Our exposure to education and schools on TV is generally in the form of highly dramatised fiction. It’s not often that we get a glimpse behind the door into ‘reality education’.
As a teacher, it can be equal parts amusing and infuriating to see the depictions of our profession in shows and movies. Sometimes you have to take a step back and remind yourself that this is for entertainment purposes, and not (necessarily) how most people actually view us.
After delving into the way a couple of reality tv shows have highlighted aspects of education and teaching, I thought it would be a heck of a ride to compile a list of the typical entertainment-industry depictions of teachers. TV Teacher Tropes, if you will.
This led to a dive into the internet, and I found this wonderful site called TVTropes. The following has been adapted from their list of Schoolteachers Tropes.
(…or be frustrated, infuriated, amused, concerned, or confused)
The Cool Teacher
This is the one most real-life beginning teachers aspire to be – well loved by their students, with super fun lessons and on-point outfits.
They motivate their students to learn (possibly in “fun ways” that actually are fun), and commiserate with their students about less desirable teacher types. Their consistently good results might protect them from being fired, but this isn’t a given. A lot of these end up being a mentor to their students, and often act as a parental substitute for students with parental issues.
E.g. Ms Frizzle in The Magic School Bus
Super Keen Beginning Teacher
Just out of their own schooling, this teacher is usually a 20-something year old who has idealistic, sometimes even naive, viewpoints on education. They’re often depicted as a ‘savior teacher’, and can morph into a Cool Teacher. Because of their age, they’re more likely to act as a psychologist to their students, and are very often regarded as hot.
E.g. Alfie Wickers in Bad Education
Jaded, misanthropic, and burnt-out, this is the teacher who’s been in the job too long. They dislike students in general, believing them to be thick and (usually) irritating. They hate the school, hate the job, really hate the management — but because they’ve known virtually nothing else, they’ll stick at it, putting themself through it year after year.
Sometimes, this person started out as a young, keen beginning teacher who got beaten down by rowdy kids and an uncaring system. There’s usually one person who will find that their no-longer-gives-a-shit attitude makes them a Cool Teacher anyway. They’re likely to seek solace through alcohol. It’s often implied, if not outright stated, that even their home life doesn’t offer them much respite, either.
E.g. Phil Wenneck in The Hangover
Actually knows a bit of psychology and child/youth development, and therefore actually understands the way their students think and act. They are usually the go-to teacher whenever a student has a problem that they don’t want to talk about with their parents.
The more troubled students like them, because they fill a role-model role while genuinely caring about them, even with all their misbehaviors. This teacher does, however, have to be cautious about how much students reveal to them, and how far they go with providing support.
E.g. Professor X in the X-Men franchise
An unfortunately common TV stereotype, particularly of gym/PE teachers. You know the one – where the teacher is a pervert, bordering on pedophile. They are a little too interested in their students, and their behaviours border on, if not cross directly into, the realms of inappropriateness.
Due to stereotypes surrounding men as predators, these depictions tend to be of male teachers or coaches, however there are more than a few depictions of females in this role as well.
E.g. Coach Carr in Mean Girls
Drill Sergeant Teacher
This one likes to yell. A lot. Very loudly. The yells are almost always straight instructions, or queries why those instructions have not immediately been followed.
They also throw around insults, particularly related to gender, physique, and intelligence. They believe the most effective way to get students to improve is to use liberal amounts of shame, coercion, and the in-built needs for love and acceptance within their students. They revel in the fact that their students hate them, but are also counting on the fact that their methods produce the desired results and this awards them with begrudging respect from their colleagues, students, and leadership teams.
E,g, Sergeant Hulka in Stripes
This teacher much prefers to go with the flow than follow traditional academic notions. They rarely discipline, especially not any punitive punishment type discipline.
TV portrayals can either be in a positive light (where the teacher is friendly with their students, accepting of progressive notions, and always looking for new ways to present content) or in a negative light (where they are so out of it that learning rarely occurs, and instead they are trying to push their own agenda onto the students).
E.g. Miss Lippy in Billy Madison
Exactly what it says on the label. This teacher is usually young, and teaching PE or science, and almost always falls into the same category as Cool Teachers. The student body find them very attractive, and all want to be in their class or receiving extra tutoring from this teacher at break times.
This TV trope doesn’t often eventuate in teacher/student relationships, much to the disappointment of the student characters of the show.
E.g. Veronica Vaughn in Billy Madison
Misplaced Kindergarten Teacher
This teacher acts like all students (and most adults) are young children. They speak in a sing-song voice and are often condescending, but they also care very deeply.
Sometimes this teacher veers into Evil or Sadist Teacher territory, often with manic switches between sugary-sweet and outright nasty.
E.g. Amy Squirrel in Bad Teacher
Evil or Sadist Teacher
Another one that is exactly as labelled. They are cruel, mean, a bully, and should definitely not be in this position of power (though that power is often what they thrive on). This teacher is so very deeply unhappy that they take genuine joy in tormenting their students.
E.g. Miss Trunchbull in Matilda
These librarian, though usually not teachers themselves, are an old classic in the educational TV tropes. They LOVE their library so very much, lord help you if you break the rules. They’ll come and get cranky, and then wander off muttering about their filing system or the old tome they’ve misplaces.
This librarian trope can morph into a variety of add-ons: evil, scary, sadistic, sexy, even enchanting.
E.g. Wong in Dr Strange
A popular Japanese trope, this teacher is usually female, young, attractive/cute, and unmarried. She very often acts like one of the students, and struggles to maintain a level of professional respect. The students can be on a first-name basis, and will usually be on the same maturity level (if not more so). She is basically the cool big sister to her students, particularly her female students.
E.g. Mayuko Shiraki in Fruits Basket
This is the perfect ‘tough but fair’ teacher, who ultimately has their students’ best interests at heart. They can come across very aloof, cold even, but they do truly care deeply.
The students may not exactly love this teacher, but they do respect them, and usually perform quite well in their classes.
E.g. Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter
Politically Motivated Teacher
This teacher inevitably brings their (very passionate) political beliefs into the classroom. Be it about religion, the government, or ethics, morality, and values, they are always ready with their own arguments and/or long-winded speeches.
E.g. Mr Keating in Dead Poets Society