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Come back Mr Chips, all is forgiven

Features | Published in TES Newspaper on 26 February, 2010 | By: Meabh Ritchie

Teachers’ on-screen avatars have mutated from figures of saintly authority to sex-crazed party animals. Does either representation bear the slightest resemblance to the truth?

Teachers on TV have come a long way since Mr Chips. The beloved teacher from James Hilton’s 1934 novel Goodbye, Mr Chips has come to our screens in numerous adaptations, setting the gold standard by which all other fictional teachers are judged. However, few of his successors live up to his dignified authority, his commitment to learning and to his pupils.

These days, small-screen teachers are more likely to be having affairs with their pupils and/or other members of staff and turning up to work with a hangover. In the latest TV hit, Glee, the cheerleading coach Sue (Jane Lynch) is the real star of the show, coercing her cheerleaders into spying on Glee club. Instead of detention, she punishes pupils by removing their tanning privileges.

Ray Tarleton, principal of South Dartmoor Community College in Devon and TV critic for TES Magazine, thinks that most portrayals of teachers are completely inaccurate. “Teachers act in a way they wouldn’t be allowed to in real life - expelling someone when they wouldn’t actually be able to,” he says.

“They always seem to be stereotyped. In police or detective dramas, we do see a different kind of person and there has been a shift in perception over the years, but teachers remain downtrodden, worried about their marking and boring in what they’re wearing.”

But then few television dramas are primarily concerned with realism. Writers are happy to allow their teachers to spend hours having an argument or lingering for chats in the corridor. Frantically photocopying worksheets does not make for quite such good viewing.

“They (schools) are presented as jolly, light-hearted places where the kids are hard working and only engage in occasional light mischief,” writes one teacher (Aldo 1983) on the TES Connect forum. “The teachers always head to the pub after work and are invariably sexually active with each other. In other words, pure and utter bollocks of the highest order.”

In series including Waterloo Road, Teachers and Grange Hill, schools and staffrooms are the hub of the action. But teachers’ characters are not confined to programmes about schools. From South Park Elementary’s homophobic Mr Garrison - who has a sex change in season nine - to the empathetic President Roslin in Battlestar Galactica, who worked as a teacher and education minister, teachers make frequent appearances as peripheral characters.

Despite the stereotyping, Mr Tarleton is fond of Hugh Dennis’s portrayal of Pete, the father and history teacher in the BBC sitcom Outnumbered. “In one episode, he applied for a head of department post, was interviewed by the head who posed questions that broke all the rules, and was set the task of rewriting the school management plan, sexing it up to meet the demands of the chair of governors so that targets appeared to have been met,” he says. “There’s something convincing about Dennis’s portrayal, even if the situation is absurd.”

Perhaps because teachers feature heavily in programmes aimed at young people, they are often presented as comedy figures. This ranges from the strict Demon Headmaster authority figure to the pushover or the teacher who tries to befriend their pupils like the scruffy Kieron in Skins, played by Ardal O’Hanlon, who also takes a particular liking to Naomi, a pupil.

Ben Walters, writer and critic, says film offers a different kind of stereotype from TV. “There is that strand (of comedy teachers), especially in American high school films,” he says, “but teacher characters are more developed in films such as Dead Poets Society and Dangerous Minds. These tend to be over-egged - they are inspirational and life-changing, helping students overturn their life chances.”

One brutally realistic and unrelenting portrayal of what it’s really like to be a teacher is the fourth season of the cult TV show The Wire. Set in Baltimore, each episode follows the teenage pupils from their troubled home lives to the classroom. As well as giving us an insight into the problems of the education system, we see headteachers having to “juke the stats” for league tables and funding being pulled from a group of academics and education psychologists who are trying to help some of the most problematic kids.

Teaching is not the only profession with reason to resent its on-screen portrayal. The popularity of crime dramas means, if anything, the police are more prone to misrepresentation on screen, while few medical professionals want viewers to think House bears any resemblance to their working life.

But teachers seem to be more protective than others about their fictional image. Actor Graeme Hawley, who plays rogue teacher John Stapes in Coronation Street, says that when Stapes kidnapped a former pupil after their affair ended, teachers approached him in public to complain.

“Teachers are pretty moral. That’s reinforced every day by being around children who are very moralistic. Schools are places of accountability,” says Mr Tarleton.

Speaking out about negative or inaccurate portrayals is part of a broader feeling among teachers that the profession needs to be defended. Inaccurate presentations are not just unconvincing, they do a disservice to our education system, says Brian Lightman, head of St Cyres School near Cardiff and incoming general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

“There are a lot of people who don’t know the detail of what schools are about and can get the impression that they are unruly and badly managed. That is unfair,” he says. “I would like to see some good news stories. We need to talk up our education system - it’s vital for our economy and our identity. Teachers on TV give the wrong impression.”

That aside, TV perceptions of teachers and schools have an influence on pupils, and unfavourable representations can affect their ideas about what teachers “should” look like and behave.

In Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell’s book, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Like a Teacher: Interrogating images and identity in popular culture, the authors interviewed children and found that fictional teachers have a strong impact on them: “So pervasive are teachers in popular culture that if you ask, as we have, schoolchildren and adults to name teachers they remember, not from school but from popular culture, a cast of fictionalised characters emerges that takes on larger-than-life proportions. Each generation has its own icons.”

There are some fictional teachers on TV who manage to do convincing representations of the highs and lows of the job. Glee’s Mr Schuester might be overly sentimental, but is passionate about teaching and helping pupils, while Susan Kennedy from Neighbours manages to be the comforting mother figure as well as coming down hard when necessary.

They might not bear much resemblance to Mr Chips, but the role of a teacher and the demands they face are unrecognisable since his time. Even if irreverent and unrealistic, contemporary portrayals of teachers on TV might at least bring a smile to your face.

Top teacher TV moments

The Inbetweeners

Foul-mouthed and filthy, this show gives us a glimpse into the world of teenage boys that, frankly, sometimes leaves us wishing it hadn’t. The four main characters, whose running banter centres around Will’s mum being fit and Neil’s dad being gay, attend Rudge Park Comprehensive where Mr Gilbert (comedian Greg Davies), is head of sixth form. He takes a dislike to Will from the start, and offers no support to the new boy, leaving him tied to a chair with a wastepaper bin over his head in the common room, saying: “No one likes a snitch.”

What you say: “I like Mr Gilbert and find his blatant unprofessionalism really funny to watch. If only we could also tell the students to ‘piss off’ when we are in a bad mood.” (Sarah Lynn)

Coronation Street

There have been a few teachers in the nation’s favourite soap, which turns 50 this year. John Stape had an affair with teenage Rosie Webster and ended up holding her captive after it ended. But it’s Ken Barlow, played by William Roache, who has become one of the most well-known British teachers on TV. He may be dull and self-righteous, but he has helped out a number of the Street’s children and put up with problem pupils.

What you say: “Ken Barlow is the best advert for the TDA - though a job where you can spend half your day in the cafe looks great!” (Mrs Marrows)

The Wire

Series four of this cult TV drama took the viewer into the world of Baltimore’s schools, as Roland Pryzbylewski, who in previous seasons was an inept and irresponsible police officer, starts work as a math teacher at a state secondary. “Prez” has a class of drug users, dealers and delinquents, but builds relationships with some of his more needy pupils. Ed Burns, one of the writers, worked in the police force for 20 years before becoming a teacher. “When (the pupils) are close, when you can interact with them, they’re wonderful, vibrant humans,” he said. “But collectively, they’re a pain in the ass.”

What you say: “Series four is as close as Hell High gets. The nurture group with the ex-cop, the trained psychiatrist/psychologist and a couple of extra bodies showed what could be done.” (LilyoftheField)

Skins

Much has been made of the fact that young people are part of the writing team, making the show relevant and appealing to its teen viewers. But as a result, teenagers are glamorous party animals, while the adults are portrayed as irrational and two-dimensional and more immature than the young people in their care. The first series saw psychology teacher Angie embark on an affair with Chris, one of her pupils. On one occasion, she enters the classroom to find him proudly showing off hickey marks on his neck and becomes increasingly agitated as pupils read out their presentations on power dynamics in sexual relationships.

What you say: “My biggest impression is that it glorifies drug-taking and casual sex. It raises interesting issues, however, for instance, the Muslim trying to reconcile his beliefs with the way he wants to live like his non-Muslim friends.” (Plymouth Maid)

The Simpsons

Bart and Lisa Simpson attend Springfield Elementary School, where Bart wreaks havoc, tormenting the long-suffering Edna Krabappel, while Lisa is the perfect student. Harassed and disillusioned, Mrs Krabappel chain- smokes her way through the day and passes on sage life advice to her pupils, telling them, “She’s faking it” during a sex education film. After an acrimonious divorce, she will never turn down the opportunity for a romantic encounter, and has an on-off affair with Seymour Skinner, the principal who is full of bravado but lives under the watchful eye of his over-protective mother.

What you say: “The Simpsons series 21 episode two featuring Miss Krabappel is affectionate and knowing, especially at the beginning.” (Marcia Blaine)

Glee

This show is the all-singing, all-dancing darling of E4’s new year schedule, where a group of misfits stand up to the cool kids, asserting their right to sing and dance their way through school. The only aspect of Glee that bears any resemblance to life in a real school is the overriding preoccupation with the budget. But who needs realism in a show where the middle-aged male staff can form a boy band? It couldn’t be further from The Wire, but this all-American series is a welcome flight of fancy.

What you say: “My kids are loving learning (the songs) in choir! Fantastic programme, if a little far fetched! Not really aimed at boys in this country but a big hit with staff and older kids (Year 10 and 11).” (Chris_4456).

  • Comments taken from TES Forums.

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