Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Teachers in Fiction

This summer I recently read the book Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. The book focuses on a girl named Melinda who has been severely traumatized. As a result, she socially isolates herself, and rarely speaks, and whenever she does it's only small words or short sentences. She goes through a long process of self-growth and by the end of the book, she manages to come to terms with the trauma. Tonight, I saw the movie based on the book on Lifetime, and watched it with my fiance Dustin.

Dustin got really angry at the movie for the way it portrayed the adults--especially the teachers, since he's a teacher himself. They all appeared completely oblivious to Melinda's situation--the fact she is manically depressed and socially withdrawn. They attribute her failing grades and lack of class participation to an attitude problem. Then there is the situation of the horrible social studies teacher "Mr. Neck" who is a complete jerk to Melinda, changes the requirements of her make-up assignment at the last minute, and when she refuses to cooperate he sends her to the principal. The principal is hardly sympathetic, and blame kept being shifted between parents and teachers. Dustin said, "These teachers are always villanized. Why does the character have to undergo growth alone?! Why can't they grow through the help of their teachers? In real life, Mr. Neck would've gotten suspended. The principal and teachers would've known something was up with Melinda. I know when something is even slightly off with my students!"

I started thinking about it. There are a lot of awful teachers in fiction, particularly ones featuring dysfunctional or depressed teenagers. Is it just a feature of the genre? They don't always have bad teachers, there's always that one teacher that has an understanding. There are bad teachers in real life, but are there any as extreme as some of the ones we see in fiction? Why do the teachers not push the student(s) further when they know for certain there's a problem? Why are they made to seem so apathetic or oblivious to their students? I think this trope is also more prevalent in movies/TV than books. Specifically, I think of all those "inspirational" teaching films like Freedom Writers, Take the Lead, Stand and Deliver, etc. Many of these teachers in the films are awful or have given up on all these students. The principals are apathetic and also burned out. Then the teacher who is successful is one with unconventional methods and is automatically hated or resented by the rest of the teaching staff.

What do you make of this trend? Is it bothersome to you? Why aren't there as many positive and active teachers in TV/movies? If it's not irritating, do you just write it off as being part of the plot line--sort of like suspending your disbelief? Do you think the amount of "bad" teachers in film outweigh the "good"? What other ways are teachers stereotyped both negative and positive?

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