Teachers Represented in Film

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Popular film and media have become prominent sources of influence over contemporary society. Mitchell & Weber (1999) suggests that this is because “the knowledge and images that are embedded in popular culture might be taken as common ground” (p. 164). The representation of teachers in filmic bodies has generated clichés and stereotypes of ‘larger than life teachers’ that have had irrefutable influence on how the ‘everyday teacher’ is viewed by society and how the practice has been shaped. In Weber and Mitchell’s (1999) book Reinventing ourselves as teachers, the complex relationship between fictitious and real teachers is explored and analysed. In particular they emphasise the importance of close readings of popular texts in assisting teachers and pre-service teachers to fully understand their professional practice. This essay will examine the 1978 film ‘The Getting of Wisdom’, a literary adaptation that contains popular representations of teachers (Beresford, 1978).

Film has played a major role in the development of teacher stereotypes, and in particular, the stereotype of a teacher as a ‘charismatic’ and ‘inspiring hero’ (Mitchell & Weber, 1999, chap. 5). The image of ‘teacher’ has become a cumulative cultural text, where the clichés of teachers have become intergenerational, multidimensional and inter-textual. In other words, there are multiple texts that represent identical stereotypes that have become so powerful it is valued in consecutive generations. Whilst these stereotypes are highly romanticised and dramatised, they “give members of society a common frame of reference and a shared pool of expressive images to use” (Mitchell & Weber, 1999, p. 169). It is this common mindset that the complex relationship between fictional and real life teachers is created, because society begins to have an opinion on how teachers should behave and hence teachers become increasingly shaped by the popular. The argument suggests that ‘real’ teachers are directly impacted by the ‘popular’ because the representation of teachers on screen has formed stereotypical clichés with presence, longevity and power (Mitchell & Weber, 1999, pp. 166-7).

Mitchell and Weber (1999, chap 5) argue that the power of ‘reel’ teacher images has placed a social spotlight on teacher’s private teaching selves and therefore facilitates a pressure on teachers in how to structure themselves in light of society. Some teachers may discard ‘reel’ representations of teachers as invalid and impossible, however films about teachers have been ‘filtered’ from the ‘real’ experiences of their composers, and hence hold an element of truth (Mitchell & Weber, 1999, p. 172). Instead, teachers should use these popular teacher images to guide their professional growth (Scanlon 2008; Mitchell & Weber, 1999, p. 168-172). Close readings of texts can reveal important messages about teaching and therefore the images presented in popular culture should be critiqued in order to articulate ideas and beliefs. Popular texts are particularly good for a self study because “it is easier to be critical of a fictitious teacher than we could otherwise be of ourselves or our colleagues” (Mitchell & Weber, 1999, p. 164). Flaws and strengths can be probed in a fictitious character, which provides a beginning platform for honest re-evaluation and reinvention of a teachers own identity, practice and beliefs.

Whilst popular culture can be quite useful for teachers, Weber and Mitchell do not ignore the unrealistic nature of fictitious teachers (1999, p. 181). Film can be damaging for a teachers self evaluation because images particular those of ‘heroism’ provide unrealistic expectations and “encourage teacher fantasy at the expense of reality” (Mitchell & Weber, 1999, p. 181). These ‘heroic’ teachers depicted in film often work outside the curriculum, defy school rules and become ‘saviours’ in their student lives with a love experienced between teacher and...
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