I attended a talk last night by Mary Dalton, the author of ‘From Heroes to Hacks: The Disturbing Rise of Bad Teachers on Television’. I learned some things.
Understanding the subtexts of programs we watch on television, helps to explain how the attack on public education gained credibility. Professor Dalton briefly described the shifts in decades from the 50s to the present in the focus of television sitcoms:
1950s…’Our Miss Brooks’ was the beloved, caring, ethical, and yes, white female teacher.
1960s…almost an utopian view of achieving racial and social equality
1970s…a classless society e.g. The Paper Chase
1980s…meritocracy where anyone can succeed
1990s…Teachers are real people with complicated lives of their own e.g. Hangin with Mr. Cooper who was gay.
Then, at the turn of the century, changes in educational policy were reflected in a serious downward spiral in how teachers and schools were depicted. This, Professor Dalton believes was not accidental. Season 4 of ‘The Wire’ was one example. The teacher was a failed policeman who became a good teacher but was underpaid and worked in an overwhelming environment. His experience in the classroom reflected social and political issues in a drug infested culture. ‘Mike and Molly’ was an even more stark and dark characterization of a teacher who exhibited over the top behavior and was fraught with problems.
These media depictions were inculcated in how the general public viewed public education….not their children’s schools but those other schools out there.
Questions from the audience probed how bad vs good teachers are now defined. Dalton responded with examples from the programs ‘Insecure’ and ‘Speechless’. A good teacher is caring and often depicted as a person of color who is an outsider, not an experienced teacher. Principals are depicted as bureaucratic.
In her response to a question about hope for a change in public perception to one that is more balanced and less stereotypical, Professor Dalton suggested that these trends shifted like a pendulum. As the mass of bad characterizations increase, their validity becomes questionable, and the public begins to push back.
I asked if there was any evidence that the return to normalcy was beginning and cited the film ‘Passion to Teach‘ that was recently released. The only cracks in the armor, however, seem to be in the depiction of non-profit charter schools as ‘good charter’ and those other profit seekers as ‘bad’ charters. At least charters are no longer uniformly good and public schools uniformly bad. The needed critical mass of outrageous assertions and depictions has not accumulated, but perhaps there is hope. We need a relentless drum beat.
Kuddos to the two University of Florida graduate students who organized this symposium. You can read their article in today’s Gainesville Sun here.