Teaching Profession

Why the Fascination With ‘Bad Teachers’?

By Anthony Rebora — July 11, 2013 1 min read

Writing in Time, Dana Goldstein highlights an apparently much-anticipated new novel called Tampa by Alissa Nutting. Based loosely on the brief, scandalous education career of Debra Lafave, the book depicts a nymphomanical—and, according to the publisher, “smoldering"—Florida middle school teacher who seduces an 8th grade boy. Again according to the publisher, “body-slamming erotic encounters” and much deception ensue.

Reflecting on the whole “bad teacher” genre as represented by movies and books like Tampa, Goldstein wonders about the American public’s ongoing fascination with stories about “despicable, or at least morally compromised” teachers. Her theory: Even aside from presenting an inherent contradiction that makes for enticing entertainment, “the bad teacher has also become an overhyped target for our national anxiety about public education.” This phenomenon, she argues, has been fueled at least partly by recent education-policy debates:

In general, our national political focus on making it easier to fire ineffective teachers—and here I'm talking mostly about those who are educationally ineffective, not legally criminal—tends to leave the public with an inflated sense of how many bad teachers are out there, seeding distrust in the entire endeavor of public education.

I don’t know—I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced that this is why we end up with blockbuster novels like Tampa. I suspect there are a lot of factors at play--probably including people’s resentment and/or adulation of teachers from their past. But Goldstein is definitely correct in highlighting the weird pull that bad teachers seem to have on people. As if another example were needed: A Slate writer, also commenting on Tampa, has just proposed establishing an annual Debra Lafave Bad Teacher Award.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.