Stephen Louw

Teachers in the movies

Fictionalizing our reality

I love watching movies about classrooms and teachers. There really aren't enough of them, but this site lists quite a few. A lot of movie classroom scenes are blatant parodies of the real thing, which makes them strangely insightful.

Embarrassingly perhaps, one of my favorite classroom movies is Harry Potter. I always think that it's a good idea to stay current with cultural references that might be relevant to my students; that's what I said when I got teased for voraciously watching the movies.

But in reality, I loved the portrayal of tradition-bound institutionalized education, the intense rivalry between growing children, and the backdrop of real adult-world drama that makes all the school-yard pettiness seem facile and yet no less meaningful to all the characters. It's a Lilliputian representation of the educational scenario we know, but don't always see.

I especially love watching the teachers in the Potter movies doing their jobs. The absolute best is Snape. Alan Rickman did the most incredible job of capturing an obnoxious teacher. He creeps around furtively, striving to catch students doing something wrong, ready to gloat gleefully over transgressions.

All the way through we are kept in the dark about what motivates this loathsome behavior. Does he really hate Harry? Why? It's only at the end of the story, when he has perversely saved the day, that we find out his deplorable attitude is a strange mix of his own inner insecurities and unresolved conflicts which are projected onto his young, unsuspecting classroom inmates.

But Snape is not just about inner turmoil, about the offspring of his first love and his juvenile adversary. As a teacher, he is just not very good. The teacher in me recoils at his classroom practice. If you have a moment, watch this cringeworthy classroom scene:

This is Snape's first lesson with a new group. He does it all wrong! Talking with his back to the class, mumbling, focusing the classroom talk on himself, laying out negative expectations, using unnecessarily complicated classroom language, singling out favorites, belittling and threatening punishment.

In Snape's classroom, there is no space for dialogue or interaction - the children are interlopers. Top-down authority takes precedence.

Take another moment and watch this one!

What Snape does here is start the class with the zero option: "Turn to page 394". Watch further - while he sets up the visual prompts, Snape starts eliciting. This is promising: eliciting serves a number of very useful purposes in the classroom - it engages students' interest, gets them thinking, gives the teacher feedback on how much the students already know, and creates opportunities for involvement.

Why exactly Snape elicits, however, isn't clear. The students are either too scared to answer, or they don't know (and how could they know if he hasn't taught the lesson yet!), and the one student who does say anything invokes from him a withering response. Perhaps he elicits because his teacher trainer told him he has to. Having failed to elicit anything, he then goes on to punish the class for being ignorant. This teacher!

I could write about Snape forever. He is the perfect hateful teacher, and therefore very instructive to watch. But all the other Hogwarts teachers deserve some critical scrutiny.

Professors Lockhart and Umbridge have serious classroom management issues. Dumbledore's teaching ethics are a mess. Look carefully to see whether, and exactly how, Minerva McGonagall and Roland Hooch teach their class anything. Yes, these are caricatures of teachers, but we've all had a teacher from our childhood who bears at least some resemblance to Sybill Trelawny, Harry's divination teacher. That's perhaps what makes her so irresistible. Maybe we've all had a Snape-like teacher, too.

Caricature or not, these portrayals of teachers are interestingly instructive. Importantly, they invite us to inspect ourselves as teachers. Who is most likable? Who would we most want to be like? For this reason, the Harry Potter series makes a fun teacher training tool.

But if you have avoided watching Potter and his band of merry school-mates, I understand. I came across a movie called Bad Teacher, starring Cameron Diaz. It's labeled a comedy, but it sounds more like a horror - I'm not sure I can bring myself to watch it.

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


Great thought-provoking article; having been a teacher several years now, I always am amused by teachers in films, but never really thought about analyzing them for their real-world qualities. You could make a research paper out of that one!

Thanks for the entertaining, albeit true, connections!

By Sam, Chatuchak, Bangkok (9th July 2016)

Ha ha! brilliant, Stevie!

There are so many bad teachers out there. I'd love to make a movie or write a book about them but I don't think anyone would believe it.

My friends and I were recently joking about making a comedy movie about all the bad schools and agents out there. One of my friends said that would be pointless as nearly all schools and agents are Thai. No one outside of Thailand could really relate to it and most people simply wouldn't care.

Then one of my friends said he worked for a 'farang' agency in Bangkok. My god, the stories he told were unbelievable. Sad thing was he was telling the truth. We all agreed that this would make for a great movie but it couldn't be comedy, it had to be horror ha ha!

He said he expected a higher level of professionalism, but what he got was worse than any Thai agent he worked for. No contract, no sick pay, no background check even though he was working with kids, no honesty, an extremely mentally unstable, deluded and inept farang liaison teacher, an ego driven boss with little man syndrome. The list just went on and on. It was hilarious.

I've seen bad teacher. It just amplifies the stereotype of a jaded teacher in a humourous way. I'd love to see 'Bad agent'. You wouldn't have to amplify their debauched and abhorrent behaviour. Just simply write what you know. Anyone who's worked for an agent would love it. I think the tagline of the movie would be "Beware of those preaching about professionalism and morality'.

Keep writing these articles, Stevie. They're brilliant.

By Jonas, Bangkok (8th July 2016)

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