The myth of teacher as superhero (and other bad messages) peddled by hit TV series

By Nisha Thapliyal and John Fischetti

It makes good cinema to put six bright and passionate teacher recruits into some of the most underserved schools and communities in Australia and follow them around. When the filming is by Screentime (think Underbelly crime drama series, Outback Coroner, Outback ER) it is no wonder the result is highly entertaining and heart-touching.

But we believe the messages about teaching and disadvantaged communities that the recent series on SBS, Testing Teachers, sold to all of its viewers are so bad we have to call them out and unpack them. 

The bad messages

The superhero myth

One of the worst messages this series perpetuates is the teacher as a Hollywood superhero. The Western teacher superhero rescues a lucky few students who live and learn in some of the most remote and poorest regions in Australia. New teachers are positioned as self-less “saviours” whose creativity and perseverance are sufficient to bring about change in apparently “hopeless” conditions.

The program focuses on the first year of 6 ‘cherrypicked’ (narrator’s language) Teach for Australia recruits who are all altruistic high achievers with self-admittedly privileged educational backgrounds. The heroic abilities of these eminently likeable protagonists are demonstrated through the supporting characters of the disruptive, apathetic, traumatised, and bullied students they are able to rescue and turnaround.

The eventual success of these teachers with their students is implied through carefully selected test scores and anecdotal notes. This selective use of quantifiable evaluation methods is a trademark of the brand along with its steadfast refusal to explain the lack of rigour in the evaluation studies.

The documentary does not tell us about the high physical and emotional cost paid by these recruits to maintain this intensity of work in a climate that constantly demands measurable improvements in student performance.

And significantly, what is unsaid but implied is that current teachers and school leaders are clueless or incompetent or unaccountable, that only a few mercenaries dropped in can salvage a system in perpetual chaos and crisis.

Perpetuating stereotypes

The show perpetuates enduring stereotypes about students from poor, Aboriginal and culturally diverse backgrounds. In each episode it selectively engages with uncited research about disadvantaged schools that reinforce deficit narratives about Aboriginal and low-income communities. For example there are descriptions of poor, working-class, disengaged parents and oft-repeated statistics on low attendance of Aboriginal students, as well as alcohol abuse by Aboriginal adults.

These communities are presented to us through a single lens, with no mention of efforts by everyday teachers, schools and communities to overcome systemic neglect and inspire children with a love for learning.

Indeed, with the exception of the student at Tennant Creek, there is little positive recognition for the parents, teachers, and other community members who positively shape the lives of these students.

Normalising the growing gap

These stereotypical representations work to normalise the growing gap in educational and economic opportunity in an increasingly unequal society. In doing so, Testing Teachers renders itself indistinguishable from three decades of ‘Hollywoodised’ documentaries and films about public education which have deflected attention from the structural forces that exacerbate educational disadvantage and inequity.

The program effectively diverts an informed public debate about how to recruit, prepare, employ, and retain the best new teachers.

For our society as a whole, the message is that it is perfectly acceptable for low SES and Aboriginal children and parents to settle for poorly prepared low-cost, fly-in/fly-out teachers from privileged backgrounds. Would you accept untrained educators on short-term contracts, however gifted and talented, to teach your children?

Students just need motivation

For students and their parents in disadvantaged communities, the message is that they should be motivated to learn and achieve, regardless of their learning conditions.

Teaching qualifications and experience are not very important

To the teaching profession at large the message is that only those who were good at ‘doing school’ can teach. Clearly, graduates can teach well without prior preparation in pedagogy, curriculum, or respect and understanding of community, history and people in a school community. Worse still, it is okay to test out whether you want to teach by using the most disadvantaged children.

Selling the Teach for Australia brand as a ‘silver bullet’

Of course Teach for Australia has plenty of money to get the ‘good stories’ out about its program. So it is no surprise that this SBS program fails to present the public with a complete picture about Teach for Australia.

It is an entrepreneurial organisation that provides high-achieving but inexperienced teacher recruits to schools in disadvantaged communities on short-term two-year contracts. While Teach for Australia is relatively new in Australia, it is essentially a clone of a deeply controversial 25-year-old, US organisation Teach for America. The latter has become an elite status symbol in the USA by offering recruits a combined opportunity for paid community service, immediate employability, and resume building. A majority of recruits move on after 2 years into top graduate schools and thereafter into high paid careers in education leadership and policy including within TFA’s own lobbying organisation – Leadership for Excellence and Equity.

The Teach for America model is now in 39 countries around the world and at the forefront of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) which seeks to casualise teachers deprofessionalise the teaching profession and thus, advance the privatisation of public education.

The rise of Teacher for America, et al ignores the increasing body of literature that indicates that young people in Teach for America classrooms actually are more likely to do worse in the long run on academic performance than those in classrooms with properly prepared teachers. In addition, the short-term nature of Teach for Australia, Teach for America, etc. commodifies the teaching profession by providing cheap short-term labour rather than addressing profound social equity issues including racism and health, housing, transportation and adult educational issues that are all part of the issues faced in the schools profiled.

Despite contested claims of effectiveness, its wealthy backers, and a media strategy with seemingly limitless resources, have facilitated the rapid global expansion of the “TFA” brand. Building on the US model, TFA is financed by a powerful global network of corporate players (including Google, Rolls Royce ), venture philanthropists (Gates, Walton, Robertson, and Bezos Foundations), international financial institutions (including Visa and the World Bank) as well as public monies from national/federal and local governments.

What has also helped the brand is a disturbing trend of uncritical media coverage from corporate news media outlets which has been documented by numerous education researchers. In Australia too, Testing Teachers has received favourable coverage from leading Australian news outlets across the ideological spectrum. To begin with, reviewers for SBS, the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald reviewers all failed to notice that TFA is not new in any sense of the word. A little more homework would have also revealed the striking resemblance between TT and other equally well-financed, recent documentaries showcasing the TFA approach e.g. Tough Young Teachers (BBC3 – UK, 2014) and multiple documentaries by US filmmaker Davis Guggenheim .

While the use of language and cultural symbols is contextualised to the viewing audience, the plot or storyline and take-away messages do not vary. The setting is always a disadvantaged/needy/challenging school and within these schools, we are only shown the classrooms with students who are unregulated/disruptive/tricky characters and of course, the superhero teachers.

Missing from this silver bullet solution is the historical context of a profession that is being systematically casualised under the rhetoric of austerity and efficiency. The argument should be that these bright new teachers are able to quickly gain traction in difficult situations and show results better than the ill qualified person who may have been casualised. They do not substitute for a traditionally prepared teacher.

The issue remains why our best new teachers are not seeking jobs in diverse schools throughout the country and why incentives have not been implemented to ensure every child has a highly qualified new teacher.

Media messages matter

Images about teaching and communities matter. This series was indeed entertaining. It may well inspire graduates to join TFA for a short-term teaching stint but will it inspire the kind of long-term commitment needed to provide equal educational opportunity for every Australian child? Undoubtedly, this promotional documentary will help more money to pour in to the TFA coffers (the results TFA is paying for). However the damage the bad messages do to the teaching profession and to Australia’s disadvantaged students and communities is immeasurable.

As educators and educational researchers, we believe we need to call out those bad media messages when we see them.

Nisha Thapliyal is Lecturer, Comparative and International Education at the University of Newcastle. Nisha’s research focuses on education equity, community-based activism and the democratisation of education policymaking. Nisha can be reached at nisha.thapliyal@newcastle.edu.au or on twitter @NishaT4edu

John Fischetti is Professor and Head of School/Dean of Education at the University of Newcastle. John’s research focuses on reframing teacher education, school reform and learner-focussed teaching. John can be reached at john.fischetti@newcastle.edu.au or on twitter @fischettij

12 thoughts on “The myth of teacher as superhero (and other bad messages) peddled by hit TV series

  1. SBS’ Testing Teachers may not be based on good research or be good education policy, but that is not what TV sets out to do: it is entertainment. If you want your profession’s issues to appear in the mass media, then you have to engage with that media.

    Given the success of Testing Teachers, as entertainment, I suggest pitching a sequel, or a new show about “real teachers”.

    However, before criticizing a program which downplays teaching qualifications, I suggest university academics need to get their own how in order. Teach for Australia requires participants to have undergone some teacher training before entering a classroom. In contrast, some Australian universities require no teacher training at all for their academics. A case of do as I say, not as I do?

  2. Ania Lian says:

    Dear Tom
    1. School teachers deal with children and teens. Universities with adults.
    2. All public universities in Australia have OLT sections directly concerned with the quality of teaching. Also, academic support sections etc etc
    3. Universities promote academics for teaching excellence – this includes spreading of skills, making the difference at the system level.
    4. QA in curriculum can be addressed at the level of faculty/ School/ Department, not necessarily through a certificate.
    best wishes
    ania lian

  3. Ania, both schools and universities are in the business of education. I suggest both require a balance of formal teaching qualifications and in-service support for their teachers. When, as a university lecturer, I was finally required to learn how to teach, I found it a lot easer and less frustrating. Teaching is moving on-line and this will require new and better skills of teachers. This also provides the opportunity to teach these skills on-line. Link to Tom’s blog

  4. Ania Lian says:

    Dear Nisha and John,
    Thank you , great points, every one of them. Imagine an organisation “Heel for Australia”: I wonder who would seek advice from their doctors? Myself, I have not seen the series so am looking at it through your comments.

    “One of the worst messages this series perpetuates is the teacher as a Hollywood superhero” — I wonder if our national teacher-training policies do not support a similar vision? When I read research on schools, I do wonder.

    Anyway – thank you for a great posting and I have shared it with our postgraduates. Will do the same with undergrads .

    very best wishes
    ania lian

  5. Nisha Thapliyal says:

    Thanks for your comments Ania. And for encouraging your students to engage with these debates which have vital implications for the future of teacher education.

  6. Brian Cambourne says:

    Thank you for naming, shaming, and reframing the TFA enterprise.
    It’ll be interesting to see how TFA advocates respond to your piece.

  7. Peter says:

    The program was indeed highly dubious, uncritical and evasive about TfA. Just one point though: short termism is endemic. I know of no one who graduated when I did 2 years ago who secured anything longer than a 1 year contract. Some are still at the original school…on another 1 year contract. I count myself lucky to have a new 2 year contract. That problem can’t be laid at TfA’s door.

  8. Having been a teacher in regional and city schools for over 30 years I found this series most unsatisfactory for many of the reasons you have outlined. Above all the thought that teachers in those regions have been trying to address the same issues for years and years, largely with few funds and little support. To turn these new teachers and students into the latest reality TV show was ethically inappropriate and will do little to acknowledge the efforts of those who have been at this job for a long time.
    Pity the various departments of education didn’t think about what they were putting their kids and teachers through before the cameras started to roll.

  9. Barbara Preston says:

    Thanks for a terrific post, Nisha and John.
    Barbara Torre Veltri, from Northern Arizona University and who spent a decade instructing hundreds of Teach for America “corps members”, wrote a very enlightening expose of TFA,: “Learning on Other People’s Kids: Becoming a Teach for America Teacher” (IAP 2010). It really helps in understanding the ideology and modus operandi of the Teach for All programs around the world.
    The purported success for Teach for America has been influentially used to argue against teaching qualifications as a “barrier to entry” to the teaching profession – for example in the Princeton/Brookings Institution Future of Children journal (special edition on Excellence in the Classroom, vol. 17, no. 1). This ignores that TFA is highly selective and demands high level qualifications – just not teaching qualifications ….

  10. Melissa Seymour says:

    Thank you, this article resonated deeply with me. A principal colleague I admire once told me when I had broken down in tears at a students poor performance, and my seeming inability to help them; “You are part of a system. That student had teachers before you and they will have teachers after you. You alone will not fail the child.” Those words stuck with me.

  11. Sue Whittnall CDU MEDI student says:

    As a teacher in a low socio-economic and remote Indigenous community of the NT of Australia and now commencing studies in Masters in Education International with CDU, I have found this introduction into my studies as stimulating to think about my possible research topic.

    I agree that the screening had its shortcomings, but the replies have balanced it out.

    I believe that in Australia, we need to change and learn from best practice in our own communities and globally to achieve academic success.

  12. Sue, good luck with the Masters in Education International. I did a similar program at Athabasca University (Canada), including some projects on indigenous education (noting the parallels between Australia and Canada with remote indigenous students). This gets a brief mention in my book “The benefits and challenges of m-learning” in Digital Teaching In Higher Education produced from my studies

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