How Hollywood Stereotypes About Teachers Stifle Learning

EdSurge Podcast

How Hollywood Stereotypes About Teachers Stifle Learning

By Jeffrey R. Young     Feb 7, 2023

How Hollywood Stereotypes About Teachers Stifle Learning
In the 2015 film “Pay the Ghost," Nicholas Cage plays a charismatic professor who gets standing ovations from his students.

This article is part of the collection: The EdSurge Podcast.

Hollywood often features classroom scenes that depict a highly glamorized version of teaching.

These scenes are particularly noticeable to Jessamyn Neuhaus, who is both a professor who teaches courses about popular culture and the director of the Center of Teaching Excellence at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.

There’s one scene in particular that she says typifies these moments. It’s from a 2015 horror film called “Pay the Ghost.” It stars Nicholas Cage as a professor, and in one scene, after a dramatic lecture, his students burst into applause.

“That is not helpful for students or instructors to be thinking, ‘Well, if it's a good lecture, I'm gonna be moved to applause,’” Neuhaus argues. “Learning's really hard, and it's not gonna always feel like you wanna stand up and cheer when you're learning. It takes a long time, and it takes struggle and setbacks and feedback.”

And the Hollywood image of the super-teacher, she says, ends up limiting the kind of people who feel welcome in teaching. Neuhaus explores these topics in her book “Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers,” as well as in an anthology she edited last year called, “Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning.

EdSurge connected with Neuhaus to discuss the stereotypes of teaching that many experts — and even some recent TV shows about teaching — are now trying to work against.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: What do you see as the problem with the way teaching is depicted in popular culture?

Jessamyn Neuhaus: There's this cultural stereotype of the super-teacher out there. It's really deeply embedded in all of our heads. The only time you see someone teaching in the movies or on TV, the teachers we see on our screens are these magnetic super-dynamic performers who are lecturing and students sit there and they magically learn just by being in this super-teacher’s presence. That ideal is so impossible to achieve and really undermines how learning works. You can't just pour the knowledge into students’ heads.

And it undermines our self-efficacy [as teachers] when we are not super performative or extroverted or outgoing—which is a lot of people in academia. People who have those skills may not be drawn to sitting for long hours by themselves [researching].

Why do these depictions hurt teachers who don’t look like Hollywood actors?

One thing is the assumption that you know what you're talking about — that you are the expert in the field. Faculty who don't conform to that really limited stereotype around embodied identity face a lot more student questions and skepticism. Does this person really know, especially in STEM, how to do science, how to do math?

What is something that can be done to interrupt these biases?

The book is full of concrete strategies. One theme that runs through it is to work to build rapport with students and increase student learning with tried-and-true techniques like active learning, anti-racist pedagogical practices and inclusive teaching practices. Also, find support — reach out and build community with other teacher scholars. Several of the contributors [in our new anthology] talk about how transformative it was to just talk with other teacher scholars who are facing the same issues and know, ‘Oh, it's not just me.’

For instance, when I started teaching early in my career, I was fairly young. I was in my late 20s and really hugely pregnant. If somebody had said to me, ‘You know, students might be bringing certain expectations or assumptions about you based on the fact that you're a heavily pregnant woman,’ it would've been really helpful. A real irony is that I spent a huge part of my graduate school career studying how identity is constructed. But not once did someone say, ‘Oh, and by the way, that's also gonna impact teaching and learning when you get to the classroom.’”

Are things getting better in how popular culture depicts teaching?

I don't see a lot of change. There's been a little bit of diversification of the super-teachers. So he is not always white, not always straight, not always a man. But the actual teaching and learning part? That stereotype is still there. It's that depiction of learning as very top-down and pretty passive — that students can just sit there and watch and listen. And of course, in the depictions, they're all like magically attentively watching and taking notes and asking questions.

I like to use the term “effective teaching,” and I do that really deliberately. I try to avoid even saying “good” teaching, “excellent” teaching, and definitely avoid stuff like “super-teachers.” I think those words can trigger that stereotype and that impossible ideal.

It makes me think of all the teacher-of-the-year awards out there. Are those part of the problem?

I would never want to denigrate [winners of teaching awards] or dismiss recognizing people's really highly effective teaching and work. But I think at all levels — kindergarten through college — we live in a society that does not give enough credit and support to teaching. And every year it is harder and harder to do our jobs. So in that context, that focus on just the handful of exceptional people [through teaching awards] really undermines the fact that good, effective teachers aren't born. They're made laboriously, book by book, class by class. And I do think that that award system can kind of undermine our energy and willingness to just keep plugging away day after ever-loving day.

You said one exception to all this is that you’re a fan of the TV show “Abbott Elementary.”

There's a couple big differences [in that show]. The setting is really important and the centering of Black American experiences as teachers and students is really crucial. But I think even beyond that, the way it depicts teaching, just like I was talking about as an ongoing learning process for teachers. The experience that the senior teachers have gained is really, really valuable. But they're all learning all the time how to keep adapting and adjusting and helping their students learn. And I think it's also really effective at showing effective teaching and all the different ways it can look.

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