Saviors and Burnouts: Rethinking Teachers in Popular Culture

by Elizabeth Marshall

Rethinking Popular Culture and Media

Receive 20% discount during Media Literacy Week, Nov. 7-11. Use code 5BRPCMJ11.

From movies such as Blackboard Jungle and Freedom Writers to televisions shows like Degrassi: The Next Generation and The Wire, teachers and students are regular subjects of film and television.

November 7-11 marks Media Literacy Week in Canada, and it affords educators—Canadian as well as those south of the border—the opportunity to ask the question: What sorts of pop culture stories are told about teachers, and how do these fictional stories matter in the real world?

In our recent book, Rethinking Popular Culture and Media, authors critically engage with numerous representations of teachers in television and film. It is clear that a number of stereotypes about teachers are consistently reproduced in mainstream North American popular culture. What is at stake in popular representations of us as teachers? Let’s begin with a focus on two familiar characters, the “Savior” and the “Burnout.”

The Savior: This character appears in numerous “urban” movies. S/he is usually White and seeks to save students of Color in under-resourced schools. In Rethinking Popular Culture and Media, Chela Delgado analyzes these representations for readers in her piece, “Freedom Writers: White Teacher to the Rescue.” In Freedom Writers and other scripts like it, one teacher saves the students—not through structural change, but through individual pluck. Delgado suggests a different kind of plot. She writes: “I want a teacher movie where there aren’t cardboard heroes and villains, but a genuine analysis of how race and class play out in schools” (p. 226).

The Burnout: This teacher has worked in the schools for too many years. The following clip of the economics teacher from the 1986 movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a good example of the teacher who continues to try, if ineptly, to impart information to disengaged students.

Some might argue that representations of teachers in popular culture are just entertainment; however, these images and storylines all have real life implications. For instance, the consistent use of the savior-teacher-who-saves-students-one-classroom-at-a-time continues the myth of the individual teacher and teacher education as the main problem with schools, rather than structural issues such as poverty. Images of the burnout-teacher, who teaches the same lesson year after year in a coma-inducing tone, and has a “job for life,” like the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller, help sustain the fiction that tenure is the problem with schools (Not Waiting for Superman; Wisconsin). These representations then lay the foundation for films like Waiting for Superman, which have an explicit ideological agenda that is bolstered by both the Savior and the Burnout myth.

All of these representations are caricatures meant to distort, and therefore deflect, the real challenges teachers face. However, as the contributors to Rethinking Popular Culture and Media demonstrate, we can promote alternative representations of teachers that frame educational issues in different and more complex ways. In her chapter, “More Than Just Dance Lessons,” Terry Burant analyzes how the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom raises for educators a number of important questions about teaching that challenges the familiar teacher-as-savior storyline, such as “How can we change the face of teaching to reflect a more diverse nation?” Similarly, in Gregory Michie’s piece “City Teaching, Beyond the Stereotypes,” he points out how a film like Half Nelson complicates teacher-hero movies, and how a documentary such as The First Year moves away from “grand or symbolic gestures” in favor of “steady, purposeful efforts to make the curriculum more meaningful, the classroom community more affirming, and the school more attuned to issues of equity and justice” (p. 233).

Too often educators focus on critiquing children’s popular cultural texts as somehow separate from that of adults when in reality, television and film cross over between audiences and share familiar images and storylines. Educators can and should use Media Literacy Week as an invitation to improve our own digital citizenship, to use technologies to resist and rewrite representations of teachers as saviors and burnouts, as well as any other number of stereotypes, in popular culture and in mainstream media.

Analyzing representations of teachers and teaching is important and necessary work. As the writers in Rethinking Popular Culture and Media suggest, thinking critically about how educators are represented is the first step for repositioning ourselves “from cogs in the machine to social actors intent on resisting and/or rewriting the status quo” (p. 11). In this way, critical media literacy is not just for youth.

Classroom Resource for Analyzing Teacher Stereotypes  

Media Awareness Network, a sponsor of Media Literacy Week, has a unit of study for grades 6-8 entitled “Images of Learning” through which educators and students can undertake a critical media literacy analysis of how teachers and youth are represented in television and film. Readers can access it here.


Elizabeth Marshall, Ph.D. teaches in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver Canada, where she researches children’s and young adult literature and popular culture.  She is co-editor with Özlem Sensoy on Rethinking Popular Culture and Media. Her work has appeared in numerous academic journals, including the Harvard Educational Review, Reading Research Quarterly, Gender & Education, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, and The Lion and The Unicorn.
This post represents the views of the author, and not necessarily those of Rethinking Schools.

10 thoughts on “Saviors and Burnouts: Rethinking Teachers in Popular Culture

  1. It is time to try what the Scandinavian countries are doing in regards to the teaching of reading in the primary grades. Scandinavians place more importance on developing appropriate socialization skills through creative play. In Scandinavian schools, the teaching of reading skills starts at the second grade. American schools place reading standards on children starting in kindergarten. (Some kindergarten classes have enrollments at 30 with no classroom aide in Fresno CA.) Most kindergarteners aren’t ready to focus on learning reading skills.

  2. Perhaps this rethinking is, in fact, overthinking teachers in popular culture, a bit?

    Although Professor Marshall bemoans the “stereotypes about teachers…consistently reproduced in mainstream North American popular culture,” her short article in fact refers to stories from film and television that represent a wide range of teachers, with complicated–not caricatured–intentions and motivations. The Wire, for instance, focuses its season on education around the difficulties of the well-intentioned, but by no means “savior” teacher Roland Pryzbylewski, who learns more about the problem of community violence as a teacher than he ever did as a police officer, and on the academic researchers at Johns Hopkins who don’t know the first thing about the students they are well-financed to “study.” Anyone who cares about education should watch the fourth season of The Wire (and all the rest, while they’re at it). And Half Nelson does more than just “complicate teacher-hero movies”–whatever that means–it completely subverts them. The white teacher from a wealthy liberal family has heroic intentions, but battles with drug addiction and the overwhelming demands of school and life in Brooklyn. One of his black students, growing up in a much more troubled situation than he did, is the hero and the true teacher in the movie.

    Even within the savior teacher archetype, “white teacher to the rescue” is not necessarily the overriding theme. What about Jaime Escalante, a Bolivian immigrant–and a real person–in Stand and Deliver? Or Melvin Tolson, a black professor, writer, and political organizer–also a real person–in The Great Debaters? Cherry-picking Ben Stein’s obviously and intentionally caricatured persona in the beloved comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to make a broad point about popular culture messages is what we call in rhetoric “setting up a straw man,” not critically engaging media. Everything about Ferris Bueller is caricatured! What about the deep literacy skill of identifying genre tropes, and reflecting on them accordingly? The representations of screwball comedies and serious dramas should not be evaluated with the same standards.

    What’s more, there are true saviors and burnouts–these aren’t simply stereotypes. Is it wrong for white teachers to serve classes of non-white students at schools in poor neighborhoods, and to do their best to be transformative teachers? Should I tell my friends who do so that they are racist? Should there be NO cultural representations of these real people?

    I am in sympathy with the general motivation of this article, but I believe it does a disservice to the cause. To paint popular culture in broad strokes based on narrow examples, and to not give at least equal time celebrating the numerous complex and interesting counterexamples to the thesis of cultural stereotyping, ironically and unwittingly reinforces these stereotypes. It quite literally “reproduces” them. Granted, there is a paragraph in this article that breezes over Mad Hot Ballroom, Half Nelson, and The First Year, but it seems to do so as an aside–or as a plug for the book–before getting back on message about stereotyping, as if these examples hardly mattered to the overall theme. Apparently, to get a deeper look at these interesting films, we have to go buy the book? If Chela Delgado wants “a teacher movie where there aren’t cardboard heroes and villains, but a genuine analysis of how race and class play out in schools,” she can find them. Sadly, this article doesn’t do much to encourage her to look.

    A powerful element to building “literacy” in all its forms is helping people find what they’ll find truly worth reading. Degrassi ain’t it.

  3. While Freedom Writers was a product of Hollywood, it is worth pointing out the story wasn’t invented via script. Erin is real. Though plucky, a depiction of her as the above, is painting a little broadly. Truly amazing and successful students came out of her classes. They aren’t actors.

  4. I appreciate both Elizabeth’s and Mat’s comments, and I’m not sure they are contradictory. Whenever I catch a TV show that my own kids are watching that includes a teacher, it is a stereotypical image – of the grouchy teacher who is overly strict, the “cool” teacher that is the one person that a student can relate to. I am concerned with these images that don’t reflect my life as a teacher. I also agree with Elizabeth that more attention should be given to socio-economic realities that are more complex than focusing on what one person can do.

    On the other hand, Mat’s comments are worthy of thought as well and I appreciate the specific counterexamples he raises. I’m glad to see some depictions of teachers are thoughtful, and of course the intent of the article is not to discourage the real “saviors” that are making a difference. However, as a teacher who looks for the best in what I see, I wouldn’t assume without evidence that Elizabeth’s motivation is for us to buy her book. I appreciate the questions she raises about stereotypes.

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