The teacher protests currently taking place in Wisconsin are clearly significant for a variety of political and educational reasons. The events unfolding in Madison have amplified ongoing debates about unionism, the crisis in U.S. education, and the politics of state budgeting. The protests arrive after several years of escalating public criticism of teachers. And the outcome will potentially impact the contours of our national debate about education policy. What is happening in Wisconsin is also significant for cultural reasons. It is important to remember just how rare it is for Americans to see photographs and television footage of tens of thousands of teachers gathered together in one place. The uncommon images coming out of Madison are profoundly disruptive to our common sense about teachers and schooling. From a cultural perspective, the portraits of teacher protest now circulating in the mass media are especially striking for the ways in which they challenge traditional representations of the teacher in American society.
Historically, the teacher has been depicted in American culture as one of three types: the schoolmarm, the bumbling pedagogue, or the lone hero. The schoolmarm is typically an older, unmarried, rural woman who dedicates her entire life to her pupils. She is the Miss Dove character, or the prairie schoolteacher, or the imagined head of the classroom in the little red schoolhouse of yore. The bumbling pedagogue is usually male, often effeminate, and either clownish, pedantic, or otherwise socially awkward. He is the Ichabod Crane of our popular memory, the Mr. Kotter, the Scott Guber of Boston Public. Finally, the lone hero is the renegade who operates in isolation. He or she employs a nontraditional pedagogy—often in opposition to an unsupportive administrator—in an effort to educate the students everyone else has given up on. From Blackboard Jungle to Stand and Deliver to Dangerous Minds, the lone hero is a staple of many Hollywood films.
Throughout the years, these stock images have mostly served to denigrate the profession of teaching, depicting it as a lonely, all-consuming, non-specialized career. These fictional teachers rarely if ever complain about wages, benefits, or the excessive demands placed on them. They seem to willingly sacrifice their personal lives for the sake of their students. And they are almost never imagined as members of a teacher union. Such popular depictions also tend to suggest that teaching requires little if any formal training; in fact, many of these iconic pedagogues become teachers because they can’t do anything else. Most importantly, these images have worked to normalize the idea that public schools are crisis-ridden environments in which teachers must act in solitude, as outsiders, if they hope to accomplish anything.
Interestingly enough, these three dominant representations of teachers have subsided from view in recent years, supplanted in the media by images of tough, pragmatic, business-minded reformers. I am thinking in particular of Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of public schools in Washington D.C. For a while, Rhee became a media darling who was profiled in Newsweek and Time (where she was photographed holding a broom) and was featured in the pro-charter school documentary Waiting for Superman. In a similar vein, business luminaries Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have been spotlighted as the new philanthropic saviors of U.S. education (the Facebook CEO recently donated $100 million to Newark public schools). The media celebration of these corporate reformers has conveniently dovetailed with broader calls to privatize public schooling and introduce more business-inspired models of incentive pay and accountability into school systems.
At the same time that our iconography of school reform has been crowded with the likes of Michelle Rhee for the past few years, U.S. popular culture has propagated a more deviant image of the classroom teacher. Television shows in particular have featured teacher protagonists who presumably mean well but who must of necessity supplement their educator salaries with illegal activities. Take, for example, the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who cooks and sells methamphetamine on Breaking Bad, or the history-teacher-turned-male-escort on Hung. Just this past week, the trailer for the forthcoming film Bad Teacher, starring Cameron Diaz as an apathetic, pot-smoking, foul-mouthed schoolteacher, went viral (curious timing, to say the least). Teachers like these reinforce the perception that we need no-nonsense leaders like Michelle Rhee to sweep schools clean of them.
All of this explains why the images coming out of Madison are so culturally significant. First, these images show thousands of teachers united together in solidarity. Here we see not one teacher working alone, but a mass of teachers, a community, working together toward a common end. Second, these depictions of non-elite, everyday people taking to the streets in the name of public education contrast sharply with the lone power suit administrator or the billionaire philanthropist imposing top-down reforms on supposedly inept teachers. To best illustrate this second point, I can’t help but compare the pictures of thousands of teachers protesting in Madison with the Time magazine cover of Rhee standing alone with a broom back in 2008. The new imagery overwhelms the old, draining the Rhee photograph of its symbolic power.
Finally, these many iconic images of Wisconsin teachers project strength—not bumbling hesitancy, or shoulder shrugging resignation, but conviction and fortitude.
Without question, these cultural representations matter. As the editors of the 1994 book Schooling in the Light of Popular Culture remind us, education in the United States is “likely to be understood in ways that are at least in part beholden to popular images and ideas embodied in widely disseminated texts.” The cultural stories we tell ourselves about schooling can shape how we discuss education, debate policy, and perceive teachers. Today, at least, the quaint faces of Ichabod Crane and the frontier schoolmarm have been replaced by a bold faculty of thousands. Long after the impasse in Wisconsin is resolved, the images emanating from there are sure to resonate in our popular imagination.