A new database of teachers on screen shows they are often portrayed as rule breakers, losers or villains


The federal and state governments’ new “Be That Teacher” campaign aims to boost enrolments in teaching degrees by raising the status of teachers.

It uses a diverse range of real teachers talking about the real impact they can have on students’ lives. It has been praised for its authenticity, but will it be enough to meaningfully change the way we see teachers?

My new research looks at teachers in popular TV shows and films and finds they are often portrayed as losers or villains.

Why status matters

In previous research, I did a meta-analysis of almost 200 teacher retention studies. This found social approval is strongly correlated with teachers’ intention to stay in the profession.

In other words, the more respect one’s friends and family have for teaching, the more likely that teacher will want to stay in the classroom.

I also surveyed more than 900 Australian teachers (across all school years) about their career decisions. Here I also found the social status of teaching in general society played an important role in how teachers felt about their jobs.

As an English teacher with seven years’ experience explained:

It is very frustrating as a teacher being constantly misrepresented in the media. Much of the conversation is negative and condescending. This is very disheartening for teachers who work incredibly hard and withstand an enormous amount of pressure, stress and exhaustion.

The teachers on screen project

If respect for the teaching profession is lacking, where do these perspectives come from?

We know the news media is one significant component but it is not the only one. Another major source of society’s awareness and perceptions of teachers and teaching is mainstream film and television.

My project analyses the portrayal of teachers in film and television, with a focus on the characteristics of the teachers, the way they teach, and whether they stay in their school and the profession.

I have compiled a database of more than 300 teachers across more than 200 film and television series with a focus on the United States, United Kingdom and Australia over the last 25 years. My analysis so far reveals five trends.

1. Losers and liars

In the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams plays John Keating, a hero-like teacher who inspires students to love poetry and follow their dreams.

This is the exception rather than the rule. In my study, teachers are often characterised as losers or unlikable authoritarians.

The most popular films with teachers as the main character in the last 20 years have been 2003’s School of Rock where Jack Black’s character Dewey Finn shamelessly masquerades as a teacher to try and make money, and 2011’s Bad Teacher. Here, Cameron Diaz’s Elizabeth Halsey despises her job and takes drugs.

On television, the Breaking Bad drama series features chemistry teacher Walter

Jack Black’s Dewey Finn cheats his way into a teaching position without having any qualifications. Andrew Schwartz, Paramount Pictures/ AAP

2. Abusive and incompetent

When they are not struggling protagonists, teachers on screen are antagonistic characters. On average, teachers are unflatteringly portrayed as abusive, negligent, incompetent and loners.

For example, in the 2004 film Mean Girls Coach Carr (who is having illegal sexual relations with some of his students himself) gives a totally substandard sex education lesson.

Just don’t do it. Promise?

Another concern is the overwhelming representations of teachers assaulting, grooming or having consensual yet inappropriate relationships with their students. This includes teacher Ezra Fitz in the popular series Pretty Little Liars (2010-2017), who knowingly has sex with an underage student.

Teachers in my study who breach the Australian Teaching Standards outnumber those who do not by three to one. This includes failure to create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments, where teachers bully students or fail to prevent bullying by other students.

For example, Mr Gilbert of The Inbetweeners Movie (2011), is needlessly cruel and belligerent to the young people in his care.

3. Not diverse

Screen teachers are also predominantly single, white, middle-class women. White teachers outnumber teachers of other ethnicities by ten to one.

The Australian teaching workforce is predominantly white and does not reflect the country’s diversity. We know representation matters (“if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”) so film and TV portrayals are not helping.

One positive finding is black teachers are almost always portrayed as hero teachers, such as Denzel Washington’s teacher-coach Herman Boone in 2000’s Remember the Titans. However, less than 10% of the black teachers on screen are women. Less than 1% of teachers in the database are of Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern or another ethnicity, combined.

4. The good ones leave

My data shows that if there are good teachers, they don’t stick around. In The Simpsons, Lisa’s favourite teacher Mr Bergstrom (Dustin Hoffman) leaves her bereft with his departure. In Dead Poet’s Society, John Keating is sacked after a year.

LouAnne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer) is an arguably transformative teacher to a group of underprivileged kids in the 1995 film Dangerous Minds but ultimately quits by year’s end.

This sends a message that good teachers can’t survive in the system, or are better off somewhere else.

5. And they’re not necessarily that ‘good’

Many “good” teachers on the screen are depicted as “saviours”, yet they are almost always unconventional with their teaching methods.

In the previous examples, Bergstrom, Keating and Johnson exhibit questionable behaviours. This includes not teaching the prescribed curriculum, not knowing the curriculum, focusing attention on just one student, seeing students outside of school and using coercive and inappropriate rewards.

As Bergstrom tells Lisa Simpson:
<emI’m sorry, Lisa. It’s the life of a substitute teacher. He’s a fraud. Today he might be wearing gym shorts, tomorrow he’s speaking French or pretending to know how to run a band saw or God knows what.

A little help from Hollywood

Hollywood of course misrepresents lots of professions. But you can’t ignore the power stories on screen have in influencing behaviour.

We have seen this in Top Gun’s effect on naval recruitment and the winery film Sideways leading people to drink pinot noir at the expense of merlot.

Would more positive screen portrayals of teachers help attract and retain teachers by improving their status in society? With schools struggling to find teachers, it would certainly be another strategy worth trying.

Author Bio: Hugh Gundlach is a Lecturer in Education at The University of Melbourne