How real is reel? Teachers on screen and in the classroom

Lesley Scanlon, The University of Sydney

Roy Fisher, Ann Harris and Christine Jarvis, Education in Popular Culture: Telling Tales on Teachers and Learners, London, Routledge, 2008 (207 pp). ISBN 9-78041533-242-2 (paperback) RRP $76.00.

Images of reel teachers haunt our collective and social memories of schooling. Mr Chips, Miss Jean Brodie, Mr Holland, Mr Thackeray, Mr Escalante, LouAnn Johnson and John Keating emerge from the haze of memory and mingle with our recollections of real teachers. Reel teachers clearly fascinate the public imagination, if we take as evidence the constant release of teacher films over the past 50 years. How real are these filmic images? Is the reel a dangerous distortion of reality, a useful way for teachers to engage with broad educational issues, or merely entertainment? Do reel images of teachers have a role to play in teacher education and development?

Baudrillard (1983) argues that the constant repetition of images through the media has effaced the distinction between reality and fiction. The persistent reel images of teachers have blurred the distinction between real and reel. The reel images of teachers form a significant part of what Mitchell and Weber (1999, p. 166) call the ‘cumulative cultural text of teaching’, that is, the popular image of teachers composed across time and place from novels, music and film. These images have a profound impact not only on popular notions of teachers and teaching but also on pre-service teachers and teacher educators. This is evident, for example, when student teachers express disappointment at the mundane world of teachers and teachers’ work presented in the pre-service curriculum and in professional readings because it is ‘not like the movies’. Pre-service educators are themselves not immune to the influences of celluloid representations of teachers. Judith Robertson (1997, p. 124) acknowledges that ‘wistful attachments’ to Jean Brodie and other reel teachers in teacher films of the late 1960s influenced her decision to become a teacher. I recognise myself that the filmic representation of teaching in To Serve Them All My Days had a significant impact on my decision to accept a real teaching appointment. The reel school I remember was an almost ethereal world peopled by devoted teachers and grateful students—a sunny idyll of scholarly contentment far removed from the mundane world I came to encounter in the real school.

Images of real teachers are increasing formed through the somewhat dull discourses of control and surveillance, as articulated in government-mandated ‘standards’ and ‘competencies’. In the mundane real world, official documents describe teachers and their work in terms of their competence in professional engagement, professional relationships and professional commitment. Standards are intended, credentialling authorities argue, to better align teaching practice and student learning. In their new book, Education and Popular Culture, Roy Fisher, Ann Harris, and Christine Jarvis argue that, in reality, standards construct professionalism in terms of accountability, compliance, and conformity and that these standards are now the dominant professional discourse (p. 42).

Reel teachers are not shackled by such mundane standards.

Reel teachers, by contrast, are not shackled by such mundane standards and are free to be ‘as beautiful as dreams, as energetic as storms and often as imposing as mountains’ (Gregory 2007, p. 13). In the world of teaching and pre-service teacher education, reel and real images of teachers play a significant role in the construction of teacher identity and expectations. The impact of reel teachers is significant because of the ‘never-ending parade of celluloid teachers’ that keeps the profession in the public eye (Mitchell & Weber 1999, p. 3) and, according to Marshall Gregory, results in images which haunt real classrooms (2007, p. 8). Filmic representations are so real because the viewer experiences the second-hand realm of the story with an immediacy of feeling, a rush of emotion similar to first-hand experience (Gregory 2007, p. 9). Our responses are, therefore, always first-hand. So what then are the persistent images of reel teachers and how do they differ from their real counterparts?


Fisher, Harris and Jarvis identify two fundamental representations of reel teachers: the ‘good teacher’ and the ‘sad and bad teacher’. Other researchers agree: see for example, Mitchell and Weber (1999); Daspit and Weaver (1999); Raimo, Delvin-Scherer and Zinicola (2002); and Moore (2004). The good teacher is, above all, charismatic, inspirational and passionate—the one who challenges accepted institutional practice. This is the teacher in opposition to the system, who offers students liberation from their restrictive worlds. It is however, Fisher, Harris and Jarvis suggest, liberation at a cost. For example, Mark Thackeray’s liberationist pedagogy in To Sir with Love is presented as unquestioned teacher truth not open to critique any more than traditional teachers permit critique of the official school curriculum. Dale Bauer (1998) makes similar observations about Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society. This teacher’s rebelliousness reflects a radical authoritarianism, such that students must conform to his version of poetic interpretation rather than that of established literary criticism. Ms Johnson in Dangerous Minds is like other charismatic reel teachers: a conservative focusing on producing compliant citizens rather than in challenging the values of the curriculum she rejects (Moore 2004, p. 58). All these teachers are outsiders who offer their students success if they adopt the good teacher’s view of the world. So where does this reel image leave real teachers?

Because student thinking is imbued with popular cultural representations of the individualistic, charismatic teacher, they cannot but see their real teachers as second-class people because ‘Most of us real teachers simply don’t measure up as Titans or goddesses’ (Gregory 2007, p. 17). The filmic portrayal of the good teacher is in sharp contrast to the professional reality, where the good teacher conforms to set standards and institutional authority and is expected to work collaboratively, not as an eccentric individualist. Fisher, Harris, and Jarvis argue that while the reel teacher casts aside policy and curriculum ‘most good teachers know that students’ success depends on focusing on what will be examined’ (p. 27). They are, one hopes, engaging in hyperbole: there is surely more to good teaching than teaching to the test.

Students cannot but see their real teachers as second-class people.

Teaching for student success does not preclude adopting some of the characteristics of the reel ‘good teacher’. Even within the neo-liberal framework of accountability, there must be a place for the iconoclast, the individualist, and the charismatic teacher. However, there are those who argue against the charismatic teacher. Alex Moore, for example, writes that the charismatic teacher creates ‘an unfortunate symbiosis’ between teacher and student (2004, p. 69). The student becomes dependent upon the charisma of the teacher, Moore argues, rather than the subject content and therefore becomes quickly disillusioned with the subject when taught by a less charismatic teacher. The constant iteration in popular culture of the charismatic teacher undermines the competent craftsperson and the reflective practitioner (Moore 2004, p. 5). The professional literature, then, seems increasingly to ignore the role of charisma so beloved in the reel world. Why are charisma and competence seen to be mutually exclusive? Is it not possible to produce real charismatic, competent teachers? Let’s have more charisma rather than less.


In contrast to the charismatic teacher, pathetic and monstrous teachers also parade through popular culture, reflecting a deep-seated social distrust of the profession (p. 45). This distrust, it can be argued, is reflected in the increased surveillance of teachers through the creation of standards and accountability structures. Bad teachers come in two shades, according to Fisher, Harris and Jarvis: ‘the sad’ and ‘the bad’. The reel sad teacher does not connect with students, lacks compassion, is cynical and inadequate both professionally and personally—viewers could see them in UK Channel 4’s program Teachers. The authors argue that this program has a brief to represent teachers with a degree of realism. Nonetheless, its teachers represent a ‘sorry picture’ as they go about their day-to-day activities while preposterous events unfold, unnoticed by them (p. 51). Sad teachers are a particular speciality of the teen horror genre such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In this genre, teachers are vilified not only because they actively harm students but because ultimately they are unable to protect them (p. 50).

What impact do these reel teachers have on the real? Many young people see ‘sad teachers’ in their real schools. They are the ineffectual, ‘don’t care’ teachers. They have poor classroom management skills, fail to protect their students from playground bullying, and have little interest in students’ learning or their own. These real teachers and what they teach are as redundant to young peoples’ lives as their sad reel counterparts.

The bad teacher on the other hand is ‘evil’ (p. 53) and the reel images of the bad teacher highlight social fears of the teacher’s power and the nature of teacher’s sanctions. Marshall Gregory sees these teachers as aliens, out-of-touch nerds, supreme egoists, disgusting lechers, out-of-fashion uglies or vicious bullies (2007, p. 13). Teachers like those in Class of 1999 use indiscriminate brutality. In The Faculty, teachers’ bodies have been taken over by aliens and they will hurt you if they can. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, teachers embody everything young people fear about teachers (pp. 53–57). Fisher, Harris, and Jarvis suggest alternate readings of the bad teacher. A Marxist reading exposes them as servants of the capitalist state suppressing the individuality of the students in favour of producing compliant workers for the state. A liberal reading suggests the repressive element is about making ‘people do things they would not necessarily choose to do’; bad teachers are cruel, vindictive, unjust, and lack empathy (p. 63). We have all known real bad teachers—they are the ones who make life in schools a torment for students, who inflict harsh punishments, have class favourites, and malign selected students.

Pathetic and monstrous teachers also parade through popular culture.

Less extreme examples of bad teachers appear as a kind of chorus in all good teacher films. This dramatic device enables the charismatic teacher to shine in contrast to the chorus, which individually and collectively represents institutional and traditional views. The reel images of these bad teachers are, in many respects, representative of the good teacher defined in policy statements and standards—the compliant teacher who sticks to the rules (p. 63). There are real sad and bad teachers in real classrooms, as I discovered in research interviews examining the school experiences of adults returning to further education (Scanlon 2002). These students reported unhappy school experiences in which they described many of their teachers as sad and bad—teachers who ‘put us down’ or ‘didn’t care’. The response of some students was to band together for the sole purpose of ‘rebelling against teachers’.


Reel teacher narratives are permeated with sex. So are real schools, although this is largely unrecognised in the professional literature, even though the real secondary school is imbued with ‘sexual competition, tension and opportunity’ (p. 87). When sex is acknowledged in real schools it is examined in terms of transgression, risk, and regulation (p. 86). Not so in filmic representations, where, in every film since 1989, sexuality and teaching go hand in hand. Dale Bauer, for example, describes films like Dangerous Minds as having an ‘erotic intimacy’ (1998). Some authors acknowledge the saturation of popular culture with sexual images and call for a mature recognition of the sexual dynamics of teaching (for example, Johnson, cited in the reviewed work on p. 87). Despite the sexual saturation, there are no teachers like Indiana Jones working in real schools because there is no ‘sexual glamour’ about being a male teacher, in Fisher, Harris and Jarvis’s view. Films present male teachers as receivers of the ‘school girl crush’, that is, as suitable targets for teenage ‘romantic love, but not for a mature relationship with a ‘feisty’ female teacher (p. 105).

In the real school, Mitchell and Weber (1999, p. 127) argue, teachers are encouraged to ‘get past’ the body as something distracting and even dangerous. This is an emasculation of real teachers, and reduces teaching to a cerebral activity. Sexual dynamics must be managed in real schools in ethically responsible ways and this can only occur if there is a mature recognition of their existence (McWilliam, cited in the reviewed work, p. 87). Studying teacher films in pre-service education is a way of reintroducing the body into schools and of preparing pre-service teachers for the real classroom. At any rate, it might help pre-service teachers understand that when a teacher first walks in to a classroom, it is not necessarily her or his ideas which first attract students’ attention (Mitchell & Weber 1999, p. 124).


It is easy for reel teachers to be charismatic. The skilful use of camera angles and lighting enhance the dramatic impact of, say, the teacher’s classroom entrance, thereby transforming the mundane into the exotic (Mitchell & Weber 1999, pp. 87–90). Real teachers do not have access to dramatic devices, nor can they call ‘cut’ and re-teach a ‘scene’ whenever a student is confused. Ladson-Billings (1998, p. 258) concludes that teaching is more random, episodic, and unpredictable than the movies. Films focus the camera on individuals, notably the individual teacher, but this is a filmic, rather than a pedagogical, device (Gale & Desmore 2002, p. 616). Moreover, the impact of film is reinforced by its narrative discourse, which contrasts with the discourse of science which dominates education (p. 18).

It is easy for reel teachers to be charismatic.

Nonetheless, films about teaching, because of these dramatic devices, illuminate problems about education in a way that professional texts cannot (Trier 2001, p. 129). This brings me back to a question I posed earlier—do reel images of teachers have a role to play in teacher education and development? Fisher, Harris and Jarvis, along with other authors (notably Mitchell & Weber 1999), argue that filmic images play a key role in the construction of teacher identity. For this reason, teacher films cannot be ignored. They are a memorable way to convey information about the role of teachers (Raimo, Delvin-Scherer & Zinicola 2002, p. 314). It is for this reason that Brunner (1994) proposes using films ‘in parity with professional texts’ to interrogate students’ preconceived assumptions about teaching. Five minutes of John Keating or LouAnn Johnson has, in my experience, initiated far more critical initial analysis of the role of the teacher than the use of professional literature alone. Filmic images of teachers can be a starting point, a trigger, for developing a currently popular model of teacher identity—the reflective practitioner (Raimo, Delvin-Scherer & Zinicola 2002, p. 321). Of course it should be remembered that films only approximate life experiences. But for many pre-service teachers, they are more real than the professional literature. That popular cultural representations of teachers are significant is evidenced in the plethora of academic texts, including the work under review, which examines them.

Finally, what do real students expect of real teachers? The charismatic maverick, or the policy constructed follower of the rules? In a three year research project that I conducted, I asked students ‘what is a good teacher?’ Their answers indicate that they want charisma and competence. They said, for example, that the good teacher needs to interpret the curriculum for their students because it’s ‘unclear what’s what’; they need to ‘know their subject’, and how to teach it; they must be able to communicate with their students and with other teachers—they need, in other words, to meet a set of minimum standards of expertise. However, and here the filmic images emerge, teachers also need to create an interesting learning situation, to make learning ‘fun’ and to understand their students’ needs, to be able to reassess and say ‘OK, this isn’t working let’s start again’. Ultimately the good teacher, ‘just blends and just comes down to our level and communicates with us like we’re people’ (Scanlon 2004).


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Robertson, J.P. 1997, ‘Fantasy’s confines: Popular culture and the education of the female primary teacher’, Canadian Journal of Education, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 123–143.

Scanlon, L. 2002, Student experiences of learning generic competencies: An interactionist account, unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Technology, Sydney.

Scanlon, L. 2004, ‘“She just blends and just comes down to our level and communicates with us like we’re people”: Students’ perceptions of quality teaching and teaching standards’, Change: Transformations in Education, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 93–108.

Trier, J. 2001, ‘The cinematic representation of the personal and professional lives of teachers’, Teacher Education Quarterly, Summer, pp. 127–141.

Lesley Scanlon is a Lecturer in Education in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at The University of Sydney. She has extensive experience as a teacher in secondary schools, TAFE, and in pre-service teacher education. Lesley is currently working on a book about professional identity formation in medicine, health care professions and teaching.