Education Commentary

Mr. Novak Syndrome

By Linda Pinnell — January 01, 1993 5 min read

As I write this, it’s fall, and I’m coming out of remission. By November, I’ll be queasy. And by March, I’ll feel lousy. Nothing definite or definable, just a general malaise. It’s the sort of illness that, after a thorough physical, my family’s physician might, at his kindest, label psychosomatic.

So, what makes me want to sleep 18 hours a day? What makes me so grouchy that my family is contemplating buying me a one-way ticket to Siberia? What paralyzes me with paroxysms of procrastination while racking me with guilt? I think I know.

This strange ailment primarily afflicts high school teachers. English teachers are particularly at risk. Its symptoms might be confused with PMS except for two facts: It affects men and women alike, and it shows no signs of abating at any point in the month, although weekends and summers offer some relief.

After much research and deliberation, I have come to the conclusion that I, and many other high school English teachers, suffer varying degrees of MNS—Mr. Novak Syndrome.

The onset of MNS may be predicted early in life. Its victims are usually conscientious students who, after repeated exposures to idealistic TV classroom dramas, choose education as a career.

Think for a moment of Mr. Novak. (For those too young to remember, Mr. Novak was the central character of a TV show in the early 1960s that bore his name.) He was the quintessential high school English teacher, always in command of his subject, his students, and his audience. Every week, this paragon, who never lost his cool, managed to save at least one student from self-destruction while teaching the rest of the class an important lesson about life.

When I was in my impressionable years, my natural proclivity toward MNS was aggravated by another television show, Room 222. My history teacher wasn’t as exciting as Mr. Dixon. We often fell asleep in his class—if he hadn’t already. My English teacher wasn’t as hip or perky as Miss Johnson—probably because she was never that young. Don’t get me wrong. My teachers weren’t desk-drawer tipplers or incompetents. They were decent, earnest souls who just didn’t happen to teach in Room 222. Of course, I knew I’d be different.

My idealism buoyed me through college; then I started to work. Like most beginning teachers, I taught almost a full schedule of remedial classes. My first year of teaching was the premiere season of Welcome Back, Kotter. Deja vu. Unfortunately, I never seemed to have the snappy one-line comebacks that my sweathogs expected la Kotter.

Now, after a decade and a half, I have moved up the ranks. Sometimes, my creative writing class actually feels like the one depicted in Head of the Class. The only problem is, my kids expect answers. Poor, hapless Charlie Moore got by knowing less about his subject than his gifted students because he was only a substitute, albeit a permanent substitute with solutions to all the problems of life, at least until he was replaced by a stand-up comedian from Scotland.

It’s no wonder I’m afflicted with MNS. I’m trying to live up to TV classroom standards while teaching in the real world. The guilt is overwhelming. I’ve fallen far short of the mark. I know it’s rationalization, but a few questions have crossed my mind.

Did anyone on Room 222 have a family? Did anyone have friends besides the people on the faculty? Did any of these people go to social events besides the junior carnival or the senior prom? Did any of these people ever eat a meal outside the cafeteria or teachers’ lounge? Did any of these people even have a home outside Walt Whitman High School?

A few years ago, The Bronx Zoo attempted to provide a “realistic” view, showing teachers both in and out of school. But I was more depressed than ever. My favorite character was the English teacher, Miss Newhouse, a woman whose bedroom saw a steady stream of traffic. But forget her classroom style and social life. I want to know how she managed the designer wardrobe and decorator apartment on a schoolteacher’s salary.

Even the TV teachers who seemed incompetent never had to deal with day-to-day competency-based tasks. Look at Kotter. Did he ever have to fill out a homeroom register? How about absence forms or semester report cards? Did you ever see him deliberating over the state form that wants to know the number of Asian, Hispanic, African-American, white, and Native-American males and females, according to grade, in his classes? Even trying to label his sweathogs accurately might have given him pause.

But the entertainment industry is undaunted by its lack of realistic classroom portrayals. Far from abandoning the educational milieu, Hollywood has recently been obsessed with it in films. True, occasionally we get a real, heroic role model, as in Stand and Deliver. More often, we see a classroom “plant,” as in Kindergarten Cop, or an iconoclast who opens the eyes of his students, as in Dead Poets Society, only to make an early departure because he or she hates the rules of the system—a kind of educational fairy godmother.

It’s easy to be great for two hours. Even the worst among us teaches at least two dynamite classes a year. I’m interested in those who are here for the long haul, the series characters. Not long ago, we were presented with two new classroom comedies. Both featured the ever-popular “fish out of water” approach. Teach detailed the adventures of a black music teacher in a posh prep school for boys. It floundered and died almost immediately. Drexell’s Class featured actor Dabney Coleman as what TV Guide described as “a tax evader who is sentenced to teach 4th grade.” (I wonder if this is one of the alternative certification routes we’ve heard so much about recently.) Both are interesting concepts but hardly typical of how most of us entered the profession. Which brings us back to the man (or woman) with a mission and a life’s commitment.

So, what of Mr. Novak, the namesake of the syndrome? Did he ever develop migraines from grading essays all night? Did he ever run into parents who were less than receptive to his suggestions on child rearing? Did he ever have to break up a fight between two girls, one of whom had accused the other of infecting her boyfriend with a disease not contracted by sipping soda through the same straw? Did he ever have any of his co-workers ask why the editor of the school literary magazine was wearing a kilt the month before he was to leave for basic training? And, God forgive me, did Mr. Novak ever say that he didn’t know—or didn’t care?

Did any of these TV pedagogues ever have six classes of 30 students for 180 days a year—or were they only responsible for the one class we saw them with week in and week out?

Yes, I have Mr. Novak Syndrome, that educational curse of trying to be the perfect teacher in the imperfect world. As of yet, there is no cure.

But, as I shudder at my imperfections, I wonder: Why have I outlasted all these TV teachers? Did they really get canceled due to low ratings—or did teacher burnout get them?

A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 1984 edition of Education Week as Mr. Novak Syndrome