Let such teach others who themselves excel (Pope: 'Essay on criticism' (1711) 1.15)
What is our view of a good teacher? Do we find him or her in classrooms, in lesson plans, in government documentation or Ofsted reports? Could a good teacher be the person sitting next to you or the one staring out of the mirror? As English, drama and media teachers, we regularly address notions of representation and of dramatic licence; we willingly encourage pupils and students to suspend their disbelief. Popular culture offers us an intriguing challenge, therefore, when it presents teachers as textual constructs, especially since it is often English teachers, particularly of literature, who strive in popular cultural classrooms to educate and illuminate the young people before them. So can popular culture reveal anything about what we do as teachers or who we are as professionals? The following article looks at popular culture and education. It focuses on film and examines representations of three English teachers and a teacher of art history that challenge expectations. It also explores how those representations might inform or conflict with professional discourse about teaching and analyses the notions of 'goodness' often associated with teaching that are deeply embedded in western mythology.
Images of teachers
Teachers are traditionally associated with dedication and decency. Joseph's (2001) review of early twentieth century images of teachers describes how Avent (1931) claimed:
The excellent teacher is forgetful of self. He thinks of others' comfort first. He is willing to labour on, spend, and be spent, even to be forgotten for the sake of others.
(Joseph, 2001, p.136)
Teaching is seen as altruistic, offering, according to Averill (1939), 'a way of life comparable with the way of the preacher or prophet.' (Joseph, 2001, p.137).
Vocation, dedication, commitment are all words that litter the semantic field of teaching, and teachers have the potential to be heroes or saints because they deal in aspiration and ideals. In contemporary western society, people have hopes for their children, and children hopes for their future. Education, as a route to achievement and success, situates hope, at least for a time, in the hands of teachers. Heroes and saints may not explicitly be part of everyday life, but hope is, and so are teachers. However, while this reinforces the value of teaching, it is also its blight because where there is hope, inevitably, there is disillusion. In 1998, there was a recruitment campaign with the by-line: 'Everyone remembers a good teacher'. Many did, but they also remembered bad teachers, those whom they felt were oppressive or that made derogatory or critical remarks. So, as a teacher, chances are, if you're not forgotten, you will have been constructed either as a hero or a villain by your former pupils and students.
The oppositional nature of schools and colleges is multifaceted, and it involves not just teachers and students but also teachers and parents; teachers and managers/governors; teachers and local authority/government agencies etc. In this binary world, goodies and baddies, heroes and villains, saints and devils are defined and flourish. Almost everyone has been to school and has opinions about education. Schools provide an arena where teachers, outnumbered on contested ground, seek to colonise students' intellectual, social and emotional space, and popular culture, ever alert to dramatic tension, is attracted to this potential for confrontation and dilemma. Henry Giroux argues the case for a study of popular culture in relation to schooling through 'a pedagogy of representations' which examines the interdependency of education and culture:
Culture is the medium through which children fashion their individual and collective identities and learn in part how to narrate themselves in relation to others.
(Giroux, 2002, pp. …