Perhaps some studios believe stories are ones most primed to become blockbusters and to paint educators as caped crusaders. But as Teacher Appreciation Week draws to a close, it’s worth celebrating more varied stories about teaching that recognize the nuances of the profession.
“The Cosby Show,” made a point of including the Huxtable kids’ teachers during the entire run of the show. Whether they were music instructors played by real-life musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Melba Moore, grand dames like the great Elaine Stritch teaching social graces to middle schoolers or racially ambiguous college professors visiting the Huxtable home to discuss racial identity over dessert and coffee, teachers got a great deal of celebratory attention on the classic sitcom. But no other teacher made a more lasting impression on me than Sonia Braga’s Mrs. Westlake.
Mrs. Westlake was Theo Huxtable’s (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) much-feared high school math teacher. Characters mentioned her name long before the audience had an opportunity to see her on an evening when she joined the Hutxables for dinner. When she did appear, she was gorgeous, relaxed and witty, much to Theo’s confusion. He’d been describing her to his parents — and to viewers — as pinch-faced, humorless and unforgiving. Then came the punch line: while Theo sat next to Mrs. Westlake on the living room couch, unable to look her in the eye, she transformed into her “school self” before our eyes, twisting her flowing hair into a severe bun and placing glasses on the tip her nose.
She delivered Theo’s test to him — one he’d feared that he failed. When he realized he’d passed, Mrs. Westlake explained that she was hardest on underachievers who she believed were capable of excellence. It was a simple moment, but one I credit with furthering my understanding of teachers as multifaceted people with lives outside the classroom and personas they put on when they stepped in front of their students.
A few years later, Jeff Perry’s Mr. Katimski on “My So-Called Life” would do the same. In perhaps one of the most compelling story lines on the short-lived high school drama, Mr. Katimski played English teacher to a regular character, Ricky Vasquez (Wilson Cruz). By the time Katimski showed up, Ricky was homeless, the victim of constant bullying and on the cusp of coming out as gay.
At first, Ricky considered Katimski’s preoccupation with calling him by his full name, “Enrique,” as well as his badgering him to join extracurriculars, to be a nuisance. But soon he realized that the teacher saw something of himself in Ricky and cared deeply about his immediate and long-term fate. A lesser show would’ve played this moment as saccharine or maudlin, but “My So-Called Life” was intentional about also showing us how much Katimski risked, as a closeted gay teacher in the 1990s, when he eventually opened the home he shared with his partner to Ricky and became his temporary guardian. In a 20th anniversary interview for “Cosmopolitan,” Perry not only praised the show’s treatment of his character but also credited his own high school teachers as inspiration for playing it:
I got to channel some of my high school teachers. Gary Sinise and I go the furthest back of the Steppenwolf people; we were both saved from academic mediocrity as sophomores by being cast in West Side Story by this transformationally beautiful teacher named Barbara Patterson. To have a drama teacher as a mentor was just like, “Oh, what a gift.” And then, here, I can try to do a little honoring of what happened to me.
Like everyone else, teachers care about how they’re represented in media, and I wanted to ask a few about their favorite fictional peers.
Jose Vilson, math teacher and author of “This is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education,” said that he hasn’t seen a good depiction of teaching since “Boston Public,” which took as its slogan “Every day is a fight. For respect. For dignity. For sanity.” “Unlike many depictions of teaching, ‘Boston Public’ seemed to cut to the heart of working in a difficult yet hopeful setting,” Vilson wrote in an e-mail to me. “All these feelings arise from time to time, and that seemed to be a critical element of the writing of the show.”
Vilson cited Chi McBride’s Principal Harper as the character he related to most, saying “He made things super-complicated for the viewer, and I’ve learned that that’s exactly what the job entails; a sense of humanity emanated from him.”
Depictions that emphasize teachers’ and students’ humanity are also important to Ernest Johnson, a retired Grand Rapids, Mich., public school teacher who also happens to be my uncle. Johnson taught various K-12 grade levels for over 30 years, but has found many sitcom depictions of the teaching experience tiresome. “‘Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper,’ ‘Welcome Back, Kotter,’ ‘The Steve Harvey’ and ‘Saved by the Bell’ classrooms were way too over the top,” he told me. “The real classroom is much less sensational and more sincere. Teaching is about an ongoing commitment to providing a genuinely predictable and stable environment where academic and social learning can take place. For many of my students, school was the most stable part of their day.”
It’s that stability that is hardest to depict on screen in an authentic way. The 1970s series “Room 222” was great about trying to render teachers’ role in providing structure for students accurately. An episode called “Richie’s Story” is a prime example: the titular student — a straight-A academic — has been lying about his residence in order to attend a school in a better district. His teacher Mr. Dixon discovers his secret and narrowly convinces the guidance counselor and principal to allow him to remain enrolled at their safer, stabler institution.
Not every teaching story is a harrowing one. Though the occasional “rescue from drugs and gangs” narrative can be inspiring, both audiences and teachers alike appreciate seeing different representations. Courage isn’t just staring down a dropout with a knife or gun: it’s going toe to toe with an unyielding administration or tirelessly battling a student’s low expectations for herself.