Last Monday I wrote about the way teachers have been portrayed in TV and film
since the 1950s. I only looked at teachers of core subjects — English, math, science and social studies — because when people talk about how good or bad teachers are, they're usually talking about those folks. What I found was a general trend. Core teachers were portrayed as good to very good from the 50s through the 70s. Starting in the late 80s and early 90s, we had a crop of super teachers who weren't just good, they were great, transformative, life changing. At about the same time, we started seeing truly bad teachers who ranged from lazy to incompetent to evil. Here's that graph. (The circles with red centers are stories where teachers are the main characters).
Portrayals of teachers reflect societal attitudes, especially in the popular arts like TV and film where the way the studios attract consumers of their products is by reflecting sense of what the world is like. We had a generally positive attitude toward teachers from the 50s through the 70s, so TV shows and films showed us competent, hard working teachers. Teachers and schools were considered part of the solution, not part of the problem. In the 80s, that began to change. Teachers and schools began to be seen in a more negative light. The Reagan administration made this attitude official when it published a document which declared that because of our failing schools, we were A Nation At Risk
. The negative views of teachers were compounded by conservatives' anti-government ideology which turned "failing schools" into failing government
schools. At the same time, unions were demonized, so union teachers turned into greedy, coddled government employees who only cared about their paychecks and perks, not the students. Those attitudes were reflected in stories with teachers who were anywhere from bad to awful. The super teacher portrayals during that same time might seem to contradict the general anti-teacher trend, but really, they were just the other side of the same teacher-denigrating coin. The super teachers created a perfect contrast to the run-of-the-mill lazy, incompetent teachers. "That's what all teachers should be doing," the super teacher films say. "If some teachers can make students learn, what's the matter with the rest of them?"
In the graph below, I added TV shows and films that focused on administrators (usually principals), in green, and teachers in the arts and coaching, in yellow. Here, are all three categories together.
As you can see, the green dots representing the administrators are on both end of the spectrum, either terrible or terrific. People who teach music or theater and coaches, in yellow, range from good to super.
Here's what I see happening with the portrayal of administrators. Back when teachers received a generally positive treatment, principals were often portrayed as bad guys and buffoons. They made for easy targets of ridicule, since the teachers were taking care of business and didn't really need the administrators' help to do their jobs. But when teacher portrayals started turning negative, when you began to see portrayals of truly awful teachers and, by contrast, great teachers who pointed out how awful the other teachers were, some story lines elevated principals to the position of saviors of the school. They were cut from the same cloth as the super teachers, except, instead of turning around a bunch of unruly, uninterested students, principals took a staff filled with lazy, borderline competent or truly incompetent teachers and turned them into teachers who were doing their best to educate their students — and succeeding. As with the super teacher portrayals, the super principals showed us that teachers can and should be doing a whole lot better than they are. What they need is some very tough love from an authority figure to help them get their acts together.
Teachers in the arts and coaches exist in a different realm from teachers of core subjects. Their stories don't carry the same societal freight as those of core teachers whose success or failure with their students can have lifelong consequences. True, the stakes are high for the game or the performance and maybe for one or two students, but they're not as important to the future of the country. A school can be a failure academically and still field a good team or put on a good performance. There's a Rocky
movie quality to most of these portrayals, where underdogs and underachievers beat the odds and triumph. The school setting is more of a stage or a playing field for the performance than a place where students sit in classrooms and develop, or don't develop, needed skills and knowledge in English, math, science and social studies. Even when we've become cynical enough that the super teacher portrayals fade and the few portrayals of core teachers range from barely competent to awful — in other words, TV and film are reinforcing the societal concern that teachers in public schools are incapable of success with their students — the losers-to-winners stories continue on the playing field and to a lesser extent in music and theater performances. Our students can sing, dance and throw a football even if they can't read, write or do simple math.
Here are all the TV shows and films in the chart.
Rock ‘N Roll HIgh School, 1979 (Comedy/Musical, Film). Administrator Rating: 1
Breakfast Club, 1985 (Drama, Film). Administrator Rating: 2
Ferris Bueller's Day Off, 1986 (Comedy, Film). Administrator Rating: 2
The Principal, 1987 (Drama, Film). Administrator Rating: 8
Lean On Me, 1989 (Drama, Film). Administrator Rating: 8
The Arts, Coaching:
Fame, 1982 (Theater Drama, Film). Teacher Rating: 6
Mr. Holland's Opus, 1995 (Music Drama, Film). Teacher Rating: 7
Remember the Titans, 2000 (Sports Drama, Film). Coach Rating: 8
Friday Night Lights, 2004 (Sports Drama, Film). Coach Rating: 6
Coach Carter, 2005 (Sports Drama, Film). Coach Rating: 8
Glee, 2009 (Music/Theater Drama, TV). Teacher Rating: 5
Hurricane Season, 2010 (Sports Drama, Film) Coach Rating: 8
McFarland, 2015 (Sports Drama, Film): Coach Rating: 8
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