What TV’s “Glee” Gets Right about Teaching

Stereotyping Aside, Some Truths about Teachers and Teenagers

 

Sarah Brwon Wessling

Call me a “Gleek”

I’m a self-proclaimed geek. Even our class website is called Geek Like Me. I’m not ashamed to become a veritable dervish of excitement over the Alice Walker book I just finished, the TEDtalk that kept me up an extra half-hour the night before, or the latest Zadie Smith piece in Harper’s. And as happy as I am to troll the literary criticism stacks at the library, I also can’t help but set my DVR for a few pop culture favorites: Andy Cohen, Bobby Flay, The Amazing Race and without fail, Glee. In fact, I just recently finished my “back-to-school ritual” of re-watching every episode of Glee, and I continue to be surprised at just how hooked I get. Yeah, it’s campy for sure. And the writing, well, it’s better the first two seasons, but it’s the kids that I just can’t get enough of.

Portraying schools and teachers is nothing new on either the small or big screen. Always, it’s some version of the truth that gets generalized into character types and story arcs. Sure, Glee does this too sometimes.

  • We know that Mr. Shue is assigned to more than one course a day, but we rarely see him engaged in the kinds of things teachers would do for the other seven class periods a day. Likewise, he seems responsible for about 15 versus 170 students a day.
  • Apparently, schools in Glee-world can hire school nurses without credentials, substitute teachers who don’t follow the curriculum, and cheerleading coaches who frame and bully the weakest students.
  • Not to mention, administrators who always seem to “have their hands tied”, make decisions whimsically and often for their own self-preservation.

I know, I know. Versions of the truth. That drama has to come from somewhere.

All the stereotyping and exaggeration aside, there’s a lot Glee gets right about teaching too. I suppose it’s not the surface story, but the “real” one that keeps me coming back again and again.

1. Teachers are human too…and students know it. Even though it’s often in the service of drama and good TV, I love the way that Glee makes the teachers human. The kids know when Mr. Shue is fighting with Sue Sylvester, when he’s struggling with his marriage or when Miss Pillsbury has left his love unrequited. But this means they also know when he’s passionately supporting them, when his concern is genuine or when his disappointment deserves an attitude adjustment. He creates mutual respect. He’s as sure to listen as he is to speak and even though he’s a teacher clearly making a difference to his students, his boundaries are clear.

2. It’s all about the “lesson” which often reveals itself. I often fantasize that I could have the kinds of lessons Mr. Shue has that seem to come wrapped nicely with a bow on top. But then I realize how the lesson works and it suddenly seems doable.

  • He announces it: “This week’s lesson is…”
  • It’s always a challenge of some sort. They must find their voice, create a mashup, collaborate with an unlikely partner or write their own song.
  • Then he gives them time: to think, to practice, to make mistakes, to collaborate, to innovate, to discover.
  • There’s always a performance. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard talk about grades on the show. It’s a point worth considering: the students’ purpose isn’t about getting an arbitrary “A”, it’s about a successful performance.
  • The lesson is always relevant because it’’s always about the students. A voice exercise becomes a life exercise, a performance anxiety becomes an empowered person, a personal conflict becomes a call to action.

3. Mr. Shue is happiest when the kids are performing. Some of my favorite moments are when the kids are performing and he’s watching. Of course, he is sure to get in some great musical numbers during rehearsals and class, but that just gives his instruction more credibility. When the kids perform, he’s beaming with the pride of not being needed anymore – the hallmark of any effective teaching.

4. Lives of teenagers are complex. No matter how deliberate the planning or how precise the instruction, we can never fully account for the complex lives teenagers lead. There’s so much for them to figure out outside of school and sometimes the most important thing we can offer is a safe place in school where they can sip a respite of camaraderie as they work to find their authentic selves.

5. Teenagers need an anthem. They do! With all those hormones and misguided invincibility, coming through young adulthood deserves celebration. When I imagine the anthems my students might write to usher them out of high school and into the world, I hope they are ones of self-realization and purpose, empathy and potential, confidence and passion.

Watching public perception of teaching can seem to me, as distorted as Law and Order must be to lawyers or police detectives. It’s usually the inherent complexities and all the nitty-gritty work that would make for terrible TV that never sees a script. But, I’ll take the moments that work, the ones reflecting a truth we all contend with or aspire to, and I’ll take them in a song.

When do you think TV and film get teaching right? Get it wrong? Let’s get the discussion started!

Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter – @SarahWessling.

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