Teachers and Pop Culture

While teachers are not displayed in a singularly bad light in popular culture, the truth about teaching and the field of education is not something that one is likely to be seen. Teachers are generally either be portrayed as superhuman instructors with the miraculous ability to completely reshape their student’s lives without actually doing any teaching, like what we see in films like Dead Poet’s Society (1989) and Dangerous Minds (1995), or as incompetent and unqualified, like what is seen in Cameron Diaz’s Bad Teacher (2011). In American pop culture, it would seem that there isn’t a whole lot of room for films that depict true teachers honestly, as individuals dedicated to their work, but not so much so that they lose their lives and families, and people who were well and properly trained for their positions as educators. Because that is just the thing about movies that depict superhero teachers, they are never really shown to be educating because the fact that the students were doing poorly in the first places is the fault of their previous, and of course ineffective, teacher. While painting the picture of the dangerous mindssuperteacher, the film is sure to make it clear that all the other teachers and administrators working alongside them are unfeeling or unskilled. All the unruly class needs is a karate lesson from a leather jacket wearing teacher to get them on track, obviously.

So what? Why does it matter what teachers look like in Hollywood? Well, it matters because the way teaching is depicted in popular culture holds great bearing on the way the real-life teaching is viewed. In her short video discussing myths about teaching, she comments on former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s remark that good teachers “walk on water” and are miracle workers by questioning the expectation of teachers to reach inhuman levels of practice to be deemed ‘good.’ Teachers are credited with the opportunity to completely transform the lives of their students, but all the while they’re being kept from the poh captain my captainossibility of achieving that by being constantly and relentlessly discredited as ineffective or unskilled. This is the paradox of teachers in Hollywood and reality. It’s hard to know how far the image of teachers in film bleeds into the perception of real teachers by students and parents, but it would be misguided to assume it has no impact. Surely some people wonder what their teachers, or their children’s teachers, are doing wrong to not have them on top of their desks joining a
round of “Oh Captain, My Captain,” and that is when this false image of teachers wounds actual educators. The Hollywood model of the superteacher is not possible to live up to for real, human educators.

To shift the view away from how teachers look in popular culture, we can look at how teachers look at pop culture items like films, and how they instruct their students to look at them.

Movie day in class. Every public-school student’s favorite day, except the tedious worksheet they’re given so the teacher can make sure they actually watch the film. Meanwhile, there are so many beneficial and enriching activities that could be done with watching a film, or film clips, in class. Films must be used effectively in the classroom, not as filler or reward. Documentaries have long been used in history class, perhaps often as a way for a teacher to escape lecturing on that subject and the students are expected to take notes over what they watch – this is not an effective use of film. Instead, students should be given real questions to think about during and after viewing the film; questions like the film-maker’s motivation and why they made the film when they did, questions over the social or political climate viewed in the film, or what kind of perspectives are seen in the film and how they differ from the student’s own. It may seem difficult for some teachers to incorporate a film into their lesson, especially if it is a feature film rather than a documentary, however, introducing the film by saying that though the events and characters in the film are fictitious, here is what we will get out of it. English teachers instruct students on analyzing texts every day, in the same way teachers can instruct students how to analyze a feature film to ascertain important social and cultural information from it.

Adam Farhi opens his article discussing teacher depiction in Hollywood with a quote from Steven Spielberg: “The power of cinema is a lot stronger than the power of literature.” Farhi says that Spielberg is “biased” in his view of cinema (Farhi, 157), and as a future English teacher I know that I’m biased in my views of literature, however, I know the strength that Hollywood has in its sway over peoples’ thoughts, especially the thoughts of young people. In this way, I can see the distorted image of a teacher that Hollywood paints as a greatly detrimental force for real life teachers, but I can also see the possibilities in teaching students to truly analyze what they are viewing. Too often, I think, we passively view movies and TV, without ever considering what we can take away from them. I don’t mean anything as cliché as gleaning a ‘moral to the story’ that teaches you a lesson like children’s programs, but rather what can you learn about that culture, society, location, or people through viewing that film. And by undertaking the practice of teaching students how to look at a film in this way, perhaps the perception of superteachers in films will grow more unrealistic as opposed to idealistic.


Farhi, A. (1999). Hollywood goes to school recognizing the superteacher myth in film. The Clearing House, 72(3), 157-159

[Vox]. (2014, September 6). As if teachers’ jobs aren’t hard enough, they’re asked to fix poverty, too. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWSaceaSpRI.


6 thoughts on “Teachers and Pop Culture

  1. I agree that movies on teachers are not capturing what teachers go through every day, by representing teachers in a light that is either too hard to compete with or in a very poor light. I also liked that you asked the question why does it matter and to shed some light on this question it matters because young children, teens, and college students watch these films and believe these are true representations of teachers which, therefore, causes them to not even want to be in the profession. If the new generation doesn’t find this profession appealing then we have a big mess on our hands because who is going to fill these positions when veteran teachers retire, robots or are parents going to get paid for teaching their own kids, highly unlikely. Goldstein (2014) states that making the teaching process more intellectually coherent and competitive, and reorganizing how teachers are paid could make the job more attractive to a more diverse group of workers.

    I agree that children’s favorite time in the classroom is movie day. My kids love to watch movies at school up until they must fill out the worksheet. There needs to be more direction beforehand on what is expected of the students so that they don’t disengage after the movie is over. A perfect example is when Dr. Krutka Practiced High Leverage Practice #18, which states to provide oral and written feedback to students (Dan Krutka, 2015). He prepared the students to watch the film first and then provided them with handouts (Dan Krutka, 2015). He stopped the film at appropriate times to discuss the content to make sure of the students understanding. The students worked in groups and he provided feedback for student growth (Dan Krutka, 2015).

    Goldstein, D. (2014). The teacher wars: A history of America’s most embattled profession. New York, NY: Doubleday.

    Dan Krutka. (2015). Module 13: Pop culture. Retrieved from https://educationalfoundations.wordpress.com/schedule/week-13/


  2. Emily, I think you are correct that teachers are not always truthfully represented in movies and they should be. I believe why we see what we see is that movie makers are looking for something that will do well in the box office and will eventually lead to awards and notoriety. Some of these “based on a true story” or “based on actual events” need the embellishment to be interesting, entertaining, or both. They are making a story. Otherwise, it’s a documentary or news report. Which can be interesting and entertaining, as well, but film makers are making a “movie” behind it. It would be nice to see teachers portrayed in a realistic light that inspires and gives respect to the profession. Teachers are important figures in student’s lives and should be depicted as such.
    I remember loving movie days growing up in school. I agree, it should be for educational purposes, but I do not see anything wrong with allowing students a reward day every so often. For example, allowing students a break after finishing up on standardized testing or the last day of school, etc. Also, I remember those rainy days in elementary school and not being able to play outside. Our teachers either had us play a game in the gym or watch a short movie, like The Red Balloon or Gus. Granted, we are talking about the 70’s, so I’m sure those are no longer the go to movies. Point was we needed a break from our studies during the day, hence recess. When that was not available, then they made alternate plans. As far as class curriculum, movies should be for effective and educational use. Like you wrote, teachers should give real questions for the students to think about while watching movies. They should be able to take away with something after viewing the movie. Something that teaches them more insight on whatever subject they are studying. Movies can be a great tool for teachers, if used properly!


  3. Hello Emily! I’m glad you elaborated on this week’s compelling question by discussing the use of films in the classroom. As a student, I watched a number of movies in various classrooms; many to fill time, a couple to waste time, and a select few to actually enhance the classroom conversation. The two movies that fit into the latter of these categories were both used in the same class. The class was World Literature and the movies were Ghandi (1982) and Grapes of Wrath (1940); I was a freshman in high school. Both films related directly to what was happening in class and the teacher was fully engaged, regularly pausing to discuss, question, and relate content back to texts and other resources we had previously covered. I specifically remember conversations about why characters made the decisions they did, their beliefs, and their viewpoints. Both movies were chosen based on their perspectives and potential discussion questions, not simply on topic. And they obviously made an impact, as I remember the lessons so explicitly today. As described in the Visions of Education podcast we listened to, I now recognize the potential benefit of this type of media use in the classroom.

    To add to your discussion of appropriate movie use, when choosing to incorporate film into a lesson plan, teachers should have a specific goal in mind as to the use of the film. For example, it can be used as a way to expose students to marginalized perspectives or to engage them in difficult topics (Krutka, Milton, & Stoddard). But we must keep in mind that the specific nature of these goals will vary greatly depending on the demographics, geological location, and worldview of students in the classroom. “Nearly all of our students come into the classroom with a history of watching movies, and we suggest that teachers take advantage of this natural enthusiasm, transferring its energy to academic subjects” (“Teaching with Film”, 2017).


    Krutka, D., Milton, M., & Stoddard, J. (2016, June 2). Episode 12: Using Films Effectively with Jeremy Stoddard [Audio blog post]. Retrieved April 20, 2017, from https://visionsofed.com/2016/06/02/episode-12-using-films-effectively-with-jeremy-stoddard/

    Teaching with Film. (2017). Retrieved April 23, 2017, from http://journeysinfilm.org/for-educators/teaching-with-film/


  4. Emily,
    If only drastically changing the lives of impoverished and systemically oppressed children for the better were as easy as it is depicted in movies! I absolutely agree that the way teaching is depicted in movies and in television shows is, for the most part, unrealistic and unhelpful towards real teachers in the real world. If the teacher at the focus of the film is depicted as incompetent, lazy, coldhearted, mean, or ineffective, the potential influence that film could have on viewers is that they may view teachers negatively, and with suspicion, resenting them for demanding labor rights and adequate pay for services and blaming them for systemic issues that they have no control over. If the teacher is depicted as an idealistic, non-conformist, passionate, miracle-working martyr, the potential influence of that film may be to make parents, students, lawmakers, and future teachers believe that all it takes to change a kid’s life is for a teacher to care enough. And if teachers cannot completely solve racism and poverty just by caring (which is of course not how things work; it is an impossible bar to meet), they are seen as incompetent, and no attention is given to the very real issues within school systems and within societal systems that actually cause inequality and lack of resources for students. As Farhi points out in his article, we rarely, if ever, see any evidence of actual teaching or pedagogy from these superstar teachers in teacher films, so our view of what actually constitutes good teaching is distorted beyond recognition (Farhi, 1999.) We see the effects of these inaccurate and unfair depictions of teachers in the way teachers are both put on a pedestal as life-changing poverty-solvers, and simultaneously treated as unqualified professionals whose labor is devalued by lawmakers who bust unions, push over-testing despite lack of evidence that it improves academic achievement or teaching, remove labor protections, and refuse to raise teacher salary. People generally think that they are independent thinkers, unaffected by media, but this simply isn’t the case, and for teachers, that matters.
    Farhi, A. (1999). Hollywood goes to school: Recognizing the superteacher myth in film. Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1_i_NlfcQW4VkhJUTVHUktiUU0/view


  5. I agree with your statement that the way teachers are depicted in movies significantly impacts how teachers are viewed in real life. It is not only teachers who are victim of this bias, in fact, many stereotypes related to class, gender, and race stem from false depictions in movies. We all have once held false beliefs about certain people only because we saw it in a movie. When I watched, Freedom Writers, and Dangerous Minds, I imagined to be just like Michelle Pfeiffer and Hilary Swank. However, upon reading, The Teacher Wars, by Dana Goldstein, I realized that it is next to impossible to teach the way Pfeiffer and Swank taught their classrooms. I mean imagine a group of “evaluators” giving you a surprise visit, and find you giving a karate lesson? It won’t go well at all. Matter of fact, you will be marked down as “ineffective.” Real-life teachers are too pressurized to teach students to the test that at times they can’t even come up with fun learning activities, so an extracurricular karate lesson is out of the question. Not only are Hollywood teachers not shown to be pressurized by standardized tests, and teaching to the test (which is the actual reality of teaching now), they are also portrayed as Gandhi and Mother Teresa- eradicating poverty through their passion and kindness.

    In Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers, the teachers connected with their minority students within few days. However, in real life, understanding each students’ family background and living conditions takes a lot of time and effort. Furthermore, a lot of at risk students don’t open to teachers the way they do in movies; it takes a lot of time and effort, and Hollywood movies completely skip that.

    I understand that movie makers can’t go into depth because they only have a certain amount of time to deliver their message. So, it is important to analyze movies and answer questions like: what is the main message of the movie? How are the characters portrayed? what is the purpose of each character? And so on. Educators should use movies to strengthen student’s analytical and evaluation strategies, by requiring them analyze the movie and answering questions like the ones mentioned above. This way students will get a chance to engage in a fun activity, and work on their analytical and evaluation skills.

    Goldstein, D. (2014). The teacher wars: A history of America’s most embattled profession. New York, NY: Doubleday.


  6. Hi Emily! I agree with you that teachers are portrayed poorly in media whether seen as incompetent and ineffective or they are superheros able to reach every child. I watched Freedom Writers and saw multiple characteristics of Fahir’s (1999) ‘superhero’ teacher. Ms. Gruwell was able to instantly connect to the students with subjects of Snoop Dog and Tupac and was able to tie racial and class differences to the Holocaust but in reality sometimes it is not that easy to connect with students’ interests and backgrounds. I think it is hard for teachers to be truly effective if they are held to a high standards brought about teachers in films. I believe teachers can help break these false perspectives by continuing to strive to be the best teacher possible. I know I will not be the ideal, saint-like teacher and I know I will not be the bed teacher nobody wants. I hope and will strive to be the best that I can and give my students my best as much as I can, knowing that some days will be better than others.

    To add to your discussion of appropriate movie use, I think that teachers just putting on a movie for the sake of filling time do not help the students gain any knowledge. Granted, as a student, I loved those days of having no assignments to do except watching a movie, but I really did not learn anything. Hobbs (2006) would argue that teachers sometimes mis-use videos/films in ways like having no clearly defined instructional purpose, viewing experiences to give teachers ‘break’, using TV as a reward, and using video to control student behavior. For example, when I was in 9th grade I remember watching Shindler’s List while we were going over the Holocaust and I remember the teacher giving us an assignment asking us to discuss what was going on with the movie and how the Holocaust was being portrayed. One can reason that my teacher was effectively using media to help her students learn more about the Holocaust. While I agree with Hobbs on these points and films should be used in an effective manner to build on students learning, sometimes I think students should have those free days especially after testing days or the last days of school.

    Farhi, A. (1999). Hollywood goes to school recognizing the superteacher myth in film. The Clearing House, 72(3), 157-159.
    Hobbs, R. (2006). Non‐optimal uses of video in the classroom. Learning, media and technology, 31(1), 35-50.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s