Monday, November 9, 2009

Sitcom Secrets: Lies My Fictional Teacher Told Me

Hey, fans. I've covered siblings and college so far. Now let's look at what you have to do to be a great teacher (and what you have to do to be a mean, evil one).

Above and beyond
. These are the ones who go above and beyond teaching. Who take kids into their very homes and lives. Like Mr. Katimski who took in gay student Ricky after his aunt and uncle kicked him out. Or Mr. Turner who adopted Shawn Hunter, let him keep a barnyard animal in his two room apartment, and saved him from a cult, thus proving himself a superior human being to any of the parents or mentors in the lives of Squeaky Fromme or Leslie Van Houten. Illustrating that no good deed goes unpunished, Mr. Turner got into a motorcycle accident in the season four finale, and then by senior year, he was never spoken of again, presumably wished into the cornfields.

Too acerbic, without love. The teacher who doesn't try to teach a lesson. Or who teaches a lesson that may serve you well but sure doesn't make you feel good. Like Dawson Leery's film teacher Ms. Kennedy, a former Hollywood screenplay writer, who tells Dawson his little semi autobiographical film Creek Daze sucks triceratops balls. (The lesson here being both that it's really sad when a TV show needs to do the show within a show gag by season 2 and beware bitter Hollywood roadkill on the wrong side of thirty.)

Or Mr. Kowchevski teaching the kids that hard work and stick to it-iveness are nothing compared to natural talent by demoting poor sweet Millie to second string when Lindsay came back to Mathletes.

Or Professor Kingsfield (The Paper Chase), who taught James Naughton that having a photographic memory doesn't mean you belong at law school. (To be fair, James Naughton did technically prove Kingsfield wrong when he later successfully defended both Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly.)

Never gonna give you up. The teacher who follows the students everywhere. Ordinarily this would be creepy. (Mr. Rosso, with his singing Alice Cooper songs to try to reach these freeakz, was definitely borderline, as was his constant stalking of Lindsay Weir to woo her back into the smart kid fold. Mr. Rosso, let's face it, she's just not that into Mathletes, AP English, or you.)

Mr. Feeny, however, takes it to an art form and it isn't even a little bit weird when every year, he's somehow teaching the kids or being their principal or going back to college with them.

You can't change the system. A teacher wants to make a difference. How? The answer is always by shaking things up. Sometimes with feminism. Sometimes with rock and/or roll. Usually with a slab of humor and a dollop of sensitivity. Of course, as soon as the administration gets wind of Teacher X's unseemly ways, he/she is summarily fired (out of a cannon, into the sun!), giving the students a chance to rally to his/her side in protest. After said teacher is reinstated, he or she immediately resigns, making the students wonder what the fuck it all was for. (What WAS it for? I don't know, but it probably makes for a good college app essay.)

I always wondered why it was that a bunch of entitled, zip-code blessed students could manage to get Donna Martin to graduate but poor Marcie Lewis couldn't get her favorite English teacher back and Principal Green had to resign from Capeside High.

A teaching staff of mavericks. When the teacher shakes things up. To eleven. Think Harry Senate shooting off a gun with blanks during class. Or Eric proctoring Mr. Feeny's citizenship class mock exam and having the students rip up their test papers. Or Ms. Frizzle and her mantra of "Take chances, make mistakes, and GET MESSY!" In an age of hand sanitizing every five minutes and coughing into elbows, you just know she'd be 86ed within minutes, and her "Ms." appellation probably went over like a lead balloon.

Inner City Blues. Plucky white teacher heads into the inner city to try to inspire minority kids. (Or, in the case of Sidney Poitier, dignified black teacher heads into the London School system to reach out to white kids.) So how DO you reach these kids? Montages with touching songs in the background. With Lulu singing To Sir, With Love, Coolio rapping Gangsta's Paradise, and Mr. Mister performing Stand and Deliver in the background, not even the surliest, most disadvantaged kid can stay cynical for long. (Unless you're Seven of Nine, in which case you don't need anything but your fine self.)

Don't drink the flavor aid. These teachers don't just inspire their students to action. They're more like cult leaders. Actually, there's only one teacher whom I can think of who really fits into this category, and that's Irene from Daughters of Eve by Lois Duncan. In addition to teaching, she also runs an organization called Daughters of Eve which is like Take Back the Night, an evening with Dworkin, MacKinnon, and Brownmiller, and a bra burning protest rolled into one.

It's meant to be a feminist organization for very smart or talented female students but turns into a manhating extravaganza (otherwise known as a misanthropaganza) with the Daughters sabotaging male students' lab work...and murder. On the plus side, Irene is one teacher who wouldn't get pissed off at the "filthiness" of burning a sanitary napkin in the classroom fireplace (and in fact would probably celebrate the idea of Patriarchy being Subverted through a Feminine Taboo).

Your hard work pays off. The teacher who's really hard on you, who works you like a dog to test your mettle. Like Prof Stromwell kicking out Elle and her cute heart shaped notebook for not doing the reading which only spurs her onto greatness.

And of course, the quintessential example. The strictest teacher of all time--but who gets the job done, ultimately. Whose students are always prepared. I'm talking of course about Nigel Ratburn.
Hey, it's because of him that the kids got to be on the Let's Talk to Some Kids segment of Magic Toolbox, and don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about--no one's too old for Arthur. No one. Arthur is the dark secret of every painfully hip Generation Y-er. Yes, I know you all like to think that the only kids shows you like are the cool, ironic ones like Transformers or He-Man or Jem and the Holograms so you can snark on the bad animation. You're not fooling anyone.

Prove me wrong, kids! The teachers who assume you have no future. Like Mr. Strickland deeming both George and Marty McFly "slacker!" They exist solely so you can show up twenty years later with a wealth of accomplishments to gloat over while they're still bitter and bald--like your very own sci fi book, or the knowledge that you're responsible for inventing skateboards and inspiring Chuck Berry to write Johnny B. Goode.

Here are some things that are absolutely necessary if you want to be a good cool teacher.

Sitting backward in a chair

It's how you show that you're on the level and hip, but still able to rap with your students, one on one.

First name basis only

"Don't call me Mr. _________--that's my father's name!"

Ripping things up

Nothing says stellar teaching record like defacing other people's property. See John Keating having Dr. Wilson, Ethan Hawke and the rest of the dead poet society members rip up part of their English textbook. Or Angela Chase's teacher Mr. Racine who threw the kids' horrible creative writing assignments out the window to make a point. Or Eric Matthews proctoring Feeny's class.

Giving up something important

Like if you leave your high powered job as an attorney or i-banker to teach, it shows that you're really giving back, and that teaching truly is a vocation. Like Ms. Cook in Boston Public. (The writers conveniently omitted the part where Ms. Cook was disbarred for burning down a 9/11 memorial and had to take a job teaching in the inner city to pay last month's Prada bill.)