Why Are There So Few Films and TV Programs That Capture the Daily Work and Life of Teachers In and Out of School? (Part 3) by larrycuban
Hollywood and network television have filmed cop shows, lawyer series, and doctor programs again and again over the past half-century. From "Law and Order" and "Dirty Harry" to "The Good Wife" and "The Firm" to "ER" and "Patch Adams," viewers have gotten a sense of how detectives do stakeouts and grill suspects, lawyers do briefs and argue in court, and doctors deal with patients and emergencies. And in the past decade, computers appear regularly in the filmed work these professionals do. These network, Hollywood, and cable procedurals have been (and are) weekly fare for tens of millions of viewers.
Procedurals show how professionals do their work daily--allowing for the ever-present conflicts and resolution within 48 minutes for a network TV program or 90 minutes for a film. They reveal how cops, lawyers, and doctors not only follow step-by-step procedures, often using cell phones and computers in doing their job, but also that their work mixes with family life and friends creating dilemmas that spill over to their private lives. These are staples for U.S. viewers.
The accuracy of these TV programs and films is secondary to their entertainment value. Nonetheless, they do capture key activities of each professional's craft.
What about teachers and teaching? In the previous post, I pointed out that new technologies have yet to "disrupt" public/private organization, governance, and instruction in K-12 schools--as they already have in print journalism. Moreover, there are distinctions that can be made between technologies that help students acquire content and skills (e.g., playlists, software games, personalized platforms) and the actual craft of teaching that requires much face-to-face contact through hour long lessons with varied activities, different groupings of students, and screen time to reach a teacher's content and skill objectives.
But where are the procedurals that capture six hours in schools with children and youth and how being a teacher has its own dramatic moments and dilemmas that spill over families and friends just like cops, lawyers, and doctors?
I ransacked my memory of films and TV shows about teachers and teaching (yes, I used to watch network TV's "Our Miss Brooks in the 1950s," "Room 222" in the 1970s and saw the Hollywood film "Blackboard Jungle in 1955 a few months before I began teaching in Cleveland, Ohio).
Then, I looked up lists of popular TV shows and Hollywood films on teachers such as "Top Twelve Must See Movies." The same names showed up repeatedly on these lists (e.g., "Dead Poets Society," "Lean on Me," "Stand and Deliver," "Mr. Holland's Opus," "Dangerous Minds").
The film genre is heavy on teachers as heroes ("Freedom Writers," "Akeelah and the Bee," "To Sir with Love"), satire (e.g., "Chalk," "Bad Teacher"), and violence (e.g., "The Substitute," "187").
Except for occasional documentaries such as Frederick Wiseman's "High School" (1968), "American Teacher" (2011) and David Guggenheim's "TEACH" (2013), few films and TV programs ever show the complexities and difficulties of the craft, the long hours spent preparing lessons, reading students' work, the tedium, and interactions with students while lessons unfold. How come?
One obvious answer is the nature of film and TV which is an entertainment medium. Conflict, life-and-death decisions, making difficult choices, wreaking or avoiding violence, flawed but lovable protagonists--appeal to audiences. The film, for example, of an engaging elementary school teacher in Harlem who garners the interest of his class but is a cocaine addict ("Half Nelson") is just what the screen demands of this genre.
Audiences would fall asleep if they were to watch how a teacher plans a lesson on the Declaration of Independence or one on polynomials, or a unit on evolution. The hours teachers spend facing a computer screen at home finding sources for students to read and watch on their screens does not make for engaging drama.
Were a TV episode devoted to a teacher managing a class reasonably well, asking stimulating questions, and grading tests, count on audiences snoring. Orchestrating a class's whole-group discussions, small-group work on questions to answer, and independent work on a project hardly captures viewers' emotions. All of that, or even a portion, would leave viewers rolling their eyes , that is, if they were still open. Then at the end of the school day, the teacher leaves school to be alone in an apartment or home with family and friends leaving time set aside to plan the next day's lesson and grade homework.
That kind of TV or Hollywood script, pitched to a producer in a one-minute elevator ride would be laughed at by the producer, much less make it past an editor's eye for audience appeal. Yet such a film or TV program would be describing the daily tasks and activities that teachers and students engage in.
Another answer that may account for the low incidence of quasi-accurate teacher procedurals on screens is that every script writer has been in K-12 schools and knows teachers and the act of teaching well, they believe, because they sat a few feet away from them day in and day out for well over a decade. They think they know the topography of classrooms. Like driving a car gives the person behind the steering wheel no special knowledge of what's under the hood or how driving has become increasingly computerized, being a student for years misses all that goes on before the teacher enters the classroom and the craft of teaching as a lesson unfolds over an hour.
The above reasons for the lack of teacher procedurals is speculation. Viewers might offer other explanations.
A few writers, however, have been teachers and their classroom savvy shows up from time to time. In HBO's fourth year of "The Wire," a former cop becomes a middle school math teacher in a drug-infested Baltimore neighborhood where he had been a member of a police unit working to catch drug dealers. Script writer Ed Burns was a Baltimore cop for 20 years, retired and became a school teacher in the city. He drew from both experiences to write episodes that were fictitious but conveyed a real-life classroom where a teacher was struggling to teach math to students he wanted to connect with and help; he slowly developed his craft through trial and error--to reach some but hardly all of this 8th grade students.
There are very few Ed Burns writing scripts for cable and network programs or Hollywood about the fundamentals of teaching students. I guess that is another reason why there are so few procedurals about teaching.