In early August, I asked people to help me compile a list of all the TV shows and films that involved teachers in a major or somewhat important minor role. You gave me lots of titles. I scoured the internet and added more. Then, using my rudimentary database and graphing skills, I put together a rough picture of how the portrayal of teachers has changed over the years.
Back in August, before I pulled together the information, I wrote what I thought the results would show.
Let me tell you my hypothesis about the changes in the way teachers have been portrayed since the 1950s. First there were the workaday, cut-above-the-average teachers of core subjects. Think "Room 222." Next came the Superteachers who could leap tall curriculum assignments in a single class period — with poor, underprivileged kids, no less — and change the lives of everyone they came in contact with. Think "Stand and Deliver." The next step was the incompetent teacher who was ridiculed and often didn't give a damn. Think, of course, "Bad Teacher."
My hypothesis was a bit simplistic, but the results follow the basic trend I described. Here's a scattergraph of the way teachers in core subjects—English, math, science and social studies—have been portrayed over the years. I've only included public school teachers in the U.S., leaving out the portrayal of private school teachers and teachers in other countries.
Over time the chart moves from the middle—good teachers—toward the top—super teachers—then toward the bottom—bad teachers (A list of the TV shows and films along with my teacher ratings is at the end of the post).
The trend is clearer in the next graph where I separate TV shows and films where teachers are the main focus—the bubbles with the red centers—from those where the students are the main focus and the teachers are secondary characters.
Lots of the shows and films where teachers are less important to the stories have teachers in the middle range. When the story's focus is mainly on the teachers, the movement from good to super to bad teachers is clearer.
I think these trends mean something. TV and film have to give people what they want to see, confirm their views and expectations of the world, or they won't attract viewers. Mass media tends to be a reflection of the zeitgeist, the spirit and beliefs of the times. The trend in the depiction of teachers indicates that from the 50s through the mid-80s, people had a generally favorable view of teachers, which actually increased as we moved into the 1960s. Teachers were considered a force for good, people who shaped young minds and made the world a better place. Starting in the late 80s, we saw the arrival of teachers who were more than good. They were transformative, people who changed large numbers of students' lives in profound ways. More recently, the depiction of teachers shows a deterioration of the prestige of teachers in people's minds. We accept stories where teachers are shown to be bad people who are destructive to their students' lives and ambitions.
An interesting aspect of the super teacher films (I found no TV shows that fit the mold) is that they often contain the opposite: teachers who aren't getting the job done. There's an implicit statement that, if those great teachers who are spotlighted in the films can get kids to perform at high levels in reading, writing and math, why can't other teachers do the same? What's the matter with them? In super teacher movies, other teachers are often portrayed as lazy or inept, indicating the beginning of the deterioration of the image of teachers. You could say the super teacher films are a transition from the belief that teachers are generally a force for good to thinking most teachers, except for a few standouts, are inept and inadequate, that they are part of the problem, not the solution. Soon enough, the super teachers fade to the background, and we're left with portrayals of terrible teachers.
In this post I've left out TV shows and films that focus on administrators and on teachers in the areas of arts and athletics. I'll add them in a later post.
Here are the TV shows and films that I've included in the chart, along with my rating of the teachers.
Our Miss Brooks, 1952 (Comedy, TV). Teacher Rating: 5
Blackboard Jungle, 1955 (Drama, Film). Teacher Rating: 5
Mr. Novak, 1963 (Drama, TV). Teacher Rating: 7
Up the Down Staircase, 1967 (Drama, Film). Teacher Rating: 6
Room 222, 1969 (Drama, TV). Teacher Rating: 7
Conrack, 1974 (Drama, Film). Teacher Rating: 7
Welcome Back, Kotter, 1975 (Comedy, TV). Teacher Rating: 5
Cooley High, 1975 (Drama, Film) Teacher Rating: 4
Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982 (Drama, Film). Teacher Rating: 4
Head of the Class, 1986 (Comedy, TV). Teacher Rating: 6
Heathers, 1989 (Dark Comedy, Film). Teacher Rating: 2
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, 1989 (Comedy, Film). Teacher Rating: 4
Class of 1999, (released 1990). (Comedy/Horror, Film). Teacher Rating, 2
My So-Called Life, 1994. (Drama, TV). Teacher Rating: 7
Dangerous Minds, 1995. (Drama, Film). Teacher Rating: 8
High School High, 1996. (Satirical Comedy, Film). Teacher Rating: 4
In and Out, 1997. (Drama, Film). Teacher Rating: 7
Election, 1999 (Comedy/Drama, Film). Teacher Rating: 3
Teaching Mrs. Tingle, 1999. (Comedy/Drama, Film). Teacher Rating: 1
Mean Girls, 2004. (Comedy/Drama, Film) Teacher Rating: 3
Strangers With Candy, 2005 (Comedy/Satire, TV). Teacher Rating: 2
The Wire, 2006, (Drama, TV). Teacher Rating: 6
Freedom Writers, 2006, (Drama, Film). Teacher Rating: 8
Breaking Bad, 2008, (Drama, TV). Teacher Rating: 1
Bad Teacher, 2011, (Comedy, Film). Teacher Rating: 1