'Bad Teacher,' the Answer to Sappy, Useless Good-Teacher Flicks

By Eleanor Barkhorn

Finally, a film that takes down the destructive myth of the hero instructor

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Sony Pictures


Warning: This post contains spoilers about the ending of Bad Teacher

Bad Teacher lives up to its name. Throughout the 90-minute film, seventh grade teacher Elizabeth Halsey (played by Cameron Diaz) commits offenses that range from fireable to illegal: She doesn't bother learning her students' names. She embezzles money from a school fundraiser. She smokes pot in the school parking lot and gym.

It's a cynical look at public education, and as a former teacher, I should probably pan it. But after being subjected to a seemingly endless stream of cheesy, unrealistic films about teaching over the years, I found myself watching Bad Teacher with a mix of glee and relief. This harshly funny, irreverent movie is just what the tired, clichéd genre of teacher films needs.

From To Sir, With Love to Dead Poet's Society to Freedom Writers, inspirational teacher movies follow a predictable formula: Teacher wins over skeptical bunch of students with tough love and unconventional pedagogical techniques. (Throwing out the textbooks! Ordering the kids to stand on their desks! Rapping about literature!)

These movies aren't just lazy storytelling (the teacher in Freedom Writers barely sheds a tear when her husband leaves her—really?). They also underestimate how much work it takes to be a good teacher. As Tom Moore wrote in a 2007 takedown of teacher movies in the New York Times:

I'm always surprised at how, once a [teacher] wins over a class with clowning, tears, rewards and motivational speeches, there is nothing those kids can't do. It is as if all the previously insurmountable obstacles students face could be erased by a 10-minute pep talk or a fancy dinner. This trivializes not only the difficulties many real students must overcome, but also the hard-earned skill and tireless effort real teachers must use to help those students succeed.

Countless times during my two years as a teacher, a well meaning friend or colleague would suggest I watch Freedom Writers or The Ron Clark Story or some other teacher movie as a way to help "make learning fun" for my students. Each time, I wanted to yell, "It's not that easy!"

Thankfully, Bad Teacher is well aware of these films: In another display of Bad Teacher-ness, Elizabeth shows her students movies all day instead of instructing them in grammar and literature. On the syllabus: inspirational teacher classics Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, and The Great Debaters.

And it appears the movie has learned something from its predecessors. Midway through the film, Elizabeth decides she wants to become a good teacher. (Not out of concern for the kids, of course—she's saving money for breast implants, and the teacher whose students score highest on the state test gets a bonus.) She turns off the television and starts assigning To Kill a Mockingbird and Animal Farm. She even deploys an out-of-the-box teaching technique: lining up her students in the gym and throwing basketballs at them if they get questions wrong.

It's easy to see where the film could go from here: The students become masters at literary analysis; Elizabeth realizes she loves children and gives up her drug habit; the credits roll as the students carry her across campus on their shoulders.

Bad Teacher avoids these clichés, however. Even after weeks of drills, Elizabeth's students still can't string together a decent sentence about Atticus Finch. She realizes something most of her big-screen teacher counterparts never have to learn: Improving student achievement takes more than good intentions and a healthy supply of basketballs. This revelation leads Elizabeth to become a really bad teacher: She seduces and roofies up an employee of the state testing service so she can steal the answer key.

Amazingly, Elizabeth never gets punished for any of her bad behavior. She ends the school year with a promotion and a clean record, while her hyper-perky rival—a Good Teacher fond of stunts like dressing up in sailor garb and calling herself captain of her classroom—gets banished to the worst school in the state.

With this ending, Bad Teacher highlights another flaw in the inspirational teacher movies genre. These films perpetuate the myth of the Hero Teacher, the dedicated individual who can single-handedly change the lives of a classroom full of students. The reality, of course, is that the school administration and the district at large play a crucial role student success. Elizabeth is a bad teacher in large part because she's allowed to be—her principal turns a blind eye to all the outlandishly terrible things she does. Bad Teacher is an accurate title—but Bad School System might be even more apt.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/06/bad-teacher-the-answer-to-sappy-useless-good-teacher-flicks/240949/