Who's your top fictional teacher?

25th July 2014 at 01:00
Whether maverick or maternal, tyrant or soft touch, these characters are a mainstay of popular culture, writes Sarah Cunnane. But how does their portrayal reflect on the profession? We asked you to vote for your favourites

Before you start reading this, grab a piece of paper - preferably a blank one, rather than something covered in a child's work. Now draw a teacher.

What have you ended up with? A self-portrait? An unflattering caricature of a colleague? Or maybe you have turned to one of the dozens of teachers portrayed in popular culture for inspiration.

This exercise is one that Beth Marshall, associate professor of education at Simon Fraser University in Canada, gives her trainee teachers to do each year. "There's usually one mad scientist thrown in there - but the rest, it's striking how childlike they make these women, with braids, or overalls and cardigans, with pearls and sensible shoes on," she says. "By the time teachers come into study programmes, they've already been schooled in what it means to be a teacher and, in large part, that comes from popular culture."

With that in mind, we polled more than 1,200 educators to curate a list of teachers' favourite fictional teachers. There were some ground rules for the long list: teachers had to be in a classroom, so peripatetic teachers were out - sorry, Mr Miyagi and Yoda. And, after a long discussion, the controversial decision was taken to allow those without qualified teacher status to join the list, hence the inclusion of "teachers" such as Kindergarten Cop's John Kimble and Dewey Finn from School of Rock.

The result is an eclectic list (see page 24) that spans the decades across literature, film and TV. As you can see, the top 10 is dominated by teachers from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the place of learning, of course, for one Harry Potter.

Philip Nel, distinguished professor of English at Kansas State University in the US and a Harry Potter expert, credits the success of Professors Dumbledore, McGonagall and Snape in the list not only because of the series' phenomenal popularity but also because of J K Rowling's innate understanding of the teaching profession. Before finding fame through her writing, Rowling spent time teaching English in Portugal and undertook a teacher training course at the University of Edinburgh.

It's a muggle's game

"In many ways, Rowling uses her books to highlight what does and doesn't work in the classroom," Nel says. "Each time you're looking at a teacher in the Harry Potter books, you're also looking at Rowling's sense of what teaching is, and what good and bad teaching looks like.

"I think the realism of the series is what contributes to its success, more so than the fantasy. Her ability to render an educational landscape realistically makes Hogwarts work and makes people attached to the books. We don't get attached to the magic; we get attached to the people."

However, it is not just the world of wizards, witches and muggles where something interesting is to be learned about what a good - or bad - teacher looks like.

"Think of all the different modes that these stories have gone through," Marshall says. "Mr Chips, for example, starts as a periodical in the Atlantic, then it becomes a film - three films, in fact. There's a certain durability and it frames what a teacher is or what a teacher can be."

Nel agrees: "It speaks to the prevalence of state-sponsored education. All of us pass through school at a very impressionable age, so these ideas about teachers get imprinted upon us and enter our creative imagination."

Despite this, some teachers find it hard to recognise the profession in what's portrayed in popular culture. Tom Bennett, TESS behaviour expert and head of RE at Raine's Foundation School in London, says that, "given the job is mostly routines, procedure and administration", teaching is not very accurately reflected in fiction. "It's nice when they stand on their desks and shout Walt Whitman poetry at you; I couldn't vouch for their GCSE progress," he adds.

Marshall counters with the idea that teachers who don't follow the accepted norms for teacher behaviour are the very ones that inspire. "Schooling is mostly learning about how to follow rules, and a lot of these teachers that we love break those rules: Mr Keating in Dead Poets Society, Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act II. These teachers who break the rules, who ask us to do something extraordinary within a school setting, they stick with us."

As for realism, Nel argues that the changing landscape of education has altered the sorts of teachers that can flourish. "There's more room for mavericks in independent schools," he says. "In the US, we've largely abandoned the idea of education in favour of testing, so there's not a whole lot more room for students to learn anything. Private schools, sadly, are the one place where you can have teachers who are willing to experiment a bit, push the boundaries, engage students in ways that are unconventional and, hopefully, effective."

Even with the inspiration and maverick characters, Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, feels that the "joy and humour" of school life is quite often missing from fictional portrayals. "The one exception is perhaps in the film Gregory's Girl, where the lone child dressed as a penguin reminds us of the wonderful quirkiness of school. Even in our grimmest moments, schools are usually optimistic, funny places - at least once our classroom door is closed."

Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim and Paul Pennyfeather in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall are cited by Bernard Trafford, headteacher of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, as the closest that fictional teachers get to the real thing. "They're truer to life, so hopelessly, charmingly, hilariously useless - like all of us after (or during) that really bad lesson."

With teachers featuring so heavily in popular culture, particularly in literature, could it be that many are unconsciously drawn to the profession by their childhood memories of fictional teachers? Nel doesn't go that far, but he does believe that fictional characters may influence us in ways we may not realise.

"Children's literature reaches us as we're still figuring out who we want to become and so, in many ways, these are the most important books that we read because they shape our minds and ourselves. That's not necessarily an indicator of the profession you're going to choose, but it's undoubtedly the case that literature has a lasting influence on your life in ways that you might not necessarily be aware of."

Great debate

For Marshall, the portrayal of teachers in popular culture should not be what teachers base their self-image on, but instead used for thinking about wider issues within education.

"There's a lot of debate about education that happens through these films: book learning versus experiential learning, child-centred versus teacher-directed, and so on. If we were able to figure out how those play out in everyday life for teachers in schools, that's a small thing, but it's important to get teachers thinking critically about that."

Marshall mentions the portrayal of women teachers as an area of interest. "Fictional teachers fall into certain categories and, in the case of the women, there's a dichotomy between the monster teachers and the mother teachers. This is really significant because the contribution of teachers often gets downgraded. There's this association with teachers, particularly in early grades, being nurturing, mothering. If you're not like that, you're this other sort of teacher, a monster. In fact, in Matilda, the difference between Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey is a perfect example of that sort of dichotomy. In real life, obviously, it's more complicated than that, but it keeps coming up in popular culture in ways that make it significant for us."

Meanwhile, male teachers are over-represented in the list, accounting for half the spots - a gender divide that, as a quick glance around most staffrooms will confirm, does not tally with the reality of the profession.

Marshall puts this down to several factors. First, the idea of men as comic foils, seen in such portrayals as Arnold Schwarzenegger's in Kindergarten Cop. "It's supposed to be comic because we're not used to seeing men in this situation," Marshall says. "There's an idea about masculinity that men can't do these types of job, and if they do they're going to do it in certain ways."

Second, the portrayal of what Marshall calls the "child-man teacher person", who students help out or redeem - think Alfie Wickers in Bad Education. Marshall explains that, in those instances, it is the pupils that provide the relatability: "You can't understate the relationship between what the kids are doing for the teacher and how childhood is embedded in this, a nostalgia for freedom and playtime."

Third, there is a societal bias that men are considered to be more "intellectual" than women, and would therefore make recognisable "scholars who are avuncular, who intellectually challenge kids". For Marshall, the most interesting examples of this on the list are Mr Chips and Breaking Bad's Walter White. "You might not put them together, but they're both passionate and rigorous about their topic. Even when Walter White is teaching Jesse about how to make the best drugs, he's very precise about how this is going to happen."

Ultimately, for all the entertainment that the 50 teachers on our list have brought us, they are fleeting, not-quite-fully-formed characters who might not make it in the non-fiction world of paperwork, inspections and curriculums. However, if you're looking for a well-drawn, rounded character for teaching inspiration, we guess you won't have to look too far. And we're not talking about that hastily scribbled portrait on your desk.

Top 50 fictional teachers, as voted for by you

Name Rank

Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter series) 1

Miss Honey (Matilda) 2

Minerva McGonagall (Harry Potter series) 3

Mr Keating (Dead Poets Society) 4

Charles Xavier (X Men series) 5

Jean Brodie (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) 6

Severus Snape (Harry Potter series) 7

Mr Chips (Goodbye, Mr Chips) 8

Mr Gilbert (The Inbetweeners) 9

Walter White (Breaking Bad) 10

Dolores van Cartier (Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit) 11

Dewey Finn (School of Rock) 12

Anne Shirley (Anne of Avonlea) 13

Hector (The History Boys) 14

Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre) 15

Alfie Wickers (Bad Education) 16

Simon Casey (Teachers) 17

Jess Day (New Girl) 18

Camilla Fritton (St Trinian's series) 19

Miss Trunchbull (Matilda) 20

Mark Thackeray (To Sir, With Love) 21

Sue Sylvester (Glee) 22

Mr Schuester (Glee) 23

Mrs McClusky (Grange Hill) 24

Merlin (The Sword in the Stone) 25=

Name Rank

Pete Brockman (Outnumbered) 25=

Grantly Budgen (Waterloo Road) 27

John Kimble (Kindergarten Cop) 28

Miss Cackle (The Worst Witch) 29

Ms Norbury (Mean Girls) 30

Jo March Bhaer (Little Men) 31

Glenn Holland (Mr Holland's Opus) 32=

Lily Aldrin (How I Met Your Mother) 32=

Miss Grayling (Malory Towers series) 32=

Mrs Krabappel (The Simpsons) 32=

Susan Kennedy (Neighbours) 36

Madge Bettany (Chalet School series) 37=

Ms Frizzle (Magic School Bus series) 37=

Elizabeth Halsey (Bad Teacher) 39

Mr Belding (Saved by the Bell) 40

Cam Tucker (Modern Family) 41=

Mr Garrison (South Park) 41=

Mr Bronson (Grange Hill) 43

Roland Pryzbylewski (The Wire) 44

Mr Sugden (Kes) 45

Economics Teacher (Ferris Bueller's Day Off) 46

Lydia Grant (Fame) 47

Miss Stacy (Anne of Green Gables) 48

Demon Headmaster (The Demon Headmaster) 49

Bill (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) 50

Why `flawed' Dumbledore is the epitome of a good teacher

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is, as Harry Potter expert Philip Nel puts it, "a somewhat unusual pedagogical situation". However, the characters within that world still manage to portray a realistic view of what teaching is - presumably they fill in their paperwork behind closed doors while Harry's facing his latest peril.

For Nel, Albus Dumbledore, who topped our poll, comes close to the epitome of what a good teacher should be. "He's a flawed human being, but as a teacher, Rowling clearly shows him as one of the best. He's one of the teachers who both knows his subject and is very hands-on with his teaching, which Rowling definitely likes. He's fair and he makes people learn by doing things."

Nel contrasts Dumbledore with Severus Snape, who is seventh on our list, as an example of how qualifications do not necessarily translate into good teaching.

"Snape knows his stuff, he's definitely qualified, but he's a terrible teacher," he says. "You never see Dumbledore outwardly slight another student or colleague; he is unfailingly polite, even to those people who may not be his favourite. Witness his conversation just before his death with Malfoy, who really is a bad egg. He is trying to help him and shows compassion to a student who has been trying to kill him all year. It's hard to imagine Snape responding similarly."

And if Harry Potter is ever looking for a second career, Nel believes that he could make a good go of things in the teaching profession.

"Harry's actually a very good teacher, too, when he's running the secret Defence Against the Dark Arts classes. He has them practising spells and they learn and they get better. He's someone who, after seeing that, I wondered whether he'd become a teacher himself. He doesn't, but you can see Rowling testing him out for the job there."

However, Nel doubts whether Dumbledore - pre-death, obviously - would have been able to make a go of things in any other school. "I'd like to think Dumbledore would be able to be a headteacher in a regular school, but he's a leader in the same mould as Thomas Arnold and Tom Brown's School Days - he's the headmaster who realises that what students learn outside of the classroom is as important as what they learn inside the classroom," Nel adds.

"Being able to manage that experience requires something of a closed system; it requires a boarding school or a private school. It's harder to maintain at a comprehensive because you wouldn't have that level of control over the environment. So, really, a Dumbledore would only be possible at a private school.

"I like his philosophy and emphasis on learning to become a full person and how that's more than going to class or doing homework - although that's part of it, of course. He's open to creating a space for students to make their own mistakes and learn from those mistakes."

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