Do on-screen teachers help or hinder real-life recruitment?

The government’s ‘Be That Teacher’ campaign aims to help address Australia’s teacher shortages, but film and TV stereotypes tell a different story

Dr Hugh Gundlach, University of Melbourne

Dr Hugh Gundlach

Published 12 December 2023

Australia is experiencing a teacher shortage caused by not enough people becoming teachers, high turnover of current teachers, the demand for teachers outpacing supply – or a combination of all of these factors.

My recent research on teacher retention included a meta-analysis of more than 60 factors of turnover and retention from almost 200 studies.

Robin Williams teaching a class in a scene from the film ‘Dead Poets Society’, 1989. Picture: Touchstone Pictures/Getty Images

Social approval and status of the profession had stronger associations with intentions to stay in the profession than all other factors, except for salary.

This means that how teachers feel about their profession relative to their peers, and how the profession of teaching is perceived in society is more closely associated with a decision to stay in the teaching profession than more than 50 other factors including resources, personal safety, student misbehaviour, workload and staff-to-student ratios.

The 2022 Quality Initial Teacher Education Review’s top recommendation was to raise the status of teaching.

Other research into how teachers are portrayed in the news media found it was overwhelmingly negative.

A survey I conducted with more 1000 Australian K-12 (kindergarten through to 12th grade) teachers and former teachers found a decreasing respect for teachers in the local community.

One respondent (a humanities teacher aged 32 with 10 years’ experience) captured the sentiment, saying:

“The lack of respect for teachers from both students and parents is incredibly frustrating. I’m often asked by students why I chose to be a teacher. I do often wonder whether I could have ‘done better’ professionally. This concern will probably be the reason why I ultimately leave the profession.”

And now that government is trying to rectify this problem.

Richard “Dick” Vernon was the main antagonist of the film, The Breakfast Club. Picture: Universal Pictures/IMDB

The Be That Teacher campaign aims to showcase the value and importance of teachers and encourages Australians to consider a career in teaching.

It has a secondary benefit of potentially raising the esteem of teaching to reaffirm current teachers’ intentions to stay in their schools and the profession – it’s a retention advertising strategy used by luxury brands to encourage loyalty.

But I couldn’t help but compare it with the parody teacher recruitment campaign of UK comedic duo, Armstrong and Miller, satirising the stereotypes of teachers as otherwise unemployable loners, losers, burnouts and people who life has passed by.

The teachers in the current campaign are inspiring, caring, committed individuals who have clearly made a difference – but is it enough to combat the existing on-screen portrayals of the profession?

My teachers on screen pilot study of 300 teachers in 200 different films and television series has already found trends that show an overrepresentation of negative portrayals of teachers.

So, how does the government’s campaign stack up against teacher portrayals on screen?

Well firstly, the campaign has a greater diversity of gender, age, and ethnicity, while film and television has an overwhelmingly young and white casting bias for teachers (actually, that applied to most film and TV roles, admittedly).

Siobhán McSweeney plays Sister Michael in the Channel 4 sitcom Derry Girls. Picture: Channel 4/IMDB

Secondly, each of the teachers in the campaign spots are inspirational, wholesome, enthusiastic, thoughtful, creative and caring mentors who know their students.

This is in stark contrast to teachers on screen who tend to be abusive authoritarians, negligent or losers.

Think Richard Vernon (The Breakfast Club); Sue Sylvester (Glee); Alfie Wickers (Bad Education); or Sister Michael (Derry Girls).

Thirdly, the major message of each campaign feature is that teachers make a long-term impact, even if it isn’t always appreciated at the time by their students. Only two of the teacher profiles deal with academic learning, instead focusing on social and interpersonal issues.

This is not so common in film and television, where teachers rarely play the hero role (Dead Poets Society, Freedom Writers) and are instead absent, antagonists or comic relief.

Fourthly, only three of the 12 video spots refer to the teacher leaving the school where they received the student thank you memento. On screen, good teachers commonly leave their students after making a difference – think Dead Poets Society, Mr Holland’s Opus, Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers.

Fifthly, the campaign focuses on the teacher’s connection to one student, rather than a whole class or all the students one teaches. The campaign name ‘Be That Teacher’ implies prospective recruits can be that teacher for at least one student.

This is not necessarily a favourable aim for real teaching but certainly screen portrayals often show the extra efforts teachers make for one student (Mean Girls, Akeelah and the Bee, Boy Meets World and the Harry Potter anthology).

Teachers can make a long-term impact, even if it isn’t always appreciated at the time by their students. Picture: Alamy

Finally, the campaign features the quiet end-of-day classroom setting, dark and solemn ‘museum space’, and poignant music, evoking a somewhat sad mood. It portrays teachers as real, emotional beings – several get teary – who care deeply about their charges.

But does it risk make teaching seem like a lonely job for martyrs who treasure ‘worthless’ artefacts over proper pay and good conditions?

It hardly echoes the excitement of the Navy’s recruitment campaign last decade, even though teaching has very dynamic elements.

The campaign content is real, true and sweet.

It understandably avoids issues of workload, pay, working conditions and the reality of having many students to make a difference for, all pain points for those who intend to leave or have left.

It doesn’t quite establish teaching as prestigious or respected in a public way, but it captures the truth that those who are intrinsically motivated and have passion will make a difference – a potentially life changing one.

Banner: Mean Girls/Paramount Pictures

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