As schools go back, we open our new series by asking Lucy Reynolds how accurate fictional portrayals of teaching have been.
“Those who can’t, teach.”
If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard that from a grinning moron, I’d put them all in a bag and beat people who say that around the head with it. I’d also have enough money to retire from teaching.
Likewise, “You’re always on holiday,” or, “You only work from 9 till 3.” Hilarious!
Let’s be honest, everyone seems to have an opinion about teachers because everyone has been to school. Just like everyone had been to see a doctor. The difference is you don’t hear people saying, “Yeah, being a doctor, it’s easy. I could do that.”
Why people think they could teach is beyond me… even after 12 years of it, I still know I’ve got a lot to learn. So what is it about pedagogy, other than the fact it sounds like a new breed of Pokémon, that inspires such strong reactions?
Possibly these views have been created by the differing portrayals of teachers in books, films and on TV. The stereotype of the teacher seems to have become a stock character and let’s be honest, if there is a teacher in a film, they are usually going to be the hero or the villain. We are seen as either inspiring or oppressive. We unlock the potential in the ‘troubled teen’ or we’re the reason they are troubled in the first place.
Phew… all that pressure and the constant jibes about coffee breath (unfortunately true).
Here are a few famous teachers from fiction and my thoughts on whether they actually live up to the reality of life at the ‘chalk-face’.
Mrs Krabappel – The Simpsons
Bitter, jaded and sexually frustrated, Edna Krabappel is the cynical face of teaching who simply cannot give two shits about doing a good job. She used to care, but after years of being ground down by the system and antagonism from students like Bart Simpson, her enthusiasm has eroded. She tries to engage her students, but it doesn’t last: “No, children, no! Your education is important. Roman numerals, etcetera. Whatever. I tried.”
“‘Hey teacher, leave those kids alone!’ sings Roger Waters. Well, do you know what Roger: you spat in a fan’s face in the 70s, so why don’t you take a bit of your own advice, you knob?”
You’ve got to sympathise with Mrs Krabappel. We’ve all had days where you feel like you want to tell the kids exactly what you think about their work, or just put on a video because you can’t be arsed to teach.
As a good teacher, you keep those thoughts inside your head and just keep on going. I knew a geography teacher who, mainly due to being a lazy bastard, used to just put on any DVD he could to stop having to actually do work. He was caught showing Jaws to a class and actually tried to justify it by saying he was using the film to display the effects of coastal erosion. Needless to say, he didn’t last long.
Neither would Edna Krabappel. She is from the old school of teaching, when cigarettes in class were still acceptable, as well as being able to humiliate a kid to amuse yourself. What I do love about Mrs Krabappel is that behind all the sarcasm and eye rolling, we occasionally see glimpses of her more vulnerable side, like the episode where she fights a substitute teacher after he criticises her students.
She’s tired and beleaguered and has put her love life on hold for the sake of teaching and uses her experience to drop some truth bombs on those she teaches: “Oh, don’t worry children. Most of you will never fall in love but will marry in fear of dying alone.” *Drops the mic* Krabappel out.
John Keating – Dead Poets Society
Before I had stepped inside a classroom as a trainee, I had this romantic notion that I, as a fresh faced English teacher, full of the joys of poetry and prose, would inspire my students so much that they would join me, like in the famous scene from Peter Weir’s film and stand on tables, reciting “Oh Captain, my Captain”. But it wasn’t to be. Number one: standing on tables is an obvious health and safety blunder, especially in our world of endless risk assessment forms.
Also, your average teenager is pretty lazy– asking them to stand on a table on a Monday morning is the equivalent of asking them to run a marathon. They are still asleep usually until midday, so sitting upright at a desk for an hour is challenge enough. The only time I ever stood on a table as a trainee was when I was climbing over it to restrain a Year 10 student who was trying to pummel a boy who muttered a ‘your mum’ joke to him.
That is not to say that I haven’t had my own ‘Oh Captain, my Captain’ moments. In fact, I have them every day. Small moments that don’t need standing on tables to celebrate. It could be a small “Cheers” and coy smile from the kid who has just achieved their first A in a piece of work. Or when a student says, “I really hope you teach me again next year.” Or when they finally get something and you can see that wonderful moment of understanding and pride in their eyes.
Look at me, getting all sentimental and dewy eyed… bloody hell, get me a table to stand on!
Teacher – The Wall
Amid images of students being fed into a meat grinder, and the solemn droning chant of “We don’t need no education” (those double negatives would argue otherwise), prog-rock legends Pink Floyd seared the image of the strict, fascistic teacher onto the retinas of a whole generation.
“Hey teacher, leave those kids alone!” sings Roger Waters. Well, do you know what Roger: you spat in a fan’s face in the 70s, so why don’t you take a bit of your own advice, you knob?
The leering, cane-wielding teacher, designed by the brilliant English cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, looms large in the video and is symbolic of Waters’ frustration with his 1950s formal education at the Cambridgeshire School for Boys and his feeling that grammar school teachers were there just to keep children quiet and submissive and not actually teach them.
“I do have to admit that a quick wit and a sharp tongue are, at times, the best tool a teacher can have against certain students who have too much to say and not enough between their ears.”
As an ardent fan, and product, of comprehensive state education, I can understand Waters’ argument with the school system of decades ago and I believe it is a thing of the past.
As frustrating as students can be at times, the balance between teacher control and student enjoyment has to be equal. If students are afraid of you, they don’t learn. If they are your friend and don’t see you as an authority figure, they don’t learn. It’s a balancing act that takes years to perfect, but reaps dividends in the end.
Elizabeth Halsey – Bad Teacher
Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, the most selfish, devious and incompetent middle school teacher ever to grace the screen. She drinks, smokes marijuana, swears at students, steals exam papers, sleeps off her hangovers in class and uses her Machiavellian cunning to earn enough money to get a boob job.
In short, she is an awful human being, the worst teacher imaginable and a fantastic comedy creation. As a teacher, you watch this film with a delicious sense of vicarious glee. Of course, everything she does is, in reality, appalling and the quickest way to lose the chance to ever teach again.
She is the antihero of the teaching world: you’d hate to work with her but watching her exploits is amazing fun and the kind of escapism every tired, dedicated teacher needs.
Miss Honey – Matilda
“Some curious warmth that was almost tangible shone out of Miss Honey’s face when she spoke to a confused and homesick newcomer to the class.”
Roald Dahl, like Charles Dickens, wasn’t one for subtlety with character names. With Miss Honey and Miss Trunchbull, you know which side you are rooting for straight away (though I have to say, I secretly love the Trunchbull – she is a “gigantic holy terror” and boy, can she throw a shot putt).
Miss Honey is teaching perfection: kind, gentle and compassionate; her students adore her and vice versa. While seemingly quiet and reserved, Miss Honey is the one person to stand up to Matilda’s boorish parents and fully appreciate Matilda’s amazing abilities, along with those of every child she teaches.
In the book, which like all Dahl stories, is deliciously dark at times, Miss Honey is quite a lonely figure who lives on her own and is haunted by the memory of her beloved father and her treatment at the hands of her cruel aunt, Miss Trunchbull.
What I love is that Miss Honey’s redemption comes not in the form of a husband, but in Matilda, whom she adopts at the end of the story. We can’t all be at the level of Miss Honey’s patience and calm on a daily basis, but we should try to emulate her compassion and kindness whenever we can, whether you are a teacher or not.
Mr Gilbert – The Inbetweeners
Who said sarcasm doesn’t have a place in the classroom? Greg Davies steals every scene he is in as the omnipresent and frighteningly caustic Mr Gilbert. He is the Head of Sixth Form in the show and I am currently a sixth form teacher. Can I see any similarities between myself and him? In an effort to keep my job, I’ll say no, but I do have to admit that a quick wit and a sharp tongue are, at times, the best tool a teacher can have against certain students who have too much to say and not enough between their ears.
Or as Mr Gilbert rants: “This isn’t The Dead Poets Society and I am not that bloke on BBC2 that keeps getting kids to sing in choirs. I especially don’t want to hear how well you are settling down at uni or how much growing up you have done in the past 12 months. At best, I am ambivalent towards most of you, but some of you I actively dislike, for no other reason than your poor personal hygiene or your irritating personalities.”
If you can flit between Miss Honey’s level of care and empathy and Mr Gilbert’s brand of no-nonsense comebacks, you’re on to a winner. Students will like you, work hard for you but also know that if they cross the boundaries of behaviour, you will not hesitate to go medieval on them – metaphorically, of course.
You can be both strict and kind, well-liked but also well-respected. Channel your bad teacher on weekends and be John Keating whenever possible. And keep your Edna Krabappel comments to yourself.
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Lucy is a teacher whose dream as a child was to be WWE Wrestling Champion. That dream is still alive.