In a recent article for The New York Times, Motoko Rich pointed a finger at the entertainment industry for using the “mundane teacher” or “awe-inspiring teacher” trope one too many times. It is commonplace that we see teachers of every level caricaturized until people start to believe that every teacher they encounter will either be mind-numbingly dull like the economics teacher in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” according to Rich, or impossibly remarkable like Robin Williams’ character in “Dead Poets Society.” Both expectations are seldom what anyone experiences in the classroom. That is not as bad as people think and neither type of teacher should be the expectation going into a classroom. Our expectations have become wholly unrealistic, so rather than measuring teachers up to these impossible standards or lowering our expectations because we expect a nightmare, we should focus less on Hollywood’s depiction and more on the factors that aid Hollywood’s unreasonable depiction and perception of educators, in particular public educators.
In his article, Rich quotes Robert Bulman, a sociology professor and the author of “Hollywood Goes to High School: Cinema, Schools and American Culture.” According to Rich, Bulman said, “On the one hand, we expect them [teachers] to be competent and heroic, and after all, our children are in their hands for a big part of the day … 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.” As the daughter of two educators who have worked for decades in the public school system, I have seen firsthand how the perception of teachers becomes muddled. Hollywood is largely to blame for the depiction, as Rich asserts numerous times. However, while Hollywood stirs the pot of misrepresentation, those with loud voices and a far reach, such as New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie, are handing them the seasoning. As someone who is also from New Jersey and has listened as Christie repeatedly drags public educators through the mud, it has become clear to me that pointing an angry finger and saying something with enough conviction can make any other angry person agree with you.
When we hear disparaging rhetoric aimed at any profession and then we see it played out on the big screen or even in the comfort of our home on our television, it becomes convincing, especially to younger demographics. Like anything else, such as the use of crude language, we need to rethink the way that characters are portrayed. That is not to say that we have to censor ourselves to the point where all creativity is lost, but unnecessary tropes such as the “dopey teacher” are hardly needed. Rather, there should be more respect directed toward teachers for providing the building blocks that shape all of our future choices and endeavors.
Film portrayals cannot be taken lightly or done in a cavalier manner because many young people take a majority of what they see on the screen at face value. There needs to be more consideration taken when characters are created or else the same stereotypes will perpetuate a negative connotation, such as the one that is associated with most teachers.