Why Are There So Few Films and TV Programs That Capture the Daily Work and Life of Teachers In and Out of School? (Part 3)

Hollywood and network television have filmed cop shows, lawyer series, and doctor programs again and again over the past half-century. From “Law and Order” and “Dirty Harry” to “The Good Wife” and “The Firm” to “ER” and “Patch Adams,” viewers have gotten a sense of how detectives do stakeouts and grill suspects, lawyers do briefs and argue in court, and doctors deal with patients and emergencies. And in the past decade, computers appear regularly in the filmed work these professionals do. These network, Hollywood, and cable procedurals  have been (and are) weekly fare for tens of millions of viewers.

Procedurals show how professionals do their work daily–allowing for the ever-present conflicts and resolution within 48 minutes for a network TV program or 90 minutes for a film. They reveal how cops, lawyers, and doctors not only follow step-by-step procedures, often using cell phones and computers in doing their job, but also that their work mixes with family life and friends creating dilemmas that spill over to their private lives. These are staples for U.S. viewers.

The accuracy of these TV programs and films is secondary to their entertainment value. Nonetheless, they do capture key activities of each professional’s craft.

What about teachers and teaching? In the previous post, I pointed out that new technologies have yet to “disrupt” public/private organization, governance, and instruction in K-12 schools–as they already have in print journalism. Moreover, there are distinctions that can be made between technologies that help students acquire content and skills (e.g., playlists, software games, personalized platforms) and the actual craft of teaching that requires much face-to-face contact through hour long lessons with varied activities, different groupings of students, and screen time to reach a teacher’s content and skill objectives.

But where are the procedurals that capture six hours in schools with children and youth and how being a teacher has its own dramatic moments and dilemmas that spill over families and friends just like cops, lawyers, and doctors?

I ransacked my memory of films and TV shows about teachers and teaching (yes, I used to watch network TV’s “Our Miss Brooks in the 1950s,” “Room 222” in the 1970s and saw the Hollywood film “Blackboard Jungle in 1955 a few months before I began teaching in Cleveland, Ohio).

Then, I looked up lists of popular TV shows and Hollywood films on teachers such as   “Top Twelve Must See Movies.” The same names showed up repeatedly on these lists (e.g., “Dead Poets Society,” “Lean on Me,” “Stand and Deliver,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “Dangerous Minds”).

The film genre is heavy on teachers as heroes (“Freedom Writers,” “Akeelah and the Bee,” “To Sir with Love”), satire (e.g.,  “Chalk,” “Bad Teacher”), and violence (e.g., “The Substitute,” “187”).

Except for occasional documentaries such as Frederick Wiseman’s “High School” (1968), “American Teacher” (2011) and David Guggenheim’s “TEACH” (2013), few films and TV programs ever show the complexities and difficulties of the craft, the long hours spent preparing lessons, reading students’ work, the tedium, and interactions with students while lessons unfold. How come?

One obvious answer is the nature of film and TV which is an entertainment medium. Conflict, life-and-death decisions, making difficult choices, wreaking or avoiding violence, flawed but lovable protagonists–appeal to audiences. The film, for example, of an engaging elementary school teacher in Harlem who garners the interest of his class but is a cocaine addict (“Half Nelson”) is just what the screen demands of this genre.

Audiences would fall asleep if they were to watch how a teacher plans a lesson on the Declaration of Independence or one on polynomials, or a unit on evolution. The hours teachers spend facing a computer screen at home finding sources for students to read and watch on their screens does not make for engaging drama.

Were a TV episode devoted to a teacher managing a class reasonably well, asking stimulating questions,  and grading tests, count on audiences snoring. Orchestrating a class’s whole-group discussions, small-group work on questions to answer, and independent work on a project hardly captures viewers’ emotions. All of that, or even a portion, would leave viewers rolling their eyes , that is, if they were still open. Then at the end of the school day, the teacher leaves school to be alone in an apartment or home with family and friends leaving time set aside to plan the next  day’s lesson and grade homework.

That kind of TV  or Hollywood script, pitched to a producer in a one-minute elevator ride would be laughed at by the producer, much less make it past an editor’s eye for audience appeal. Yet such a film or TV program would be describing the daily tasks and activities that teachers and students engage in.

Another answer that may account for the low incidence of quasi-accurate teacher procedurals on screens is that every script writer has been in K-12 schools and knows teachers and the act of teaching well, they believe, because they sat a few feet away from them day in and day out for well over a decade. They think they know the topography of classrooms. Like driving a car gives the person behind the steering wheel no special knowledge of what’s under the hood or how driving has become increasingly computerized, being a student for years misses all that goes on before the teacher enters the classroom and the craft of teaching as a lesson unfolds over an hour.

The above reasons for the lack of teacher procedurals is speculation. Viewers might offer other explanations.

A few writers, however, have been teachers and their classroom savvy shows up from time to time. In HBO’s fourth year of “The Wire,” a former cop becomes a middle school math teacher in a drug-infested Baltimore neighborhood where he had been a member of a police unit working to catch drug dealers. Script writer Ed Burns was a Baltimore cop for 20 years, retired and became a school teacher in the city. He drew from both experiences to write episodes that were fictitious but conveyed a real-life classroom where a teacher was struggling to teach math to students he wanted to connect with and help; he slowly developed his craft through trial and error–to reach some but hardly all of this 8th grade students.

There are very few Ed Burns writing scripts for cable and network programs or Hollywood about the fundamentals of teaching students. I guess that is another reason why there are so few procedurals about teaching.


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21 responses to “Why Are There So Few Films and TV Programs That Capture the Daily Work and Life of Teachers In and Out of School? (Part 3)

  1. jeffreybowen

    Interesting! Usually the daily work of teachers is not dramatically stimulated by conflicts, novelty, extremes of emotion or action. When script writers attempt to do this, I find the results so shallow and charactured that I get disgusted pretty quickly. As John Goodlad so aptly observed, the “procedurals” inside the American classroom have stayed very much the same for decades. However, the life of school as a society or community, or the roles of counselors or even principals, now there lies more latitude for gut-wrenching entertainment. When school reflects broader social issues, and gets outside the classroom, say into school-home dysfunction, athletics, or love interests, then tv ears and eyes perk up.
    CONFLICTS or FARCE seem to rule the roostS
    of video entertainment. The development of intellect and academic pursuits, forget it —unless, perhaps, we’re thinking public television stations, the ones for which Trump proposes defunding!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for comment, Jeffrey. I believe you are correct as to why few procedurals and when Hollywood takes notice of schools.

  2. One long running series in the UK was “Grange Hill”. My kids and I loved it.
    I think it was shown in the eighties and early nineties, and was very popular.
    But maybe accountancy and engineering have the same difficulties.

    • larrycuban

      I did not know about Grange Hill, Howard. Thanks for putting it on my list of teacher programs I will look at.

  3. Yalda T. Uhls

    Love this post! Working now in intersection of hollywood and academia so it speaks to me. Watch 13 reasons why. Some good stuff with teachers there! On Netflix now.

    Yalda T. Uhls, MBA, PhD http://www.yaldatuhls.com 310 526 3316

    May be sent by Siri, please excuse typos


  4. Jesse

    Boston Public?

  5. Laura H. Chapman

    Here is my post and some elaboration by Diane Ravitch on media coverage of teaching. My contribution calls attention to this month’s PBS three-part series called SCHOOL, INC. It is production with roots in the Rosa and Milton Foundation, praise for market-based education. I comment on the timing of this TV series. It strikes me as propoganda for the agenda of Trump/Devos.
    Diane Ravitch’s blog

  6. I agree with you about this. But I wanted to call out a surprising episode of Law & Order–the very last one of the 20 year series. It was called “Rubber Room”, and I thought it would be a simplistic look at bad teachers stuck in New York’s holding category. Instead, it was incredibly nuanced, making it clear that many teachers were wrongly accused. There was a very funny (at least I thought so) exchange (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1644791/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu) in which the union rep was doing his best to protect teachers, while Jack McCoy was furiously trying to get some information. And teachers throughout come off very well.

    It was by no means a complete look at the life of a teacher, but it took on one issue and really showed all sides. Meanwhile, they show that teachers have to deal with a bunch of terrible things in high -poverty schools and are a dedicated bunch.

  7. And I left off the best part, which is the end, because it’d give too much away. But I’d love to see more shows address teaching in this way–just give one aspect of it a fair hearing.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for telling me about “Rubber Room” episode of “Law and Order. I had not seen it and will do so. And Ass’t DA McCoy’s final words.

  8. I’m enjoying the posts on “procedurals” and after 25+years of involvement in ‘digital’ it is something of a relief, now that technology is completely ubiquitous (we used to have papers on what could happen when we reached this nirvana!), to reaffirm a balance where we can once again value the art of teaching and teachers’ ability to integrate and improvise. But lest we get too serious about teachers/students in the movies, don’t forget Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and a more recent BBC comedy series called Big School! http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04g6pq3

    • larrycuban

      One of the delights of doing this series on “procedurals” is the names of programs and films I have not seen. So thank you, Jim, for your comment and mention of Big School.

  9. Larry, Your Part III was excellent. And so are the comments above. What I think needs to happen is that there be a series where the counselors, Secretaries, janitors, various teachers and administrators star together. Show them with their internal conflicts (Are you going to give that Senior who has done no work in your British Lit. class a passing grade so he can graduate.) (The competition among teachers to be the “favorite” “the speaker at graduation” screening members of the honor society, how the librarian has to relate to everyone in the school. The Assistant Principal who is having an affair with the Spanish teacher. The teacher who insists on “high standards” or the tenured teacher the administrators want to “get rid of.” There is drama in any classroom, the disruptive student, the student who refuses to be a part of the class, the ones who never speak up or don’t turn in the required papers in order to pass. Also dealing with parents, grandparents, single mothers, kids working after school in order to be able to afford their new red truck. Showing the multiple worlds of the students and the teachers and administrators, and you’ve got a winning show. I cannot think of a really cool name for this show, but I’d be glad to work on the scripts. All best, Ann

    • larrycuban

      I agree that writers creating shows that reveal the multiple worlds of students, teachers, and administrators would be a distinct improvement on what exists out there now on schools and teaching. Thanks for the comment, Ann.

    • Ann, it’s all in the BBC series ‘Big School’!! I’m not sure if this has been screened in the US, but you might be able to access it on the BBC iPlayer or elsewhere online.

  10. haydenvick


    Thanks a bunch for your thoughts. I am an undergrad student and one of my current classes is on educational representations in film. We had to watch Season 4 of The Wire for a few weeks and so I connected well with what you wrote. I am about to embark on a four-page paper on representations of male teachers vs. female teachers in film, and I am currently deciding which movies/shows to use. Thanks again!

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