Shannon and Crawford (1998) identify a number of different representations
of teachers as “caretakers,” “jailer,” “savior,”
“drillmaster,” “keepers of wisdom,” “facilitator/guide-on-the-side,”
“technician,” “agent of social change,”
or “underpaid unionist,” arguing that each of these
representations portray only a limited, partial perspective on the
complex nature of teaching. For example, in the films — The
Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, To Sir, With Love, Up the Down Staircase,
Dead Poet’s Society, Dangerous Minds, and Good Will
Hunting, teachers are portrayed as totally dedicated, loner
saviors of students who fight against the often repressive school
to help their students. One limitation of this representation is
that it “ultimately robs teachers of a life outside and inside
their work and separates them from the rest of us who are charged
with educating and socializing children” (Shannon & Crawford,
1998, p. 256).
Click here for a unit on “Images
of Learning” for studying representations of secondary
This lesson cites an article by Gavin
Hainsworth (1998) who identified a number of features of teachers
in the following films: Good-bye, Mr. Chips (1939), Blackboard
Jungle (1955), To Sir, with Love (1967), The Prime
of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), Teachers (1984), The
Breakfast Club (1985), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
(1986), The Principal (1987), Stand and Deliver (1988),
Lean on Me (1989), Dead Poets Society (1989),
Kindergarten Cop (1990), Dangerous Minds (1995),
Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995), The Substitute
(1996), In & Out (1997), 187 (1997), Music
of the Heart (2000), Pay it Forward (2000), Finding
Screen teachers begin as youthful and idealistic.
Most teacher films are variations on the same story — beginning
teachers launched feet first into the harsh reality of the new school.
They are naive, idealistic and completely unprepared for what faces
them. As Rick Dadier (Glenn Ford, Blackboard Jungle) states:
“I want to teach. Most of us want to do something creative
— a painter, writer, or engineer. But I thought if I could
help to shape young minds, sort of sculpt young lives, that would
be something.” After being hired on the spot to teach a class
of academy kids that had already dispatched five substitutes, Dangerous
Minds’ Michelle Pfeiffer’s character states, “I
guess Ms. Shephard’s lesson plans will be in her desk.”
Their dreams may even include innocent ambitions like Mr Chips’:
“It means everything to be here, headmaster at Brookwood.
That’s something to work for.” They believe that “students
will raise to our expectations and desire,” Jaime Escalante
(Edward Olmos, Stand and Deliver.)
Screen teachers get cynical advice instead
of professional mentorship from their colleagues. This
fact is revealed in the staff room or first staff meeting scene.
Mr. Chips is told that “the boys are excited by fresh blood
— mustn’t let them rag you — look out for drawing
pins and tacks on your desk,” and he is asked if he is athletically
inclined, “not that they ever become violent with weapons
or anything.” A good model for the stateroom cynic is Jim
Murdock (Blackboard Jungle). He is introduced working out
on a punching bag, “getting into shape to defend myself for
the fall term,” because his school is “the garbage can
of the education system. You take the worst kids of most of the
other schools, put them together here, and you get one big overflowing
garbage can.” “You can’t teach logarithms to illiterates,”
says one teacher in Stand and Deliver.
Screen teachers always get the worst class.
This truism is timeless, from the balls of paper flying (Good-bye,
Mr. Chips, 1939), through leather-jacket boppers (Blackboard
Jungle, 1955), twisters and swingers (To Sir, with Love,
1967), to gangster rappers (Dangerous Minds, Stand and
Deliver, The Substitute, The Principal) — all long after
the bell has rung. The desks are broken and vandalized, and the
students are completely out of control. They are going through the
file cabinets and the teacher’s desk (The Substitute).
There aren’t enough seats (Stand and Deliver), which
only partially explains why couples are sharing desks (Blackboard
Jungle, Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Teachers, The Principal).
Any attempt to teach the first class is shouted down by the students
who throw baseballs (Blackboard Jungle), beer cans (The
Substitute), or books (To Sir, with Love, Stand and Deliver,
187). The bell to end classes always rings a few minutes after the
one to begin, leaving classroom and lesson in tatters.
Screen teachers can count on little or no
support from the principal. If anyone is of less help to
the screen teacher than his/ her class or colleagues, it is the
screen principal. Principals are insulated within their office from
the reality of the classroom and are incompetent, indifferent, or
intimidating. Principal Eugene Horne (Teachers) runs back
into his office when he sees two teachers fighting over the mimeograph
machine, and he knows neither who does the schools filing nor where
the files are kept. Principal Warneke (Blackboard Jungle)
is more concerned with the softness of teacher Dadier’s voice
than with the false allegations of teacher racism in his class or
the repeated weapons infractions or the attempted rape of a staff
member. “There is no discipline problem here, Mr. Dadier,
not as long as I am principal here,” he says. A death threat
against a teacher is swept under the carpet by Principal Claude
Rolle (The Substitute) because without proof of a direct
threat, he'd “have a lawsuit on his hands.” Where screen
principals use discipline, they go to sociopathic extremes. Principals
Joe Clark (Lean on Me), and Rick Latimer (James Belushi,
The Principal) patrol their hallways with baseball bats (that
they are often called upon to use) as well as other management tools
like verbal intimidation and threats used on students and staff
alike. It is no accident that Rick Latimer is promoted to principal
of his inner-city school after taking a baseball bat to his ex-wife’s
sports car—he has what it takes to turn a school around.
Screen teachers face an increasingly violent
school environment in which they themselves must become violent
to succeed. Mr. Dadier (Blackboard Jungle, 1955)
fights attacks by his students in the alley and in his classroom,
and he prevents a teacher rape in the library. Principal Rick Latimer
(The Principal, 1987) not only has to fight an attack by
five students in his library (whom he throws out the window), but
breaks up a teacher rape by riding his Harley (labeled El Principal)
to the rescue down the hallway. With bike and bat, he takes down
the crack dealers around his school and engages in a battle to the
death. The Substitute (1996) takes on KOD (The Kings of
Destruction), Miami’s top gang, to avenge the intimidation
of his teacher girlfriend, but to do so requires all of his mercenary
training and the members of his paramilitary squad. The KOD are
led by the schools principal, Mr. Rolle, who is using the school
for a drug transit point. Principal Rolle shoots down students and
teachers alike, saying to one young teacher, “I’m just
doing you a favour” as he shoots him in the back. A final
showdown with automatic weapons, grenades and bazookas is needed
at the school to clean it up. The two remaining mercenaries resolve
never to work at a school again.
For further reading on media representations of teachers:
Dalton, M. (2004). The Hollywood curriculum:
Teachers in the movies. New York: Peter Lang.
Giroux, H. & Simon, R. (1989). Popular
culture, schooling, and everyday life. New York: Bergin &
Joseph, P., & Burnaford, G. (Eds.). (1993).
Images of school teachers in twentieth-century America: Paragons,
polarities, complexities. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Keroes, J. (1999). Tales out of school: Longing,
and the teacher in fiction and film. Carbondale, IL: Southern
Illinois University Press.
Weber, S., & Mitchell, C. (1995). That's
funny, You don't look like a teacher!: Interrogating images and
identity in popular culture. New York: Routledge.
Students are also represented in often stereotypical ways in
either pro-or anti-school.
And, news coverage of issues such as testing and accountability
often represent teachers and students as “failing” or
lacking motivation in schools, representations that do not account
for a range of different aspects influencing student performance.
a study of media coverage of testing in North Carolina found
that issues of testing were portrayed in one-dimensional ways.
Coaches, as is the case with teachers, are often represented
in films such as Hoosiers, Rocky/Rocky II, The Karate Kid, Cutting
Edge, The Mighty Ducks, Hoop Dreams, or Vision Quest,
as a driven, hard-line, authoritarian, who tries to discipline players,
and is obsessed with winning at all costs, or as a compassionate,
caring mentor (Crowe, 1998).
are frequently portrayed in films such as A Civil Action,
A Few Good Men, Amistad, Before and After, Class Action, Erin Brockovich,
Guilty as Sin, Music Box, My Cousin Vinny, Philadelphia, Primal
Fear, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Castle, The Client, The Devil’s
Advocate, The Rainmaker, The Sweet Hereafter, The Winslow Boy, To
Kill a Mockingbird, A Time to Kill, Body Heat, Bonfire of the Vanities,
Presumed Innocent, The Firm, Dead Man Walking, Ghosts of Mississippi,
Rules of Engagement, The Shawshank Redemption as using the
law to fight the traditional establishment or status quo in ways
that serve clients whose rights or civil liberties have been violated
or denied. However, in other cases, lawyers are portrayed as representing
corporate interests against such clients.
lawyers are less frequent than male lawyers, but they are portrayed
as assuming important roles in defending women’s rights and
Portrayals of television lawyers on Law & Order, Ally
McBeal, The Practice, This Life often dramatize the role of
lawyers as engaged in dramatic criminal court room practices, a
representation that does not capture some of the less dramatic roles
involved in practicing the law.
Police and criminals have populated many prime-time detective/crime
television programs such as Law & Order, Blue Heelers, NYPD
Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street, Blue Murder, or Silent
Witness. Criminal are often portrayed in films such as
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Heat, The Godfather, Chopper,
Bonnie and Clyde, Sexy Beast or on television in The Sopranos,
as engaged in practices that violate social norms in ways that
are appealing to viewers, but still represent illegal practices.
Similarly, there is a fascination with portrayals of serial killers
in films such as Silence of the Lambs, Natural Born Killers,
Summer of Sam, Manhunter, Seven, American Psycho, The Talented Mr.
Ripley, Copycat, Hannibal.
Students could examine the ways in which the roles of the law
enforcer and the law violator are often dramatized in ways that
blur the distinction between the two. The police may resort to the
same violent means to stop a criminal and the criminal may employ
detective work to allude the police. Both may subscribe to the same
cynical attitude regarding the level of institutional corruption.
Representations of crime or criminals are often constituted by
discourses of race in which criminals are often shown as African
American males. Crime is often associated with racial stereotypes,
assuming that, for example, black males are continually perpetuating
crime. The video clip from Framing
an Execution explores issues around Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist
on Pennsylvania’s death row in connection with the death of
a police office.
Doctors have also frequently appeared in prime-time medical
drama shows such as Casualty, Chicago Hope, City of Angels,
Crossing Jordan, Diagnosis Murder, Doc, Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman,
Emergency!, ER, Gideon’s Crossing, Holby City, L. A. Doctors,
Peak Practice, St. Elsewhere, and Strong Medicine.
On these shows, they are often represented as, similar to the representations
of teachers, as saviors or miracle workers who pull through in the
end to cure a patient. As the same time, their own emotional or
personal lives become involved in their work, adding to the dramatic
elements of these programs.
Doctors or reporters posing as “medical experts”
are also represented on television news are providing medical advice
or summaries of current medical research. These representations,
which have received increased attention on television news, reflect
an increased attention to health issues by the viewing public. In
some cases, however, the information provided may be superficial,
or, as in the case with some Internet sites, misleading or inaccurate.
For example, one study of the media representation of breast and
bottle feeding (Henderson, Kitzinger, & Green, 2000), found
that breastfeeding was often portrayed as embarrassing, difficult
or funny, while bottle feeding is presented as the normal and socially
Students could examine how a particular medical or health issue
is represented on dramas or the news in terms of the complexity
or accuracy of the representation.