Wake Forest professor explores 60 years of teachers on television
September 12, 2008
From “Welcome Back, Kotter,” to “Boston Public,” teachers have held prominent places in prime-time TV shows.
Mary Dalton, associate professor of communication at Wake Forest University, explores how teachers have been portrayed on American television in her new book, “Teacher TV: Sixty Years of Teachers on Television (Peter Lang, 2008),” co-authored by Laura Linder.
From the earliest sitcoms to contemporary dramas and comedies, Dalton and Linder cover six decades of television teachers. They examine such memorable characters as “Mr. Peepers,” the inept but lovable 1950s science teacher; Professor Kingsfield, who terrorized law students in the 1970s show “The Paper Chase” and Richard Katimski, TV’s first gay teacher shown in the classroom on the 1990s teen drama “My So-Called Life.”
For the book, the authors viewed hundreds of shows.
They relate some of the most popular programs to larger cultural issues ranging from racial tensions, to gender, to social class.
Sometimes TV has gotten ahead of social reality, Dalton says. For example, in the late 1960s, the country was struggling with racial integration when Bill Cosby played a physical education teacher in a perfectly integrated school on “The Bill Cosby Show.” “Fame” and “Room 222” also presented rosy pictures of school integration.
"The Wire” and “Boston Public” are two examples of how television has come to deal with racial identity and schooling in more realistic ways. “’The Wire’ brilliantly integrates education policy issues with entertainment in an episode involving a teacher in a Baltimore middle school,” she says.
Surprisingly, TV shows have been more progressive than films in presenting teachers in compelling, complex, positive roles, says Dalton, who is also the author of “The Hollywood Curriculum: Teachers in the Movies.”
She gives an example based on gender. “Typically, in movies, male teachers can actually have lives outside the classroom, while female teachers must be completely devoted to their students. TV has helped break that double standard.”
Dalton and Linder devoted the final chapter to larger issues related to the depiction of students, administrators and schools by examining race and poverty, the culture of testing and dropping out.
“TV frames our expectations about real teachers,” Dalton said. “Because we encounter so many teachers on television as well as film, that is where we get ideas about what constitutes good and bad teachers.”