Monday, June 25, 2012

Grading TV's Teachers

 Many of us are drawn to certain TV shows because of common ground we share with their settings or characters. I have no doubt that doctors have greater insight into the scenarios created in Dr. Kildare, House and Marcus Welby, M.D., and may enjoy them (or dissect them) differently than I would.

For three years, I taught English 101 at a community college. While I did not have the dedication to continue in that pursuit, and have the greatest admiration for those that do, the experience has inspired an affinity for shows about teachers. I don’t think there’s been a school-set series from Our Miss Brooks to Glee that I haven’t at least sampled.

These are my five favorite TV teachers. I hope to hear about yours.

1. Pete Dixon (Lloyd Haynes), Room 222
Some pointy-headed social commentators enjoy pontificating about how bland television was back in the 1950s and 1960s, because it was unwilling or (due to tighter content standards) unable to explore “the real world.” And that since the 1980s, TV shows have become more “realistic,” and thus automatically better. This is largely nonsense, but that’s another topic for another day. It is relevant here because Room 222 (1969-1974) debuted in the midst of that perceived paradigm shift – it tackled real-world issues, yet still introduced in Pete Dixon a teacher as indisputably admirable as those educators from a more innocent era. 

As an American history teacher, Dixon challenged his students to question conventional wisdom. He encouraged classroom discussion, controversy and creativity; he fought the school administration when it was warranted, and backed them up when it was appropriate. And overworked as he was he wouldn’t let a kid fall through the cracks, no matter how much of his after-school time was compromised.

Best of all, he guided his students through a chaotic time by leading from an example of compassionate common sense that, had it been shared by more folks in 1969, might have eased some of the tensions that nearly broke the country in two. “I better ask you straight out – do you prefer ‘colored,’ or ‘negro,’ or ‘black’?” inquires naïve young student-teacher Alice Johnson (Karen Valentine). Responds Dixon, “I always preferred ‘Pete.’”

2. Elizabeth Sherwood (Carol Mayo Jenkins), Fame
Teaching has been called a thankless job, certainly when judged by its financial rewards. But what could be more thankless than teaching English in a school for the arts, where the students could care less about writing essays because they all expected to be in Hollywood or on Broadway in a few months? Such was the challenge met by Fame’s Elizabeth Sherwood. Sometimes she played their game, using Bob Dylan lyrics to teach a lesson in poetry; other times she force-fed them classic literature until they recognized its significance. And in one episode she performed a traditional African dance. Really, really badly.

3. Charlie Moore (Howard Hesseman), Head of the Class
The twist in this show was that the students on Head of the Class were the anti-Sweathogs, geniuses and super-achievers who were ostracized for their intelligence. Into this classroom of high-maintenance kids ambled Charlie Moore, the ultimate laid-back history professor who was not intimidated by the fact that his students were already smarter than he was. While this series doesn’t have A-list classic TV status, Howard Hesseman ranks on the short list of actors that played two noteworthy television characters. 

4. Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. (John Houseman), The Paper Chase
Unlike the other teachers on this list, Professor Kingfield is one you’d love to watch on TV, but may hate to have standing at the business end of the classroom. Sure, years later you might look back with appreciation at how he turned your skull full of mush into the thoughts of a lawyer, but it was going to be hell getting there. The imperious John Houseman found a career-defining role after decades of prestigious work. And then he made Smith Barney the most respected investment firm on Wall Street. 

5. Miss McGinnis (Marion Ross), The Donna Reed Show
This is a one episode appearance (“Flowers for the Teacher,” season two), but it stuck with me because of how vividly it illustrates how terrified new teachers are when they stand in front of a classroom for the first time. Sure, you’ve got the bigger desk, but the power that comes with it is only an illusion. You’re outnumbered up there, and strong-arm tactics alone aren’t going to win the day. Fifteen years before Happy Days, Marion Ross is wonderful as a teacher fresh out of training school and still trying to figure out the job.

Honorable Mentions:
Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte), Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Russell Lawrence (Don Porter), Gidget
Albert Hague (Benjamin Shorofsky), Fame
Carrie Bliss (Hayley Mills), Good Morning Miss Bliss
Laura Jenkins (Peggy Lipton), Wings

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