Images Of Teachers In Popular Culture Essay

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Images of teachers abound in popular culture—from Washington Irving’s early nineteenth-century novel of schoolmaster Ichabod Crane to contemporary genres of adult and children’s literature, film, television, cartoons, and song lyrics. Positioned in a variety of school settings—public, private, and parochial; secondary and elementary; poor urban and affluent suburban—teacher images vary widely.

From the hideous to the ridiculous to the noble, portrayals include children-hating ogres, quivering milquetoasts, and self-sacrificing crusaders battling for the lives and souls of their pupils. Images of teachers who stifle, oppose, bore, and abuse are juxtaposed with those who inspire, advocate for, stimulate, and nurture children. As well, more complex characterizations exist that cast some light on teachers’ identities and experiences—despite a dearth of images illuminating teachers’ personal lives, intellectual interests, or existential quandaries. This entry looks at how images vary by genre and audience and discuss what the research shows.

Variation By Genre

Construction of teacher image is highly dependent on genre and audience. In particular, when the audience is intended for children or adolescents, teachers are more likely to be portrayed as caricature—as adversarial or peripheral to the plot of stories, novels, and films. In adult genres, teachers are likely to be the protagonists, with colleagues or administrators as antagonists.

Not surprisingly, cartoons manifest the most caricatured images of teachers. Among these images are repulsive spinsters; pedantic schoolmasters; and weary, frazzled employees—images that suggest the unattractiveness of schoolteachers and teaching as a profession. In some instances, however, comic strip teachers have roles in helping adolescents to become better students or make better decisions.

For the most part, song lyrics since the mid-twentieth century are aimed at adolescent audiences and present negative images of teachers. Songs instruct adolescents to resist adult authority as lyricists portray teachers as jailers who inhibit young people’s freedom. Seldom does popular music show attractive teachers who help students, yet there are songs that position teachers as the romantic or sexual interests of students; such lyrics, researchers suggest, are provocative, providing a sharp contrast to the historically prudish image of the schoolteacher.


Books for young children by and large describe teachers (usually White females) as nurturing adults who care about children and help them make smooth transitions to the world of school. Less frequently do images of foolish or abusive teachers appear in this genre, but when they do, they take on caricatured, witch-like qualities. Seldom are teachers portrayed as human beings who experience a range of emotions, are interested in learning, or have personal lives. Also, only rarely do portrayals of teachers who inspire learning appear in early childhood literature.

In books for older children, teachers similarly are portrayed as comforting parents or abusive ogres, but some teacher images transcend such polarities. In this genre, there exist depictions of meaningful teacher student relationships in which teachers become friends, mentors, and advocates. So, too, there are images of teachers as nonconformists who challenge the norms of school and society—such teachers who, by their teaching and their personal example, inspire pupils to love learning and to consider roles for themselves as individualists. In older children’s literature, authors suggest that teachers can be life-changing influences on their pupils.

For adults and young adults, there are notable mid twentieth-century novels (many of which have become popular films) that introduce paragon teachers. Goodbye Mr. Chips and Good Morning Miss Dove focus on the characters’ lives toward the end of their careers and show their profound influence on students. Images in such novels not only suggest the interconnection of individuals’ personal and professional lives, but emphasize teachers’ primary identities as educators. Several scholars who examine gender as a critical feature of novels about teachers, most memorably The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, interpret the characters’ destinies as influenced by societal forces and the restrictions of educational systems that repress strong women who express their sexuality. Other novels for adults and young adults authored by individuals who grew up in immigrant or working-class communities portray their memories of teachers who may inspire or frustrate children’s literary impulses, such as the teachers portrayed in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Television And Film

In the genre of television, most teachers appear in situation comedies. Some characters are peripheral to the plot and others more central. As in literature and song lyrics, caricatures predominate, particularly when the story is about children or adolescents. Television shows also depict teachers not only as objects of amusement but also as flawed yet intelligent adults who cultivate warm relationships with students (e.g., the popular mid-twentieth-century sitcoms Mr. Peepers, Our Miss Brooks, and Welcome Back Kotter). A number of scholars have written about teacher portrayals in the contemporary animated sitcom The Simpsons, noting that although these teachers are portrayed as sympathetic characters, they have become objects of satire because of their callousness as educators.

The vast majority of scholarship on teacher images focuses on film. Numerous movies have captured the popular and scholarly imagination with a singular motif—teachers as heroes or saviors. Heroic teachers usually teach in neglected, dangerous urban schools attended, for the most part, by students of color, as in Up the Down Staircase and Blackboard Jungle. In such schools, teacher heroes relate well to some students but do battle with disruptive students as well as cynical colleagues and administrators. These films, which also include Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds, depict teachers as outsiders who save poor and minority students from the uncaring, brutal school system.

Other movies, such as Mr. Holland’s Opus and Music of the Heart, while not going so far as conjuring up chaotic schools, portray self-sacrificing teachers with a singular mission. Even in the elite White setting of a private school, the teacher-hero motif appears (e.g., in Dead Poets’ Society) as the teacher saves his students from the traditional curriculum and lives of conformity. Conversely, films featuring suburban high schools (e.g., Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club) highlight adolescent characters and portray dehumanizing images of teachers as idiotic tyrants set on maintaining order. Scholars note that films delineate images of good and bad teachers as well as good and bad students—suggesting dominant archetypes that impede consideration of more nuanced or complex characterizations of teachers, students, and schooling. They also point out the racist undercurrent in films about urban settings.

Investigating Teacher Images

The powerful images of teachers in popular culture reveal perceptions of the status of the teaching profession, the culture and structure of schooling—including dynamics of gender, race, and social class, and the nature of teacher-student relationships. Scholars contend that the study of teacher images in popular culture is a vehicle for understanding the discourse around schooling; gaining insight about portrayals of gender, race, ethnicity, and social class; and challenging ingrained assumptions about teachers, students, and schooling. Teacher images have become a focus of scholarship because images are believed to contribute to public expectations—having the potential to influence public opinion about the nature of teaching and schooling and to repel individuals away from or toward the teaching profession as a career.

Scholars also maintain that popular representations may influence teachers’ own sense of their roles and identities. Therefore, they recommend contemplation of teacher image as an intrinsic component of teacher education. Advocates for the study of popular culture advise teacher educators to work with beginning teachers to interrogate popular teacher representations in order to contemplate what it means to be a teacher, to consider professional roles and identities, and to imagine how students and families envision teachers.


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  13. Weber, S., & Mitchell, C. (1995). That’s funny, you don’t look like a teacher: Interrogating images and identity in popular culture. London: Falmer.

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