The Problem With Teachers in Movies

Ferris-teacher

Sometimes Pat Brothwell thinks the only accurate thing about teachers on film is that in real life they’re often the punch line as well. 

—-

I’d like to start off by acknowledging that I’m aware that movies and television are first and foremost entertainment and I shouldn’t be surprised/annoyed that they’re often wildly unrealistic. I’m the last person to watch something and constantly point out what is accurate and what isn’t (except for when I watched The Office, only because I went to school in Scranton which gives me the authority to point out things like “there is no Chill’s in Scranton”). That being said, I’ve been getting increasingly annoyed by the portrayal of teachers, specifically male, teachers, on film.

Teachers, and I guess a lot of people who are identified by profession, seem to be portrayed in a sense as caricatures. They’re one dimensional entities who are usually either incredibly incompetent in the “Bueller…Bueller” sense (sidenote: I made a reference to this the other day and none of my students got it) or completely selfless saint-like figures who sacrifice everything for their students.

Now I’ve seen my share of bumbling idiots in the classroom, but honestly not too many, and also honestly, how many professions are completely bumbling idiot-free, so realistically the “Bueller…Bueller” guy might not be so far off. Also, while standards here in Pennsylvania might be reasonably high to get a teaching degree, I know that there are some places where it is seen as a ridiculously easy job that anyone could do. As long as some places allow that type of teaching to exist, well Hollywood, keep piling on. You’re simply satirizing one of our many social problems.

I know some teachers who were very offended by the recent film Bad Teacher, starring Cameron Diaz in the titular role. She was a real hot-mess of a human being who got drunk in front of students, threw things at their faces, swore, got high and was a complete train wreck in general. You know what? I liked the movie. I laughed a lot and I wasn’t offended because it was so-over-the top. No one would get away with behavior like that in real life. I also found it therapeutic in a sick way. Who hasn’t wanted to throw a dodgeball at a kid who made their life a living hell or tell a sanctimonious co-worker to “blow me” without repercussion? Just me? Well, I enjoyed living vicariously through that movie and watching Cameron Diaz do and say all the things professionalism stops me from doing.

It also poked fun at how ridiculous it is to reward those who do well on standardized tests, but that’s an rant for another day.

My problem is less with the bumbling Mr. Belding/Bad Teacher types. It’s an easy profession to poke fun at and most of us could take the joke. Most of us have also had those bumbling/I’m a mess days.

♦◊♦

My bigger problem is the teachers who go so above and beyond that they are basically canonized. You know the movies/shows. The ones where the teachers are constantly giving students valuable life lessons and fighting the broken system no matter if it costs them their job and going to student’s homes and lesson planning long into the weekend and taking on two extra jobs to pay for students school supplies. Movies like Freedom Writers and Stand and Deliver to me are just as offensive to teachers as the total messes. Why? Because they ingrain in us that in order to be a good teacher, teaching has to be your life, it has to define you as a person, and you have to put the student’s welfare above your own because that’s what a selfless person does. It’s what a teacher does.

It’s also bullshit. In Dead Poet’s Society Robin Williams inspires students with unorthodox techniques that would probably get most people today fired or disciplined but goes along with them anyway and in the end is canned from his job, but he leaves touched, with devoted students still respecting him. You know what? If I was fired but still had the devotion of the students, I wouldn’t be touched. I‘d be pissed because I can’t afford to lose work.

I also can’t afford to buy excess supplies like Hilary Swank does in Freedom Writers. Or more properly phrased, I chose not to afford this. I could probably find cool new books and movies that relate more to students than the ones we have if I wanted to cut into my bar, and eating out and traveling funds, but I don’t and I don’t think this makes me a bad teacher. Similarly I don’t want to spend every waking minute trying to push my students. I want to be a good teacher during the week and I want to inspire and challenge them but I also want to go a little Bad Teacher on the weekends.

I guess my bigger complaint is that we don’t see teachers in film that are well-rounded people. We see them as teachers, people that either completely blow or excel at their job. I’d like to see teachers who care but struggle trying to connect with students, or teachers that are excellent at what they do but with little effort or teachers who want to do a good job but because of their personal lives can’t give the job 100%. This to me is far more accurate and far more interesting.

It’s also realistic.

♦◊♦

Two more fallacies that bother me and then I’ll quit.

Number one is the cool teacher. He’s that guy that talks like the students, does “wild” things like rap in class, and dresses casually in jeans and sneakers, like the guy in Boy Meets World who wasn’t Mr. Feeney.

One of the first lessons you learn as a real teacher is that being “the cool teacher” is not a good thing. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have students aspire to like you, because if students like and respect you, you get more accomplished, but they should like you in a respected, professional manner, not because you dress and talk like them and let them call you by your first name. In real life the “cool” teachers are often real life losers who are trying to find some sort of acceptance/vindication by lowering themselves to the lowest denominator instead of forming relationships with people their own age. It’s a dangerous, not positive thing for students to think they’re your friend or to have students like you because of things other than teaching (although a former students stopped me in the hallway the other day to say she missed talking about breakfast sandwiches and OAR in my class..so maybe I should follow my own advice?).

And on a final note, I wish to God that shows would stop glamourizing teacher student relationships. This is inappropriate and harmful. Pretty Little Liars is on the long list of things including One Direction and High School Musical that I’m well versed in simply because I spend 8 hours a day around teenagers (fine, I liked One Direction independently…”What Makes You Beautiful” is a catchy bar song and Harry Styles is so dreamy). I’ve never actually seen the show but do know that one of the characters is in a long-term and somewhat functional relationship with her high school English teacher who’s smart, good looking and not played as a pervert. As a high school English teacher who’s smart, good looking and not a pervert, I take offense to this. I’ve heard girls talking about it in class and squealing over how cute the relationship is. It’s not cute. It’s predatory. Ankle bracelets and Megan’s Law registries aren’t cute.

While I could get over the other inaccuracies portrayed above, this one I can’t. If you want to showcase a student/teacher relationship, that’s fine. It’s a sad reality, but if you’re going to do so, do it realistically. Don’t make him the bright young teacher, make him the socially awkward loser who doesn’t know how to connect with people his own age. If it seems like I’m being harsh, I’m trying to be. Or if you’re going to portray him as buffed and tan and dimpled make sure you emphasize what a self-destructive loser he is, and by all means do not make him smart and witty. Teachers who engage in this type of behavior are the farthest from.

On that note, I’m off to watch Breaking Bad. Walt White did teach chemistry once upon a time, no?

—-

Photo: teacher from Ferris Beuller’s Day off, cinematic wallpaper

 

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About Pat Brothwell

Pat Brothwell is a high school English teacher who’s doing his best to complete the cliché by also being an aspiring novelist.  He documents that journey (as well as other useless information) on his personal blog http://brothwellwriting.wordpress.com/. Pat also oversees www.paweekendfun.com, a travel blog advocating for weekend adventures in and around the Keystone State. You can follow him on twitter @patb130.

Comments

  1. As a teacher, representations on screen have always bothered me. The thing that bothers me most is the number of classes that are cut short by the bell, the teacher stops teaching and the students exit. How many teachers would be so disorganised that they are unaware of the time and the duration of thier lesson? The hours that I spent planning and preparing my weekly program left almost every minute of every school day structured and accounted for. I know when every session begins and ends and what I need to achieve in that time. The bell is never a surprise that interrupts my students and their learning.

    • I’ll admit to being surprised by a time crunch. It’s never that the bell actually rings while I’m talking, but I could relate to having five minutes left of the block and wondering where the time went.

  2. Alejandra QH says:

    Have you seen Detachment? I’d say that movie is a lot more reallistic when portraying teachers. You’ll see Adrian Brody and Lucy Liu breaking down and showing what a hard time you can get from being a teacher. Maybe you can share your opinion about it later on.

  3. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Well, I was kind of the “cool teacher” as a college professor, but they still had to call me Dr. Vandenburgh. They learned a lot, they said, because the classes used attraction and enthusiasm rather than busywork to get them interested. I didn’t go so far as Robin Williams, but was a bit in that direction. I did choose to survive, and managed tenure and made it to full professor before I called it a day.

    • Nothing against using enthusiasm rather than busywork (I try to limit the busywork as much as possible). I’m more pointing out the people who care more about their image then accomplishing anything. Plus, there is a marked difference between what is perceived as cool in college (people who teach and are interesting) versus high school (no homework and letting them do what they want).

Speak Your Mind