Everyone has an image of what teachers look and act like, conveyed through books, magazines, the media, and other forms of popular culture. Taken-for-granted assumptions about teachers comprise stereotypes that represent an oversimplified picture of teachers that shape who they are and what they do. Positive stereotypes of teachers have been prominent in popular films, from the 1955 classic Blackboard Jungle to the recently released Half Nelson, both stories of young, idealistic teachers committed to saving disadvantaged inner-city kids through their personal charisma and commitment to teaching. Negative teacher stereotypes also exist, such as Dickens’s portrayal of the cruel and philistine Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times and the authoritarian and mean Mrs. Krabapple, Bart’s teacher in the popular TV show The Simpsons. This entry briefly examines the key stereotypes and their impact on teachers and on education.
Bad Teacher As Antihero Stereotype
Stereotypes of teachers can be grouped into two very broad categories: the good hero teacher and the bad antihero teacher. It is obvious from their names that Mr. Gradgrind and Mrs. Krabapple both fall into the latter category. They are no-nonsense figures who are uninterested in making learning enjoyable for their students. The antihero teacher stereotype depicts the teacher as being joyless, unattractive (like the historical spinster teacher), and boring. This teacher is mean and embittered with life and teaching. Often, antihero teachers are cruel and condescending toward students, resorting to corporal punishment to keep their classes in order. They are also lazy, taking little time to prepare their lessons or care about the learning needs of their students. They become objects of ridicule.
The antihero stereotype is used to propagate the notion that teachers are to blame for societal problems. The stereotype contributes to the belief that teachers are responsible for rising rates of illiteracy, dropouts, and subsequent problems with youth crime, as well as the moral decline of society and slowdowns in the economy. The teacher as antihero stereotype provides a convenient scapegoat for a wide range of societal problems.
Good Teacher As Hero Stereotype
The good teacher stereotype advances the notion of the teacher as hero who is completely dedicated to students. In this view, teachers see their work as their life, and they sacrifice themselves for their students. Contemporary notions of the hero teacher mirror the earlier nineteenth-century stereotype of the teacher as savior or saint, a person who has answered a calling from God to save children from the ills of modern society.
There are two types of teacher-as-hero stereotypes. The first, the charismatic teacher, is inspirational and holds the rapt attention of students. Charismatic teachers often achieve success in unconventional ways and are rarely seen engaging in the ordinary tasks associated with teaching, such as lesson planning. Moreover, they are often rather flustered, disorganized, and unprepared for class. They rarely stick to the official curriculum, preferring instead to innovate and make it up on the go. Through their popularity and charming personality, charismatic teachers are able to inspire their students to success.
Another version of the hero stereotype, most commonly associated with female teachers, is the selfless teacher who is completely dedicated to students. These teachers are willing to go the extra mile for their students, both within and outside of the classroom. They are sensitive to the varying needs of students. Above all, love of children and teaching guides them in their work. The selfless teacher stereotype emphasizes the moral role of the teacher to inculcate in students appropriate moral values and habits to survive in a difficult and dangerous world.
Gendered And Racialized Teacher Stereotypes
The selfless teacher stereotype is most often associated with women, building on and enhancing the notion of women being naturally more nurturing, caring, and dedicated than men. This stereotype reinforces the notion that teaching, especially of younger children, is women’s work. On the other hand, the charismatic teacher is generally depicted as a man in full control of his classroom through his personal charm and magnetism. A racial dimension is also seen in teacher stereotypes. In the popular media, for example, the charismatic teacher is most often depicted as a White male savior of Black boys.
Effects And Implications
A number of effects and implications are associated with the teacher stereotypes outlined here. The first is that, as with all stereotypes, complex phenomena are reduced to simplified generalizations. In this respect, teaching stereotypes are caricatures of teaching that ignore the complex and contextualized nature of teaching. Teacher stereotypes prevent people from understanding the complex nature of teachers’ work. This, some argue, reinforces the idea that teaching is a job that anyone can do and, in effect, degrades the profession.
The second, related implication of teacher stereotypes is that they reinforce the notion of the independent and autonomous individual. The teacher is seen as bringing particular individual skills and traits to the profession that alone enable the teacher to either rescue or ruin students. Teachers internalize the idea that it is their sole responsibility to help children and improve society through a go-it-alone mentality. Teachers, for instance, who see themselves as parents to their students come to believe in their role as moral agents, meeting their students’ emotional, physical, and psychological needs and worrying when they are unable to do so. This individual-deficit model contributes to popular thinking that education (and societal) reform is solely dependent on ensuring that schools are staffed by good teachers.
Ironically, teacher stereotypes also serve to focus on the shortcomings of the individual teacher. Like the 1960s educational discourse of cultural disadvantage and deprivation of the problem child, the flipside of the stereotype of the savior teacher is that it deflects attention away from the wider societal social structures. Indeed, when teaching is seen through these stereotypes, the social and political contexts of teaching are overlooked. In turn, this leaves teachers feeling even more the burden of having to deal with societal problems on their own. Therefore, the teacher-as-hero stereotype undermines collective efforts, both within and outside of schools, to improve societal conditions.
Finally, teacher stereotypes further alienate teachers from the rest of society and force them to act in artificial ways. In his classic 1965 book on the sociology of teaching, Waller explains the negative effects of teacher stereotypes. Waller calls the teacher stereotype a “thin but impenetrable veil that comes between the teacher and all other human beings” (p. 49), leaving teachers isolated from the communities within which they work. In attempting to live up to the teacher-as-hero stereotype, teachers are forced to act in contrived and artificial ways, which has significant implications for teachers’ work and the development of teacher identity.
- Bolotin-Joseph, P., & Burnaford, G. E. (Eds.). (2001). Images of schoolteachers in America (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Moore, A. (2004). The good teacher: Dominant discourses in teaching and teacher education. London: Routledge/Falmer.
- Shannon, P., & Crawford, P. (1998). Summers off: Representations of teachers’ work and other discontents. Language Arts, 75(4), 255–264.
- Waller, W. (1965). The sociology of teaching. New York: Wiley.
- Weber, S., & Mitchell, C. (1995). That’s funny, you don’t look like a teacher! Integrating images and identity in popular culture. London: Falmer.
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