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Teachers on Primetime

Two scholars explore how educators have been portrayed on American television.

From the kindly Alice Landers on Leave it to Beaver to the nasty Sue Sylvester on Glee, teachers have appeared on television for decades in varied and frequently unauthentic portrayals. NEA Today's John Rosales asked the authors of Teacher TV: Sixty Years of Teachers on Television (Peter Lang, 2008) for their take on how teachers are characterized on the small screen.

Mary Dalton is an associate professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Communication at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, and Laura Linder is an associate professor of media arts at Marist College in New York.

Are teachers accurately portrayed on television?

LL: Teachers on television tend to be portrayed in a monolithic manner. They become involved with and learn from their students, have a sense of humor, and display an independence from administrators. There isn't a wide variety of teacher types, unlike teachers in the real world.

Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski, from the HBO drama The Wire (played by actor Jim True-Frost) leaves law enforcement to become a committed, dedicated teacher.

MD: No. TV teachers typically have one class that is featured on the series rather than several classes. With rare exceptions, there is little sense of the real work teachers engage in. Also, ongoing issues for real teachers (standardized testing, dealing with students who have learning disabilities, scarcity of resources, school violence, drugs, etc.) become "issue of the week" situations.

How has the portrayal of teachers changed in six decades?

 LL: Until the 2000s, not much had changed. The portrayals tended to be fairly rose-colored and innocuous. In the 2000s, portrayals of teachers on television evolved to include a wider variety of teachers, especially teachers with decidedly negative characteristics.

MD: The portrayals of teachers were pretty consistent for the first 40 years of television, and in some ways they remain so. The big changes in representations of teachers on TV started in the 1990s with the introduction of the first gay teacher featured in the classroom in prime time on My So-Called Life and the depiction of women teachers on Boston Public who manage personal relationships without sacrificing their effectiveness in the classroom. 

Why is it important to have a wide range of teacher-characters portrayed on TV?

LL: We learn about the world through the narratives we read. Most of us will encounter more fictional teachers over time than actual teachers. We construct our ideas about teachers and teaching from these fictional portrayals. In reality, teachers come in all shapes and sizes and with varying styles.

MD: Popular culture, particularly television and film, present sets of dominant narratives or scripts that give us a sense of the possibilities and limitations for our own lives. If we do not have a range of depictions of teachers on television, then our expectations about who can be a teacher may be defined in ways that exclude or marginalize some groups of people.

Which TV teachers are your favorites?

LL: My favorite is Mr. Dixon on Room 222.  Mr. Dixon was calm, level-headed, in control, and realistic.  He wasn't a comic, although he had a sense of humor. He worked with the administrators, and was actually shown teaching!  I can remember as a child learning from the classrooms scenes where Mr. Dixon used history to talk about current events.

MD: If I am pressed to choose just one then it has to be Roland "Prez" Prezbylewski on the HBO series The Wire because of the authenticity of this portrayal. Season four of this series is remarkable for the way it takes a look at the institution of education within a larger cultural context while still showing the struggles of a first-year teacher.

As teachers, how would you like to see teachers portrayed on TV?

LL: I would like to see teachers portrayed on television in all their many styles. Let's see different kinds of teachers, not just the best and the worst.

MD: I want to see characters who are engaging but also authentic. I am most intrigued by teachers on TV who want to make a difference but find it more difficult than they ever imagined, those who take it day-by-day and do the best they can against the odds and despite the setbacks.


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