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5 Most Common TV/Movie Teaching Profession Stereotypes

Meghan Mathis

Doctors get “Grey’s Anatomy,” “ER,” “Scrubs,” “Code Black,” “Royal Pains,” and more. Almost every weeknight they can tune in to see dedicated professionals performing their jobs with skill and dignity. Sure, the doctors are flawed. They’re human. But one thing is almost universally true about these shows’ protagonists. They are always great at their jobs.

The same holds true for our favorite police procedural dramas – “Law and Order,” “CSI,” “Blue Bloods,” “Castle,” “NCIS,” and so on. The main characters and often the other minor “Good guys” are human, they aren’t perfect; but they are always close to perfect at what they do for a living.

It makes sense. Doctors, police officers – these professions are often listed as some of the most trusted in the nation. Why wouldn’t Hollywood want to portray them well? Teachers are often listed high on the lists of most trusted professions. So how is the teaching profession portrayed by Hollywood?

Below are some of the most commonly seen depictions of teachers in movies and on television. Is the teaching profession given the same fictional treatment as other trusted professions?

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The Savior in the Teaching Profession

Examples: John Keating (“Dead Poets Society”), Miss Honey (“Matilda”), Erin Gruwell (“Freedom Writers”), Jaime Escalante (“Stand and Deliver”), Louanne Johnson (“Dangerous Minds”), Joe Clark (“Lean on Me”), Katherine Ann Watson (“Mona Lisa Smile”).

Characteristics: This stereotype is the most common in “Teacher movies.” Due to this, it is also the model most teachers all secretly wish to be. These teachers can take any class, any student, no matter how challenging, and with no resources (or resources they purchase themselves with their own money), make miracles happen. They can inspire students to make gains that no other teacher could possibly make (and always in an almost inconceivably short amount of time). They know that students come first, no matter what. They work with students late into the evenings or on weekends. They take second jobs to buy those resources their students need. They ignore the curriculum their district mandates in order to teach real-life lessons instead, even if it eventually gets them fired. They make a difference. These are the teachers society thinks we all should be.

Classic Quote: “That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play ‘goes on’ and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

The Nay-Sayer

Examples: Pretty much every other educator or administrator that works with The Savior.

Characteristics: These teachers are portrayed as “the Norm.” They are who is teaching the students until the Savior arrives to “Shake things up” and make the Nay-Sayers nervous. You can recognize these teachers because they are constantly peeking into the Savior’s room and shaking their heads disapprovingly at the Savior’s unorthodox methods. The Nay-Sayer may even recognize that things “Aren’t right” at their school, but are far too cowed by administration to say or do anything about it. Sometimes, we learn that they tried to be a Savior, but they weren’t strong enough and eventually burned out. More often, they seem to like being negative and feel threatened by the Savior’s growing popularity with the students and their inevitable successes.

Classic Quote: “You can’t make someone want an education.”

The Kind-Hearted Prop

Examples: Miss Geist (“Clueless”), Ms. Norbury (“Mean Girls”), Ms. Pillsbury (“Glee”), Charlie Brown’s teacher (“Peanuts”).

Characteristics: So nice, so caring, so … not really all that important to the story. It doesn’t mean they aren’t decent educators, which is good. But if you watch these characters in action you might begin to notice that they’re portrayed as little more than background noise. The main characters might note on them once in a while, they might even provide a good idea or two to propel a protagonist’s storyline forward, but for the most part they’re just scenery.

Classic Quote: “Wah-wah wah wah wah.”

The Joker

Examples: Dewey Finn (“School of Rock”), Will Schuester (“Glee”), Sam Coulson (“Never Been Kissed”).

Characteristics: We like these teachers. They’re the cool ones. The fun ones. Students like them because they do things differently than the “Boring teachers.” Because of this, they often are shown having touching, meaningful moments with one or two of their students. Closer inspection, however, reveals that their success as educators on a larger scale (like, with an entire class … or seven classes, like teachers in the real world do) isn’t ever mentioned. They don’t have to be great teachers – heck, they don’t even have to be real teachers. They just have to be cool, and quirky, and teach some of the kids “Life lessons.” Lucky for the Jokers, report cards, involved/concerned parents, and state assessments don’t ever seem to exist in their world.

Classic Quote: “It’s not the broken dreams that break us. It’s the ones we don’t dare to dream.”

The “Those Who Can’t …” Teacher

Example: Elizabeth Halsey (“Bad Teacher”), Phil (“The Hangover”), Sue Sylvester (“Glee”), Miles (“Sideways”), Walter White (“Breaking Bad”).

Characteristics: This is a diverse group of “Educators,” but one with an important shared characteristic: They all seem to view teaching as an undesirable “Last resort.” Some come to work intoxicated. Some barely teach. Some extort money from their students. But their administrators either don’t notice or don’t care. Others are downright abusive to their students but it doesn’t seem to matter. Finally, there are the teachers who “Could have been so much more.” “Breaking Bad” made a major plot point over the fact that Walter White, the show’s protagonist, was a brilliant chemist with an illustrious and high-paying career ahead of him. But when an unscrupulous partner cut him out of their business, White had no choice but to humble himself to the lowly position of high school teacher. The shame of it was something he never fully overcame. This stereotype seems to exist for little more than confirming to the world – “Look, it’s true, anyone can teach.”

Common Quote: “It's the weekend, Budnick. I don't know you. You do not exist.” 

So there you have it. Five of the most common ways teachers are portrayed in the shows and movies we watch every day. Are there exceptions? Of course. Overall, however, I believe we should be concerned by how our profession is shown to the public.

The dedicated, passionate teachers in this nation educate and inspire the people who go one to become all of the other professions of the world. It is a noble, honorable, and important job. Why then, aren’t we being depicted similarly to the doctors, nurses, police officers, and detectives we see on TV? Where are the shows portraying hard-working, dedicated teachers who have real-life problems, who are human and flawed … but who come to work each day and do a fine job educating the young people of this country? Those are the people I work with every day. That’s the type of professional I strive to be every day. That’s the type of teacher I would truly like to see depicted on television or in the movies.