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Taking 'Bad Teacher' to School

Let’s be honest. Teachers don’t get into the profession for the money. Nowadays they don’t get into the profession for respect either. So why do they do it? Or, as it was put to Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) in “Bad Teacher”: “What has to go so horribly wrong in life that you end up educating middle school children?”

Halsey’s answer: “It’s the only thing I’m good at.” Not to mention “the shorter hours, summers off and no accountability.”

Those answers, and many other ridiculous stereotypes about teaching and teachers, are exactly why I had no intentions of seeing the film—a comedy about a materialistic, foulmouthed, drug-using junior high teacher who gets dumped by her rich fiancé, tries to woo her next meal ticket and raise enough money to get a boob job. But I did see it. And I saw it with two good teachers from New York City. Here’s how we graded it.

An “A” for rethinking what makes a teacher bad: Halsey isn’t a bad teacher because “she doesn’t give an F.” She’s bad because she’s unappreciated, underpaid, unwilling to deal with her personal issues and sees no results from the little effort she does put forth in the classroom. Take the first day of school; she’s so hung over that she shows her class movies of good teachers from the 1980s and ’90s. Movies such as “Stand and Deliver,” “Lean on Me,” “Dangerous Minds” and even “Scream.” While Halsey starts out as the polar opposite of the passionate educators in most of these films, she shares many of their strengths. She’s frank, smart, organized, in control, daring, determined, meticulous, persuasive and oddly charming. And, like Principal Himbry (Henry Winkler) in “Scream,” she’s also under attack.

A “C” for depicting teachers’ cheating and reflecting current events. The movie earns points by riffing on the scandalous Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, which saw a dramatic increase in standardized test scores during Michelle Rhee’s tenure. In “Bad Teacher,” Halsey earns the $5,700 “good teacher bonus” by tricking a state administrator and getting an advanced copy of the test. What goes unmentioned is that such chicanery is symptomatic of today’s test-based educational system. The movie also loses points for ignoring education professor Diane Ravitch’s advice: that “when too much time is invested in test preparation, students learn test-taking skills, not content or thinking” and teachers do not really flex their teaching muscles. Maybe that’s why none of the educators in this film are able to exercise much physical or emotional strength outside of the classroom either.

An “F” for only hinting at one of education’s fatal flaws: the fear of failure. When the seventh-graders fail a test on “To Kill a Mockingbird” (considered a bad book and banned from schools in its day), Halsey slams the book down on her desk, throws the failed tests in the air and yells, “You’re not working hard enough! I need results!” Later, she punishes them corporally by way of dodgeball when they get answers wrong. Finally, she levels with one of her more sensitive and socially awkward male students, telling him that his “window just isn’t now. It’ll come in college.”

These unconventional tactics aren’t just for laughs. They teach students that learning isn’t always “fun-tastic” and that discomfort caused by present failure does not prevent future success. By the end of the film, the bad teacher takes her own advice and finds her niche in education. In so doing the movie merely whispers what we wish it would’ve shouted: Experience counts! Those we label “bad teachers” today might end up good educators tomorrow.

Marcia Alesan Dawkins
Columnist
Dr. Marcia Alesan Dawkins is a professor at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles, California.She is interested in public policy, diversity, education, and communication.She lectures, writes and consults on these and…
Marcia Alesan Dawkins

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