I know that students decided to become teachers for reasons other than money, and they didn’t begin their working life expecting the other negatives. They must have been inspired by something, maybe a teacher who took a personal interest in them or who assisted them in learning despite challenges. Maybe it was attraction to the perk teachers enjoy of having the summers off.
I can say one thing for sure. Teachers were rarely “made” because of Hollywood; film and television producers have done little in recent years to portray teaching in an honest and positive light. They’ve certainly done a lot for the images of law enforcement, crime scene investigation, and medicine, but not K-12 education.
If you are in your 30s or 40s, what movies and TV shows about teachers come to mind?
Welcome Back Kotter (1975-79) was hilarious. Having grown up in New Jersey, I admit that I’m a huge fan because the show made fun of Brooklyn. But my Hebrew school friends imitated the “Sweathogs,” the remedial rowdies in Kotter’s class. Even the nerdy girls dreamed of being with Vinnie Barbarino, Freddie “Boom-Boom” Washington, and Juan Epstein, the Puerto Rican Jew, while the guys shot their hands up, shouting “Ooh! Ooh!” like Arnold Horshack. Like the Sweathogs, my classmates wanted to annoy and bury the teachers, not praise them.
Boston Public (2000-2004) was created by David E. Kelley, who also brought us LA Law, Boston Legal, The Practice, Doogie Howser M.D., and Picket Fences. The latter featured Fyvush Finkle as a doddering attorney. Thanks to Kelley, he later plays Harvey Lipshultz, an aging, widowed social studies teacher. Harvey was not exactly a role model for someone starting a teaching career. Chi McBride played Steven Harper, the fair-minded principal, to near perfection, though I could not say the same for his vice principals: Scott Guber (played by Anthony Heald), the authoritarian dork Ronni Cooke (played by Jeri Ryan, of Borg collective fame in Star Trek Voyager), a lawyer-turned-teacher who directs the school to teach to standardized tests. They were not exactly role models for teachers who aspired to become principals.
Then there are movies such as: The Blackboard Jungle (1955), To Sir, with Love (1967), Class of 1984 (1982), The Principal (1987), Stand and Deliver (1988), Lean on Me and Dead Poets Society (both 1989), Class of 1999 (1990), Dangerous Minds (1995), The Substitute (1996), One Eight Seven (1997), and Freedom Writers (2007). They all revolve around the same theme: an idealistic young teacher struggles to reach their students and unsuccessfully navigates the educational bureaucracy in an urban public school, before stumbling on their own success formula. The ending to any of the movies is the same: the teachers are popular, even loved, and with their students behind them, they teach on.
But that’s not real life; that’s the entertainment ‘biz.
Would a serious television drama that better depicts teachers in real life actually succeed? Could it inspire young people to become teachers?
In other words, what if we brought back Room 222 in re-runs or updated it for today?
Room 222 aired on ABC from September 17, 1969 to January 11, 1974 for 112 episodes. It was centered around an American History class at Walt Whitman High School in Los Angeles, taught by Pete Dixon (Lloyd Haynes), an African-American teacher. Other characters featured in the show were guidance counselor Liz McIntyre (Denise Nicholas) who was also Pete's girlfriend; the principal, Seymour Kaufman (Michael Constantine); and Alice Johnson (Karen Valentine) as a student teacher. In addition, recurring students were featured from episode to episode.
Pete Dixon, the main character, was not much different from the idealistic teachers in the movies, though Haynes’ acting made him far more believable. While I remember Karen Valentine’s character as being somewhat ditzy, the others appeared genuine and not ridiculously overconfident. They talked amongst each other about how to improve their teaching and best act in loco parentus, without trying too hard to be mom or dad to their students.
Like the movies, Room 222 tried to address contemporary political issues of the 1960s and 70s such as homosexuality, war, race relations, and woman’s rights. The show boiled a lot of content into half an hour. Boston Public needed an hour to deal with three similar themes in a single episode.
Unlike the movies, the teachers didn’t always conjure heroics, and the students were not always cheering at the end. There were tragedies: the ex-Marine who couldn’t play high school baseball after coming home from Vietnam, for example, or more sadly, a bright and promising senior who dies of leukemia. The teachers and the principal showed their warts. Seymour Kaufman was the type of principal that any teacher would like to have for a boss. He was the Sherman Potter (of M*A*S*H fame) of high school principals, minus the Midwestern witticisms.
Did Room 222 succeed?
It almost didn’t: weak early ratings almost led ABC to pull the show after the first season, but Room 222 ended up winning the Emmy for Best New Series at season’s end. Room 222 was nominated for seven Emmy awards and seven Golden Globes between 1970 and 1971.
More amusing, Lloyd Haynes and Karen Valentine won TV Land Awards as Teacher of the Year and Classic TV Teacher of the Year — thirty years after Room 222 went off the air!
ABC launched Room 222 in the same year as The Brady Bunch. Their final episodes concluded only two months apart. Yet, while we fondly remember the Bradys through numerous spin-offs and regular re-runs, we do not find Room 222 episodes in syndication today. I guess that comedies are more marketable on the re-run stations during prime time.
Would Room 222 succeed today, in a similar format? I’m not sure. Room 222’s story lines showed open discussion and problem solving; the teachers rarely complained about the task of teaching. None of them kvetched about the low pay or the students they taught. Teachers, like the crusty Mr. Dragan (Ivor Francis) who had traditional teaching styles, were frequently portrayed as jaded. Today, the most fervent advocates of No Child Left Behind would laud them as teachers and scholars.
A Room 222 for the 2000s would have its share of hits and misses in political correctness. There may be too much competition for a major network to take the risk. These days, you’re more likely to see a well-developed show covering the themes in Room 222 on HBO and their cable kin. They’re more comfortable with serious, controversial programming, such as Mad Men, Big Love and The Sopranos.
Maybe the reason we don’t have a teacher’s docudrama is that parents don’t want to hear teachers complain about a tough day at work, after they’ve had their own bad days at work. Parents do not usually have sympathy for teachers; otherwise, they’d always support school budget proposals.
It’s also possible that parents do not want their children to know that their teachers work for a living — and that teachers consider teaching a job, as opposed to a calling.
That’s a natural, but over-protective, impulse.
Parents don’t want their kids to grow up to be Sweathogs.
About the Author
Stuart Nachbar operates EducatedQuest.com, a blog on education politics, policy, and technology. He has been involved with education politics, policy, and technology as a student, urban planner, government affairs manager, software executive, and now as a writer. His first novel, The Sex Ed Chronicles, about sex education and school politics in 1980 New Jersey, earned a coveted “Publishers Choice” selection from iUniverse.