ONE high school teacher runs a prescription drug ring. An elementary teacher rejects an assignment to work with gifted students because she “can’t relate to people with glasses.” And a Spanish instructor gives a lesson listing films in which Salma Hayek appears naked.
In television shows like “Those Who Can’t” and “Teachers,” the schoolteacher as clueless wag or inappropriate role model is getting another workout this spring.
These tropes, immortalized in movie portrayals from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to “Bad Teacher,” are nearly as common as the saintly sages who unlock the hidden creativity of their students or rescue downtrodden minority children.
Neither cliché has much connection to reality. And yet they frustrate those trying to attract more talented people to teaching.
The persistence of these stock depictions of educators speaks to a widespread anxiety about what schools can or should accomplish, as well as “our cultural confusion about teachers,” said Robert Bulman, a professor of sociology at St. Mary’s College of California and the author of “Hollywood Goes to High School: Cinema, Schools and American Culture.”
“On the one hand, we expect them to be competent and heroic, and after all, our children are in their hands for a big part of the day, so it makes sense that we would like them to be heroic,” Mr. Bulman said. “On the other hand, there is a certain cultural belief that teachers are poorly trained and apathetic, and they are the scapegoat for any crisis that exists in the public school system. We tend to assume that teachers are to blame, so we often get representations of these buffoonish characters.”
In a review of films going back to “Blackboard Jungle” in the 1950s, Mr. Bulman found that stereotypes of teachers have remained remarkably consistent. What’s more, he said, the portrayals correspond roughly to the economic class and race of the students in the movies. In middle- or upper-middle-income suburban settings, educators are likely to appear as lazy fools, petty tyrants or, at best, genial sidekicks offering an occasional word of wisdom (think Paul Gleason in “Breakfast Club,” Jane Lynch in “Glee” or Ken Jeong in “The Duff”).
Yet when fictional classrooms are filled with lower-income minority children, the teachers tend to be superheroes who triumph over poverty and racism by sheer force of personality and perseverance. If pedagogy has anything to do with it, these teachers come off as renegades who deploy tactics never before tried by their colleagues. (Cue “Freedom Writers,” “Dangerous Minds” and “Stand and Deliver.”)
Such archetypes tap into fierce debates in education today. Efforts to overturn public school job protections like tenure, for example, stem from the argument that ineffective teachers can stay in classrooms indefinitely. And policies tethering teacher evaluations to student test scores are based on studies that link high-performing teachers to long-term improvements in the lives of students, particularly the most disadvantaged.
“We’re trying to constantly play the top 2 percent off of the bottom 2 percent in different political ways,” said Roxanna Elden, a high school English teacher in Miami and the author of “See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers.”
Ms. Elden said she occasionally enjoyed farcical portrayals of bumbling teachers. But she is troubled by movies that canonize singular educators. Novices in particular “spend a tremendous amount of time comparing their unedited footage to other people’s highlight reels,” she said. They get discouraged when the profession doesn’t live up to the Hollywood version, in which a single heroic teacher can overcome systemic problems.
Movies and television rarely show teachers, well, teaching. All kinds of professions, from police work to law to medicine, are routinely distorted in popular culture. But for the most part, competence rather than charisma is seen as a prerequisite for success in those fields. While journalists applauded the accurate portrayal of investigative reporting in “Spotlight,” this year’s Oscar winner, movies or television series tend to avoid the intellectual side of teaching. At least on shows like “The Good Wife” or “C.S.I.” you get to see the characters doing their jobs.
But in films and shows about teachers, the focus is on the teacher’s “connecting on an individual level with the students,” said James E. Ryan, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “and not so much about the craft of teaching.” Teachers more typically serve as emotional mentors than instructional guides: Tina Fey’s character in “Mean Girls” is a math teacher, but her main role is as social conscience of the school.
For young people considering future careers, the generally negative view of teachers in pop culture can add to more tangible concerns about pay and working conditions. When Aubrey Gray, 18, a senior at Pickerington High School Central near Columbus, Ohio, told her brother of her plans to go into teaching, he responded, “Why in the world would you want to do that?”
Ms. Gray, who is a national vice president in Educators Rising, a student organization for teenagers who want to pursue teaching careers, said she recently watched a couple of episodes of “Teachers” and rolled her eyes. “I really feel like I have a great chance to change the way that people see teachers,” she said.
There is a chicken-and-egg question about whether popular culture can change how teaching is perceived. Dan Brown, a co-director of Educators Rising, said complex portrayals of doctors, for example, came long after an overhaul of standards for training and medical residencies helped cement doctors as respected experts.
“Right now teaching doesn’t have the status of other professions,” said Mr. Brown, “and that’s reflected exponentially in media.”
I asked one of my favorite middle school teachers, Dennis Cardwell, who retired from Kenilworth Junior High School in Petaluma, Calif., after 30 years of teaching English, what he thought of how his profession appeared in pop culture. “All of those tropes definitely exist,” he said. “And I worked with all of them.”
But more realist depictions, he added, could have a downside. “If a film could actually show how hard teaching is,” he wrote, “no one would become a teacher.”