Education Commentary

Images of Teachers in Films and Literature

By Mary Tanzy Crume — October 04, 1989 7 min read

Perhaps the most troubling sign of teaching’s image crisis is the loss of faith by teachers themselves in their chosen profession. Findings from two recent surveys stand as sad testimony to this fact: When questioned, a majority of teachers said they would not want their children to follow in their professional footsteps. And, more disturbingly, nearly half said they would not pursue a teaching career themselves if they could start over.

A perception of low professional status makes it difficult not only to attract talented young people to teaching but also to retain the teachers we have. In these twin problems, we see the seeds of a severe manpower shortage in the next decade.

My recent research has led me to believe that one of the many sources contributing to the image crisis may be the depictions of teachers found in contemporary films and literature. While we might be inclined to dismiss the representations of popular culture as trivial, they may in fact have significant cumulative effects on a naive or uncritical audience.

Through novels and movies, adolescents are exposed to heroic and not-so-heroic models, attitudes, and behaviors that may influence their vision of the teaching profession. If writers and filmmakers predominantly portray teachers as uncaring and inept, they may subtly dissuade young people from considering teaching as a profession.

In addition, literature and film are the vehicles through which most people see teachers and schools most often. Adults without ties to schools are nonetheless exposed to the fictitious teachers of these media. Novels and films may add substance or credibility to the impressions their audiences already hold, harden their attitudes, and convince them they have learned more about the real-life teachers that novelists and filmmakers have supposedly used as models. The potency of these images is increased if books and movies show similarities in their treatment of teachers. If the images are largely negative, they may give the public further justification for a lack of support for education.

For their own professional development, teachers need to be familiar with the images offered by the media: They will come to know themselves better when they understand how others see them.

In my study, I examined the collective images of high-school teachers and some specific propositions about their working environment and concerns as these were depicted in 29 American novels for adolescents and 28 U.S. films. The works were all either published or released between 1980 and 1987. Among the movies were box-office successes like the Porky’s films, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, as well as such critically acclaimed films as Children of a Lesser God and Hoosiers. The novels ranged from solid works of fiction like William Hogan’s The Quartzsite Trip to popular but somewhat superficial paperbacks, such as the Sweet Valley High series.

In these works, 107 teacher characters were developed in sufficient detail to convey an image. Fourteen different types of images occurred in the novels, which I categorized as positive, neutral, or negative.

The positive dimension included portraits of teachers as friends or counselors, as professionals, as idealists, and as everyman. The idealistic Mr. Otero of The War Between the Classes, for example, helped his students appreciate the perspectives and prejudices of others while challenging them to change the world for the better.

Among the neutral images were coaches, eccentrics, love objects, and gods. The eccentric Emile Querada of Son of Interflux is always in an excited, dramatic frenzy; without losing the admiration of his class, he releases his energy by hurtling himself and surrounding objects against blackboards and open windows.

The negative types included ineffectuals, adversaries or villains, victims, odd ducks or buffoons, the immoral, and the sexually frustrated. Representative of such characters are the immoral Mr. Carraway in Things Are Seldom What They Seem, who takes advantage of his position as drama coach to seduce his young female stars; and the villainous Mr. Levine-Griffin of Does This School Have Capital Punishment?, who remains arrogant and unapologetic toward the students he harshly maligns.

Likewise, 14 types of images appeared in the films. The positive and neutral images mirrored those of the novels, with two exceptions: Films did not present images of teachers as eccentrics or gods. Typical of teachers in the positive dimension was Alex Jarel of the movie Teachers, who inspires his students as a caring idealist.

The negative images in films were more varied than those of the novels. In addition to the types found in literature, movies portrayed teachers as sex crazed, vigilantes, and mad scientists. Examples include arrogant villains such as Richard Vernon of The Breakfast Club, who abuses students with foul-mouthed contempt; odd ducks such as Miss Balbricker of Porky’s fame; and vigilantes such as Mr. Corrigan of Dangerously Close, who eliminates “undesirable” lower-class students by using guerrilla-warfare tactics, torture, and murder.

While novels and films shared many overlapping images, they differed in the proportions of positive and negative images they suggested. Novelists were more likely to depict teachers with positive images--the most common being the teacher as friend or counselor and as professional. Conversely, filmmakers were more likely to invoke negative images, especially those of the adversary or villain and odd duck or buffoon. The proportions were almost exactly reversed: Images were positive in 71 percent of the novels but in only 46 percent of the films; they were negative in 71 percent of the films but only 41 percent of the novels.

Over all, while there was little evidence of stereotyping in books, the opposite was true of movies, where a disturbing number of teachers were treated unsympathetically. Though filmmakers did not overemphasize such sensational topics as student-teacher violence, they touched upon them more frequently and more vividly than did novelists.

Readers of adolescent novels in the 1980’s were frequently exposed to images of teachers who had fruitful and friendly relationships with students and who were effective and enthusiastic in the classroom. These teachers were typically “real” people who had genuine concerns about teaching but also experienced satisfaction in their work.

Filmgoers, on the other hand, were likely to see teachers who had both friendly and hostile relationships with students. These characters also had concerns about teaching, but they typically expressed more dissatisfaction than satisfaction with their profession.

What can the educational community do with such findings? Surely we cannot dictate to novelists and filmmakers the types of images they should create. And stereotyped and inaccurate representations of people and professions are hardly limited to teachers in films and fiction.

But while we cannot change the images of teachers that young people encounter in novels and films, we can help students recognize and detect bias, inaccuracies, and stereotypes. Given the appeal of films and the potential impact of both books and movies on young people’s attitudes and beliefs, it is imperative that teachers become familiar with these popular media--not to censure them but to help students become active and critical interpreters of what they read and view.

We as educators also need to be aware of the broader negative messages that novelists and filmmakers are sending their audiences concerning the teaching profession. Few of the student characters in the works I studied show any interest in becoming teachers; some express a distinct disdain for the profession. In addition, both books and movies emphasized sources of teacher dissatisfaction. If young people are to be attracted to the profession, teachers may need to counter such perspectives by sharing with students their own satisfaction with their life’s work.

Teachers sometimes contribute to their own negative image by what they do or fail to do in their classrooms and through the disparaging remarks they make about their profession. By examining images of teachers in popular culture, they could learn to see themselves from another point of view; they may come to discover their own illusions and stereotypes and to evaluate themselves anew. With this renewal and understanding, teachers could, through their interactions with students, parents, peers, and communities, reconstruct their image so that others take interest in their work and regard it with the respect it deserves.

A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 1989 edition of Education Week