Female Teachers on Film: Who gets a pass?

As the nights begin to roll in and the crunch of leaves is felt underfoot, for those in education it can only mean one thing: back to school. Autumn brings familiar routine, crisp pages in exercise books and fresh sets of stationery ready for learning to take place. Who even are you if you’re not packing smelly gel pens and a bendy ruler in your Pepsi pencil case?

October 5th is World Teachers’ Day – a day to commemorate the work of professionals around the world for all they do to educate children, teens and young adults. In the UK, women make up approximately 75% of the school teacher workforce[1], but when you think about some of the most memorable on-screen teachers, many of them are men. Jack Black as Dewey Finn/Mr Schneebly in School of Rock, Robin Williams as John Keating in Dead Poets Society, Arnold Schwarzenegger as John Kimble in Kindergarten Cop and Michael Gambon as Professor Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter are just some of the most popular on-screen educators. So, after a year in which teachers became more ‘essential’ than ever, how do they fare in film?

Male teachers in film are often presented as professorial, wise and revolutionary figures, while female teachers, at worst, are fetishised, sexualised and concerned more with trivial crushes than their careers. So where can we find more complex, realistic portrayals of teachers in film? All the way back in 1931, actually!

[1] https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/workforce-and-business/workforce-diversity/school-teacher-workforce/latest

Here’s a short list of films where the female teachers are more thought-provoking than reductively provocative:

1. Mädchen in Uniform (1931; Dir. Leontine Sagan)

In this bold German drama Dorothea Wieck plays Fraulein Von Bernburg, a caring teacher and role model to the girls residing at the boarding school. She’s described by her students as ‘decent’ and explains to her colleagues that she tries to be on equal terms with her students, though the girls, who are used to oppression from all other adults in their lives, don’t know how to deal with her relative nonconformity. This is particularly true for new student, Manuela.

In one of the staff meetings in this film, the discussion covers contemporary pedagogy, which is all the more surprising considering it is taking place in 1930s Germany. Von Bernburg tells the other Frauleins that she sees her students as humans, which is really all any person can ask, and yet, this is a revelation! Bernburg’s approach is completely at odds with the authoritarian management of the school, not to mention the social contexts of the country and time period, but nevertheless, she is proud of the fact that, ‘the results of my teaching have always been good’ and she doesn’t see a need to punish students because they learn well. Because of this, she is loved and adored… to varying degrees.

Many see the film as important LGBT cinema viewing and as a cult classic – perhaps because of the lesbian theme, perhaps because of the all-female cast and director, perhaps because of its display of anti-fascism. All of this combined with the fact that it is very well shot and edited make it a striking watch that continues to push boundaries, even today.

2. Dangerous Minds (1995; Dir. John N. Smith)

In this quintessential 90s movie, Michelle Pfeiffer plays Louanne Johnson, an ex-marine who is dropped in at the deep end with a class of students who all other staff have given up on.

It takes time, but after an initial rocky period she builds their confidence with her poetry lessons by analysing the lyrics of Bob Dylan. She gives them hope that they can succeed and leads them to realise that they can trust her as well as have academic aspirations.

Based on the memoir ‘My Posse Don't Do Homework’, the film explores the many fundamental problems with the education and class system in America, though the source material has been changed (some may argue too much). Additionally, there are issues with the ethnic and racial representation in the way that Ms Johnson is positioned as the white saviour for the inner-city kids she bonds with. Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ is also hugely overused!

That said, the creative teaching methods she uses to engage her students is thrilling to watch and the genuine care she shows for them and their futures rings true for so many ‘real life’ teachers.

3. Certain Women (2016; Dir. Kelly Reichardt)

Unlike the other films in this list so far, the teacher in this film, Elizabeth Travis, is a supporting character. Certain Women tells the stories of three different women, and one of these is Beth, played by Kristen Stewart.

One of the reasons that she made the list is because of the sacrifices she makes to get to her class. Beth is a lawyer but takes a night school teaching job in a location four hours from where she lives just to ensure that she is in employment.

When she is sat eating dinner with rancher Jamie (Lily Gladstone), Beth tells her that, “selling shoes is the nicest job a girl from my family is supposed to get.” So, we find that she is someone who has defied class struggle and succeeded in a professional field. Despite this, she still feels vulnerable enough as a woman that she needs to take on additional work in order to feel secure.

We don’t see a lot of teaching happening, but the conversations that Jamie and Beth have in the diner reveal a lot about the personal motivations for teaching and the circumstances surrounding employment in the field. As well as also begging wider questions about the gender pay gap, it’s a very personal perspective, looking at the character’s typical day and her future outlook, rather than purely defining her role – both in the film and society – according to her job.

4. Confessions (2010; Dir. Tetsuya Nakashima)

In Japanese thriller Confessions, one of Yuko Moriguchi’s (Takako Matsu) first lines as her class continue to talk over her is: “I’ve had enough so this will be my last month as a teacher.” Not exactly the inspiring encouragement we might have come to expect! Instead, the first 30 minutes of the film are filled with a dark monologue about the death of Yuko’s daughter and it’s clear from the outset that any previous desire to follow the curriculum are long gone.

Far from a drama about the teacher-student bond, this is a frightening revenge story that will shock and repulse you. The film is very well crafted, both narratively and technically, and although non-traditional lessons are learnt, it’s an unforgettable watch.

5. Mean Girls (2004; Dir. Mark Waters)

Who do you sit with at lunch? The Jocks, The Burnouts, The Sexually Active Band Geeks, The Greatest People You Will Ever Meet, or…The Plastics?

Mean Girls is the film that unpicked social cliques and built a hilarious story around the importance of social hierarchies to teenagers. It centres around Cady Heron and how she muddles her way through high school, romance and friendship after transferring from Africa.

Tina Fey produced and wrote the screenplay of the hit teen comedy but also plays Ms Norbury, a maths teacher. Mean Girls was ahead of the Women in STEM agenda by having a woman play a teacher who wasn’t in a humanities-based subject, but thankfully didn’t fall into the trap of making her desperately nerdy, poorly dressed or socially awkward.

Ms Norbury also advocates for strong girl code, explaining that when girls put each other down, it makes it okay for guys to do the same. She coaches her Mathletes to victory and shows forgiveness and humility, among other good traits… all while putting in extra shifts at a bar a couple of nights a week. What a woman! All in all, she’s a fantastic female character who both the young women in the film, and young audiences alike, can relate to.

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