Bad Teacher is an interesting film because notwithstanding the numerous violations of the protagonist, and how in a real classroom she would be fired and probably prosecuted for any number of things that she did over the course of the movie, Cameron Dias’s performance speaks to a different facet of education under late capitalism– of once bright teachers burning out and becoming fetid.
Obviously, my intent here is not to talk about the absurd antics of the film. Those are spoken of on the face of it every time a laugh is admitted from the audience. No. I want to direct your attention to the way Dias portrays a teacher rarely seen in film or TV– the burnout who simply doesn’t care anymore and wants out.
Why talk about this? Well, in case you weren’t paying attention (and many people aren’t), education is in crisis. Literally, thousands of older teachers are retiring and there are not enough new teachers to fill the void; coupled with many other teachers who are simply quitting due to low-pay and low respect, education is not faring well. All of this is intriguing, though, because none of these statistical realities are really spoken of in the media; instead, what is usually shown is the ultra-dedicated, slavish, even, educator who raises above to win the day and breaks through to their students.
It is not as though these films are inaccurate. Many teachers at all levels, after all, do put in a Herculean effort despite the crummy pay. But it is hardly indicative of the whole professions where it will not take a whole lot of searching to find that teacher who just doesn’t know what to do anymore and views teaching as just another way to make ends meet.
It is easy to assume on a first viewing that Bad Teacher doesn’t have anything intelligent to say about education. Elizabeth is so incompetent that you wonder how they ever got through college; aside from that, when we hear about her motivations early in the film– about shorter hours and “no accountability,” we can only imagine what sort of educational career she had prior to professional life. One might think that she faked their credentials or had connections. And yet, on a second viewing, one might whisper, “ah, so they do have some smarts!” when they watch Elizabeth handle the students.
Once the bonus incentive emerges as the motivating factor for Elizabeth to apply herself to teaching, we see a teacher that might have been an effective educator had her selfish personality been contained. At this point in the film, the audience sees that Elizabeth prepared a reading intensive syllabus; not only that, but she is surprised when the students hadn’t read the syllabus. It is a moment that suggests philosophy– Elizabeth is a very autonomy oriented teacher. She makes a lesson plan, presents it to the students, and leaves it to them to figure out while she lectures (or lack of lecturing, therefore). Is it idealistic in the extreme? Absolutely. But, it is a pedagogical approach that has merits when done correctly (which Elizabeth didn’t but you know).
Furthermore, as far as Elizabeth’s teaching methodology is concerned, it is not bad. In the scene where she asks the students about To Kill a Mockingbird, “Twilight” makes a sarcastic remark and is instantly exiled from the class; later, this heavy-handed approach is moderated by the “dodge-ball” scene which implies students may hit her with a ball if they correctly answer the question. Elizabeth’s classroom management techniques might lack finesse, but she does not mess around and neither does she send conflicting signals about authority and who is in charge.
Likewise, when she grades, she is blunt and to the point. Is it appropriate for her to swear and cuss at students? NO! Not by any means, but this is again an instance of her possessing skills that could be refined into pragmatic pedagogical abilities. Will said skills ever be refined? Well, she is a menace to society, so no, they won’t, but one can see how, in the real world, she could have been an educator who once upon a time had good intentions for their career. (Perhaps, she once had ideas about mixing harsh but fair criticism with praise?)
All of this taken together seems to indicate that the character of Elizabeth is one who lost their way. She clearly has educator-related skills. Yet also, clearly, she has abandoned those skills once it was clear to her that teaching would not give her the life she wanted. If this isn’t commentary– albeit a thinly veiled one– on contemporary society and how teachers, like anyone, can burn out, then I don’t know what is.