The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why you’ve never seen a show like ‘Parks and Rec’ — or ‘Silicon Valley’ or ‘Scrubs’ or ‘The Office’ — about teaching

(Illustration by Canva)
Placeholder while article actions load

This is the third of a five-part series on Answer Sheet this week about the stories we tell about teaching. All of them are being written by Roxanna Elden, who combines 11 years of experience as a public school teacher with a decade of speaking about education-related topics.

Her first book, the nonfiction “See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers,” is widely used for teacher training. Her debut novel, “Adequate Yearly Progress,” about a diverse group of educators in an urban high school, is on store shelves in wide distribution beginning this week.

By Roxanna Elden

As a lifelong fan of workplace comedies, I’ve often wished there was a comparable show about teaching. At their best, these shows offer recognizable (if hilariously overblown) characters wrestling with the dilemmas of real-life workplaces. A teaching version of this seems as if it should be a slam dunk: Public schools like the ones in which I spent my career are complex beehives of activity, full of conflicting beliefs and agendas. Teachers’ personal lives affect their professional personas and vice versa. And issues from the wider political landscape play out with immediacy: Race. Class. Science. Football.

And yet . . . nothing.

It’s not that there are no on-screen teachers. There are plenty. But their emotional range is limited: single-adjective secondary characters, idealistic rookies battling their terrible colleagues to save the kids, or characters whose main source of humor is the fact that they are role models acting badly. (The stars of edu-comedies invariably come to work drunk, call kids stupid and act in ways that would get a real-life teacher fired, if not arrested.) But the best workplace comedies do more than just go for the laugh. Shows such as “Parks and Recreation,” “Scrubs,” “The Office,” and “Silicon Valley" balance humor with heart and genuine insight. Even through the absurdity, something about the work world these shows create rings true. Not so much with TV teachers.

Part of the issue might be that, even in real life, the way we talk about teaching is painstakingly scripted. Much of our public narrative, from movies to media stories to teacher training, emphasizes the shiniest members of our profession and the best moments in our colleagues’ classrooms. This makes sense at some level. Who wouldn’t want to learn how to become the best teacher they can possibly be? After all, there are children involved!

A side effect, however, is that educators spend lots of time comparing our unedited footage to other people’s highlight reels. And when we share anything other than our own highlights, we know the basic story arc we’re supposed to follow: Any mistake must lead to a valuable learning experience. There must be a happy ending. Most importantly, there must be some built-in reassurance that no children were harmed in the making of this story.

As an additional safeguard against anyone, ever, picturing us as bad teachers, we tend to swaddle such stories in layers of dampening jargon. On panels or podcasts in which they’re pressed to share classroom regrets, educators might confide something like, “I relied too much on the textbook earlier in my career,” or, “I wasn’t student-centered enough in my questioning.” Even then, they’re quick to reassure the crowd that they’ve since learned to incorporate the unique perspective each student is bringing to the table as an asset rather than a deficit and understand that students in this generation are digital natives, so . . ."

Buried somewhere deep in that confession, perhaps, is an actual, specific memory of a cellphone incident handled badly. We’ll never really know.

Somewhere along the line, we’ve absorbed the belief that soberly repeating positive cliches is the most solid outward sign of caring about kids — and that, on the flip side, only a jaded, child-hating train wreck could find anything funny about what goes on in a classroom. Which is why it feels necessary to say this: It’s possible to be a profoundly mediocre teacher while still spouting upbeat cliches. It’s also possible to see the job in a funny and nuanced way while acting like a professional and caring about students.

With that out of the way, maybe we can acknowledge that even good teachers have scenes that expose us as flawed characters. We’ve lost our tempers and occasionally said things we wished we could grab from the air before they landed. We’ve fallen waaaaayyyy behind on grading papers. But also, we’ve seen signs of success so small and delicate we’re barely sure we’re reading them right. These are the moments that a relatable teacher character, in a recognizable teaching job, could make both funny and meaningful.

In “Adequate Yearly Progress,” I tried to capture teaching in the same way my favorite shows capture other workplaces: from the mundane to the insane, the darkly comic, the understatedly tragic, the really, really irritating. Schools as workplaces have all of these things, and so much more. Now, we just need a show about teachers that doesn’t stick to the script.

Here are the first two installments of this series:

How the media image of the ‘great’ teacher hurts the real-life good teacher

Why movies about rookie super-teachers hurt new teachers most of all