The Hollywood Curriculum

Teachers in the Movies – Third Revised Edition

by Mary M. Dalton (Author)
©2017 Monographs XVI, 244 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 495


The third edition of this book analyzes over 165 films distributed throughout the United States over the last 80 years to construct a theory of curriculum in the movies that is grounded in cultural studies and critical pedagogy. The portrayal of teachers in popular motion pictures is based on individual efforts rather than collective action and relies on codes established by stock characters and predictable plots, which precludes meaningful struggle. These conventions ensure the ultimate outcome of the screen narratives and almost always leave the educational institutions – which represent the larger status quo – intact and dominant. To interrogate "the Hollywood curriculum" is to ask what it means as a culture to be responsive to films at both social and personal levels and to engage these films as both entertaining and potentially transforming.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface to the Fourth Edition
  • Note
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Critical Theory and the Popular
  • Struggle, Consent, and Intertextuality
  • An Overview of Curriculum Theories
  • Overview of Subsequent Chapters
  • Notes
  • Chapter 2: The Hollywood Model: Who Is the Good Teacher?
  • Introduction
  • Teacher as Outsider
  • Personally Involved with Students
  • Teachers Learning from Students
  • Tension Between the Teacher and Administrators
  • A Personalized Curriculum
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter 3: The Aesthetic-Ethical-Political Value Frameworks of Good Teachers in the Movies
  • Introduction
  • The Aesthetic Classroom
  • The Ethical Relationship
  • The Political Language
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter 4: The Technical-Scientific Value Frameworks of Bad Teachers in the Movies
  • Introduction
  • The Technical Value Framework
  • The Scientific Value Framework
  • The Special Case of Physical Education Teachers
  • A Note on Ambiguous Exceptions
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter 5: Divided Lives: The Public Work and Private Pathos of Women Teachers in the Movies
  • Introduction
  • Nurture
  • The Ethic of Care
  • Teacher as Mother … Teacher as Other than Mother
  • Constraints
  • Historic and Contemporary
  • Resistance
  • Administration and Political Action
  • Divided Lives
  • Public Work and Private Pathos
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter 6: Here But Not Queer: The Mainstreaming of Gay Teachers in the Movies
  • Introduction
  • In & Out
  • The Object of My Affection
  • The Opposite of Sex
  • The Double Standard Persists: Songcatcher
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter 7: Power, Passion, and Teachers: Blurring the Line, Crossing the Line, Is There a Difference?
  • Palo Alto
  • The Skeleton Twins
  • A Word About Professors and Turning the Tables
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter 8: When the Podium Becomes a Pedestal: Race, Ethnicity, and Social Class in the Classroom
  • Minimizing Difference: Race, Ethnicity, and Social Class
  • Hidden Truths in High School High
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter 9: Drama Is Conflict: The Roles of Administrators in Hollywood Movies
  • Introduction
  • Standards and Practices
  • Administrator Archetypes
  • Principal as Buffoon
  • Principal as Bureaucrat
  • Principal as Autocrat
  • Principal as Caring Pragmatist
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter 10: Schools, Schooling, and Student Voices
  • Summary
  • Prophetic Voice and Critical Pedagogy
  • Alternative Visions of Schools and Schooling in the Movies
  • Notes
  • Filmography
  • Works Cited
  • Index
  • Series index

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Looking at popular representations of teachers in the movies and linking the depictions to curriculum theory and critical theory was a natural project for me. With an academic background in media studies and a professional background in television and film before I started my doctoral program in cultural studies and education, this research provided a way for me to integrate my love of media, politics, and education. Fortunately, my dissertation committee at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro agreed and provided valuable guidance for the project that ultimately became the first edition of this book over 20 years ago and the foundation for other articles, chapters, lectures, and books. In addition to this one, I co-authored a book with Laura R. Linder in 2008, Teacher TV: Sixty Years of Teachers on Television, and Laura and I co-edited a new anthology this year, Screen Lessons: What We Have Learned from Teachers on Television and in the Movies.

After three editions (1995, 2007, and 2010) it is time to make some additions and some adjustments to The Hollywood Curriculum: Teachers in the Movies, and I find in the process that there are both surprises and disappointments in the current representation of educators in popular culture. First, while I’m pleased by some of the strong revisionist films (like Half Nelson, 2006, and Detachment, 2011) and complex and compelling television series (like the fourth season of The Wire, 2006, and, for its depiction of an administrator, ← ix | x → the fourth season of Friday Night Lights, 2009–10) that have provided a richer range of educator characters, I’m disappointed that the depiction of the “good” teacher has largely been pushed to the wayside by representations of educators that seem influenced by 15 years of education policy and public discourse that undermine public schools and deprofessionalize teaching.

I don’t think No Child Left Behind was a “cultural moment” in the sense that all representations before 2001 were in the mold of the idealized teacher and everything after was negative, but there has been a broad shift in the volume and degree of representation over this period favoring negative representations of educators. There were complex portrayals before 2001 (the movie Election was 1999, for example) and heroic depictions after (Freedom Writers was released in 2007), but both negative portrayals and complex portrayals have become more common over the last 15 years, and the tropes of incompetence (Bad Teacher, 2011), disengagement (Art School Confidential, 2006), and even corruption (Cheaters, 2000) have become more and more dominant. The situation is even worse on television.1

I think about the relationship between media and culture as circular (and intertextual) – media affects culture, and culture affects media. It is difficult to find a linear cause and effect, but broad patterns exist, and there were depictions of “bad” teachers before recent conservative policies gained traction and started undermining public education (which has long faced funding inequalities at local levels because of the mechanism linking budgets to property taxes, creating a sliding scale where rich areas get more money than poorer areas). There are still depictions of “good” teachers in the classical mode I label The Hollywood Model, which is found in both television and the movies, but not so many as before. Seeing the dizzying array of selfish, crass, and incompetent educators – which is the dominant depiction on recent television series such as TV Land’s Teachers (2016–), TruTV’s Those Who Can’t (2016–), and HBO’s Vice Principals (2016–) – makes me sad, angry, and concerned about how public perceptions of the field will be influenced if there are not some powerful counter-narratives produced soon and in sufficient numbers.

I am almost astonished by the work that has been published on the depiction of teachers in popular culture and, particularly, in movies over the last two decades. There have been books, anthologies, articles, and many conference papers devoted specifically to this area of inquiry. Perhaps this should not be so surprising. After all, media and schooling are both ubiquitous. Some of the most interesting work published in recent years goes beyond textual analysis of the films and recounts how professors use popular culture texts, especially ← x | xi → motion pictures, to prepare pre-service teachers for the classroom. In the article “Culture and Pedagogy in Teacher Education,” Ronald Soetaert, Andre Mottart, and Ive Verdoodt discuss exercises they use in a teacher education program to help reveal “literacy myths” in popular texts. Others, including Dierdre Glenn Paul and James Trier, have written about their choices to use popular teacher films in teacher education programs for similar reasons, and the range of texts considered and exercises Trier has developed and written about is robust. Others uncover truths about teachers in the movies related to particular disciplines, such as Jacqueline Bach’s work on the cinematic approaches to teaching Shakespeare. And, still others provide a curriculum for teachers who want to integrate films into their classrooms. One of the better of these resources is Celluloid Blackboard: Teaching History with Film, edited by Alan S. Marcus, but there are a number of other guides and filmographies available to classroom teachers who want to integrate film into the curriculum.

There are also scholars who take a discipline-specific look at education and popular culture, such as sociologist Robert C. Bulman’s Hollywood Goes to High School: Cinema, Schools, and American Culture, which provides perspective on high schools according to the social class of the students. Some of the more recent books take a broader survey to look at movies, television, and music, such as Education in Popular Culture: Telling Tales on Teachers and Learners, by Roy Fisher, Ann Harris, and Christine Jarvis, Dial M for Mentor: Reflections on Mentoring in Film, Television and Literature by Jonathan Gravells and Susan Wallace, and How “The Teacher” is Presented in Literature, History, Religion, and the Arts, edited by Raymond McCluskey and Stephen J. McKinney. The discussions in these works are vigorous and useful, and I have not scratched the surface but, instead, have tried to provide a broad sweep of some of the strands of discourse in the conversation about education and the movies. One brand new book makes an especially important contribution to the literature. Jacqueline Bach’s much-needed examination of non-fiction media, Reel Education: Documentaries, Biopics and Reality, takes a critical look at the truth claims related to media texts about education that are constructed around “real life” and how these texts should be evaluated and taught.

Aside from the conventions of the good teacher movies, a great deal has changed since I began this work over 20 years ago. My first work on the topic, begun as a paper for Kathleen Casey’s curriculum theory course, looked at twenty-six films, and I viewed them on VHS. Sometimes even finding the films was a challenge. Now, I can find a number of the films I want to review ← xi | xii → on-demand online, or I can have a DVD delivered to my mailbox in a day or at most two. I am aware that this sounds a bit like telling a child I walked twelve miles through the snow to get to school because it’s so much easier now than it used to be, but the truth of the matter is that I will never again have to spend money to buy a terrible movie like The Teacher (1974) just so I can take a look. I am grateful for that dramatically improved access to films – many things are so much easier than they used to be with regard to this project and other critical media studies work that engages me.

What is next? Will films continue to exert the cultural power that they have for decades? I wish I knew the answer to that. I believe the dominance of the print culture has been supplanted by the moving image, but that means so much more than it used to – it’s no longer just film and television. Actually, I’m not sure exactly what it means. My now 24-year-old son has grown up in a non-linear, digital age, and he engages media differently from the way I do. We still watch movies together sometimes and talk about them, especially the “classics.” In the preface to the previous edition, I wrote, “I don’t think motion pictures, in the conventional sense, hold the same power over him that they do over me. He has always known a control over these narratives that is still new to me.” Now, I see clearly that I was wrong then because he is as engaged with moving images as I am and enjoys a full range of viewing pleasures from the television series Justified (2010–15) (which we are currently watching together when he comes by for a visit) to classic films from all cinematic traditions.

When I was a young teenager and saw part of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête (1946) on a public television station, I knew I was witnessing something special even though I had missed the beginning and feared not only that I could never see the film again but that I couldn’t even learn what it was. As a three-year-old, my son would tell me to start The Mask (1994) at chapter seven because that’s when Jim Carrey would put on the mask, and the action would start. He could choose to skip the exposition because he had the power to “cut to the chase.” In a way, he could produce the media he engaged almost from the very beginning. It is the same for our students, all of whom have their own experiences and preferences and ideas about media and the world. The only way we can learn from them is to listen, and learning is essential to teaching. Sometimes movies can bridge the gap or, at the very least, help us notice things about ourselves as individuals and as a culture that we might not find so accessible otherwise. ← xii | xiii →


1. I have become quite troubled by these representations and how the dominance of these narrative patterns will affect perceptions of teachers and public education for years to come. See Bethonie Butler’s article “Does Television Have a Teacher Problem?” in The Washington Post, published July 16, 2016.

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The idea for this book originated in conversation with Kathleen Casey. I owe an enormous debt to her and to Svi Shapiro, both of whom followed this work in the first edition page by page, contributing countless useful comments and challenging me to interrogate my own assumptions about the movies and culture. Likewise, Fritz Mengert and Hephzi Roskelly generously provided their own insights and suggestions about the Hollywood Curriculum. On this most recent edition, Chad E. Harris and Laura R. Linder were immeasurably helpful. A special thanks goes to my friends and colleagues at Wake Forest University and to David Solomon, whose daily encouragement coached me through the revision process.

For their more directed contributions through engaging conversation, with technical support, or by suggesting a book or movie title, I would like to thank the following people: Karen Anijar, Jackie Bach, Brooke Barnett, Pearl Berlin, Danny Borrell, Susan Borwick, Terry Bowers, Anne Boyle, John Bruns, Mark Burger, Carrie Buse, Linda Cabiness, Dawne Clark, Naeemah Clark, Rebecca Clark, Matt Clarke, Pam Cook, Elizabeth Currin, Steve Dalton, Eddy Daniel, Mary DeShazer, Ryan Eanes, Emily Edwards, Kirsten Fatzinger, Susan Faust, Denise Franklin, Adam Friedman, Candice Funderburk, Mary Gerardy, Ellen “Lennie” Gerber, Mary Ellis Gibson, Rebecca Goodrich, Ellen Hendrix, Woody Hood, Michael Hyde, Brett Ingram, Jennifer Jackson, Renata Jackson, ← xv | xvi → Steve Jarrett, Nick Johnson, Robert Johnson, Sherwood Jones, Mark Joyner, Melanie Joyner, Susan Joyner, Bill Kane, Karen Kantziper, Molly Keener, Carol Keesee, Doug Kellner, Brenda Knox, Candyce Leonard, Allan Louden, Jack Lucido, Sarah Magness, Martha Mason, Annemarie McAllister, Raymond McCluskey, Erin McInnis, Lauren McInnis, Stephen McKinney, Kathryn Milam, Maggie Mileski, Lisa Napoli, Jody Natalle, Stokes Piercy, DeeDe Pinckney, Dale Pollock, David Purpel, Ben Ramsey, George Reasner, Mary Reeves, Randy Rogan, Spencer Ross, Kaitlyn Ruhf, Katie Scarvey, Marshall Shaffer, Dalton Smoot, Ronald Soetaert, Lynn Sutton, Edwin G. Wilson, Emily Herring Wilson, Hu Womack, Bob Workmon, and Christopher Zydowicz.

Earlier versions of some material in Chapters 2 and 3 appeared in the article “The Hollywood Curriculum: Who is the Good Teacher?” published in Curriculum Studies 3(1):2–44 (1995). Earlier versions of the sections on High School High and Elephant in Chapter 8 appeared in “The Hollywood View: Protecting the Status Quo in Schools Onscreen” in Mirror Images: Popular Culture and Education, eds. Diana Silberman Keller, Zvi Bekerman, Henry A. Giroux, and Nicholas C. Burbules. Peter Lang: New York, 2008, pp. 9–22. I gratefully acknowledge permission to reprint from my earlier work.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the role each of the contributors to Screen Lessons: What We Have Learned from Teachers on Television and in the Movies for the ways their wonderful essays re-ignited my enthusiasm for this project and informed some of the elements of the new edition of The Hollywood Curriculum: Jarrod Atchison, Jacqueline Bach, Steve Benton, Robert C. Bulman, Dennis Conway, Erin Currin, Jennifer S. Dean, Adam Dovico, Emily D. Edwards, Alexa Erb, Christian Z. Goering, Chad E. Harris, Abigail Kindelsperger, Seung-Hyun Lee, Christine Mallozzi, Erin L. McInnis, Walter C. Metz, Raúl Alberto Mora, Rosemary Nyaole-Kowuor, Rob Phillips, Suzanne Regan, Sharon Marie Ross, Lara Searcy, Stephanie Schroeder, Shelly L. Shaffer, Roslin Smith, Stephen Tropiano, John Peter Watts, Susan D. Weinstein, Wendy R. Williams, Shelbie Witte, and – again – my co-editor, Laura R. Linder.

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XVI, 244
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (February)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XVI, 244 pp.

Biographical notes

Mary M. Dalton (Author)

MARY M. DALTON is Professor of Communication and Film and Media Studies at Wake Forest University. She is the co-editor of Screen Lessons: What We Have Learned From Teachers on Television and in the Movies and of The Sitcom Reader: American Re-viewed, Still Skewed with Laura R. Linder. In addition to her scholarly work in the area of critical media studies, she is a documentary filmmaker and a media critic.


Title: The Hollywood Curriculum
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