, recall, or parse written language effectively.  It was an immense challenge.

Kanan’s position was even more precarious.  For more than ten years, he’d been hiding his Force sensitivity and Jedi background, a far more complex situation than simply taking a skill for granted, the way I had with literacy.  Suddenly, he’s asked to not only return to Jedi ways he’s been hiding for a decade, but also teach them to a young boy? Ouch.  You’re gonna have a bad time.

But he begins to clear through the mess that is assumption, interrupted experience, and incomplete training (ask any teacher about that; no matter how thorough the courses, there are classroom management, parental issues, and administrative snafus that you have no idea how to deal with) to reach a major educational touchstone – the self-fulfilling prophesy.

“I’m not gonna try to teach you any more.

If all I do is try, that means I don’t truly believe I can succeed.

So from now on, I will teach you.”

Educational philosophy calls this unconscious choice to succeed or fail the self-fulfilling prophesy.  It’s familiar in many settings, but it’s key in education, and I can see it being extremely important to the Jedi, as well (all though it seems be poorly handled, more often than not, in canon as well as Legends… but that’s another post).

Sociologist Robert K. Merton coined the term in 1948 to describe ‘a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true.’  The self-fulfilling prophesy in this case creates what Merton calls a ‘reign of error,’ a cycle of negativity that self-perpetuates and destroys any possibility of improvement or success.

While students can have some power over this idea, it’s teachers who take the lead here (as we should be expected to, being more developed and intellectually mature… usually). This is precisely the error that Kanan makes in the beginning of the episode (Zeb’s teasing notwithstanding – distractions in the beginning classroom are NOT a good idea).  He repeatedly berates Ezra for failing to focus, causing Ezra to further lose focus; he emphasizes the failure itself, instead of projecting and modeling what success looks like.

Can you have a positive self-fulfilling prophesy?  Absolutely!  In fact, this was specifically studied an elementary setting in 1968.  Teachers were given instructions that a specific group of students were ‘gifted,’ and after eight months in the classroom, they tested these students.  The students identified as ‘special’ showed a marked increase in their test scores compared to eight months earlier (and compared to the students who had not been identified to the teachers).  The ‘prophesy’ here being that these students would succeed, and they were consistently provided with the tools to make that success happen.  The outcome was guaranteed to be positive because it had been begun with a positive expectation.

Kanan’s resolution that he will teach Ezra instead of only trying affects not only his own teaching, but Ezra’s perception as well – Kanan’s willingness to teach demonstrates to the boy that Ezra himself is worthwhile.  Both teacher and student (or Master and Padawan, as it were) get a psychological boost from the idea that success is attainable.

I thought this was a marvelous way to explain the “do or do not, there is no try” adage that Master Yoda gave so many years ago (and that so many of us as fans find somewhat infuriating, both inside and outside of canon – Luke Skywalker himself debated the advice repeatedly throughout the Expanded Universe).  Kanan finally provided some clarity to the frustratingly simple phrase: believe in yourself, and you’ll make it.

Simple, but not necessarily easy, as I’m sure we’ll come to find out.

I can’t say if the writers intended to use the concept, but for those with an education background, it’s hard to miss. The relationship between teachers and students, though common, has so much potential for exploration and character development, especially in a universe like Star Wars where these connections are paramount. Even so, at their heart, the Master and apprentice association is no different than any other teacher and student. The necessity for a mutually respectful, clearly communicated, and mutually beneficial relationship transcends time, space, and fandom.

References: Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Education: Definition, Theory & Examples

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