One of the first students I ever taught recently related her initial impression of me on her first day in my class:
“You were Snape, Mr. Kirk.”
She hit it right on the head. That was exactly who I was channeling that day. I wanted those students to look upon me and know fear.
A little background: it was my first day at the school and my first permanent teaching contract and I was pretty nervous. But, as they say, the best defense is a good offense: I stormed into the classroom after them, slammed the door and cupboards in my wake as I powered-walked to the front of the class to face them, quaking in their seats, and cried: “In this class, there will be no silly antics or misbehaviour. You are here to learn – and learn you shall. I can teach you secrets of grammar and of ways to use the English language that you have never dreamed.”
(Some of you might recognize this as a modified form of Professor Snape’s speech from Harry Potter’s own first day in Potions class).
At times, teaching is a performance-based profession. Sometimes we model our teaching styles after other notable teacher figures in our lives – perhaps even fictional ones. The conversation with my former student made me think about some of the other teacher characters I’ve consciously or subconsciously copied in various lessons over the years. Here are some of my favorites, and whether you’re a teacher by profession or do some kind of teaching to someone in some way, I hope these may offer inspiration, models and ideas.
PROFESSOR X: THE RELATABLE TEACHER
Professor X has to be the penultimate teacher, a classic intellectual figure and Ph.D. who comes with his own mansion/library. X knows what his students are about to say before they even say it, and who can argue with someone who knows your very thoughts? But besides his formidable intellect and telepathic powers, there’s another reason why Xavier is so cherished by his students: he is the teacher who teaches from a relatable perspective.
I have a number of colleagues who fit this model. They grew up in my school’s neighbourhood and they know all the hang-outs, the clubs, the sports teams – all the perennial neighbourhood features. As such, they know the average student’s lifestyle and life experience to the minute detail.
Xavier had the same mutant experience as his protégés as he grew up. He knew the fear, the apprehension of the humans in 1960’s America regarding mutants. He could relate intimately to his students on that basis and was likewise able to relate his teaching philosophy from a practical level. Having the capacity to read their minds seemed almost non-essential because of this.
ALBUS DUMBLEDORE: THE SUPER TEACHER
This teacher lives at his school, has no family, and protects and cares for a student like his own child. In Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, he personally seeks the student out at his own home to take him to school and spends most of his private moments berating himself for all the mistakes he’s made.
This is an extreme example of the archetype I like to call “Super Teacher”. This is the overly dutiful guy who volunteers his lunch hours to supervise clubs or activities, stays long after hours, eats the apple someone left on his desk and then stays even later to attend parent council meetings and such. He’s an ideal all teachers try to aspire to be but that we can never fully emulate because of the demands or rigours on our everyday lives.
Dumbledore knows that Harry Potter is an important kid. Not only from the point of view that he will be the one to vanquish Voldemort, but from the perspective that this is an orphan who has a lousy home-life with his relatives. This is a kid who needs one adult in his life to stand up for him, an idea mirrored in contemporary teaching philosophy.
The idea is that you identify these kids who really need a caring adult in their lives. Most kids are generally well-established, so you look for those strays that you coach, encourage, and make accountable to you in times of crisis so that you can intercede on their behalf when necessary. This way, the kids see that if they are important to you, then maybe they’ll realize their own sense of self-importance well enough so that they can re-join the rest of the fold.
BATMAN: THE HARSH TEACHER
Batman is a demanding, relentless and punishing taskmaster who forces his charges to learn their lessons whether they want to or not. Whatever consequences that result from a lesson learned poorly is certainly the student’s own fault and the teacher wastes no tears in sharing that information with them. What a jerk. Or is he?
Now, nobody goes into teaching with the desire to see any negative consequences for his students, but a teacher has to inure himself to seeing students harm themselves in making bad choices. When he delivers bad news to students or enforces consequences – then, in the students’ eyes, that teacher is a “jerk.”
In the comic series Batman and the Outsiders (1983 – 1986), Batman takes a rogue group of neophyte metahumans and shapes them into a crusading team of superheroes. In the process, he has to crush their pride, break their preconceived notions of justice, squash their individualism and teach them how to function as a team.
At times, he borders on the ruthless: he callously tells Metamorpho, disfigured and cursed with freakish powers, to submerge his desires for normality to serve the public good. He may look like a freak, but he needs to act like a man. In short: suck it up, Buttercup.
Batman is the harsh (but ultimately caring) teacher who lets students make their mistakes and suffer the consequences of their poor decision making. Why? Because that is often the only way the lesson is ever truly learned.
OBI WAN KENOBI: THE BRIEF TEACHER
We don’t see a lot of Ben Kenobi’s teaching style in the original Star Wars trilogy. His nobility and his belief in Luke force him to sacrifice himself early in their relationship so that his student and his friends can escape and give the rebellion a fighting chance. Kenobi’s sacrifice obviously has a drastic, emotional effect on Luke. While he is gone, he isn’t forgotten.
Did you ever have a substitute teacher who completely changed the way you looked at things? You walk into class, expecting the same old routine, but lo, and behold: you meet a supply teacher who will be with your class for a number of months while your regular teacher recovers from knee surgery or something (in Luke’s case, he hasn’t met his “regular” teacher, Yoda, yet). During that time, a connection is made. You seem to understand material more easily. The new teacher explains things to you in ways that make more sense. You enjoy interacting with this new teacher and you even like coming to school more.
Then, one day, just as soon as he had arrived, he’s gone. Your new source of information and learning is gone. There’s no warning; it’s abrupt and it’s over. But the source will be with you, always, and when you resume study with your regular teacher, you are more ready to learn.
GANDALF: THE MENTORLY TEACHER
I can’t really say I consider Gandalf a true teacher, but he sure took the Hobbits on some crazy field trips. Ha!
Even though he wasn’t a traditional teacher, he certainly played a pivotal part in shaping Bilbo into the hobbit he grew into. He was also a very influential figure in Frodo’s life. Sometimes, a lot of kids simply need a teacher to be just that: less a figure to pontificate at them and more someone who they can just turn to, in times of crisis, in times of need.
When Gandalf fell in Moria, Frodo’s despair was genuine. The back-story of The Fellowship of the Ring infers that Frodo and Gandalf have that sort of a mentoring relationship. Bilbo is the one responsible for raising Frodo, instilling in him knowledge of Elvish and curiousity about the world outside of the Shire, but Gandalf does a lot to facilitate that upbringing. In Bilbo’s absence, it is Gandalf who Frodo turns to out of a need for guidance when the truth of the Ring’s identity is finally made known.
RUPERT GILES: THE BRAINY TEACHER
Rupert Giles, from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, represents that stuffy, autocratic, stereotypical teacher character that you traditionally see in literature. To top it off, he’s British.
This is the pure Brainy Teacher who reigns supreme in his classroom by virtue and fiat of the sheer weight of knowledge he possesses. No one can dispute his authority lest they suffer his wrath. Too often, though, Giles tries to solve Buffy’s problems with stuffy, calculated solutions. Buffy’s usual responses to his ministrations are flippant, relaxed and simple – but, effectively simple. This sort of exchange characterizes the nature of their relationship and how to deal with the Brainy Teacher. Buffy’s responses, while counter to Giles’ attitude, are not counter-authoritative.
Now, I don’t want to sound overly Hegelian here, but this is a relationship clearly descended from the theory of the dialectic. This is an intellectual exchange of ideas in that Giles might present a thesis, which Buffy would clearly respond with an antithesis. The resulting clash forms a synthesis and the solution to their mutual problem. This dialectic has been reached through thought, discussion and the sharing of different perspectives – exactly the way that an intellectual like Giles himself would arrive at a conclusion. Buffy works within Giles’ system, which is how one has to deal with a Brainy Teacher.
MORPHEUS: THE DREAMY TEACHER
I remember I had a grade 12 Trigonometry teacher who used to take up a third of every period waxing philosophically about the necessity of understanding the details of mathematic principles as exploring truth rather than just accepting things at face value. He would lecture endlessly about the virtues of math as they related to life, when all I wanted to know was how does the damn trig chart work?
This is the Dreamy Teacher. The Dreamy Teacher archetype is great for awakening passion and curiosity in his students. Often, he is a man or woman of great conviction. Morpheus hates what the Matrix represents so much, and believes that Neo is the One so fully, that he is willing to give his life to enable his student to achieve his potential. Now that’s conviction.
The danger of the Dreamy type is that he tends to forget that in life, problems have to be solved. While endless debate and pondering are great intellectual stimulation, there are some of us who are not going to be experts in the subject being taught, but simply need to have a working knowledge of it in order to obtain a decent educational foundation. Inspiring your students is great, but don’t forget to back it up with practical knowledge.
NICK FURY: THE PRACTICAL TEACHER
Speaking of practicality, no one can accuse this guy of not being practical.
At first, Nick Fury doesn’t seem like a typical teacher-figure; he is more a man who lived for danger and enjoyed getting into trouble. He is the typical representation of the “Greatest Generation” who earned his degree attending the School of Hard Knocks and rose through the ranks the old-fashioned way through grit and determination.
Of course, while that type of success very rarely happens any more in the private sector, it is highly prized in the teaching world. Experience is the best teacher, and those teachers who come to the classroom with experience probably make the best ones.
Nick Fury is a second-career teacher. After the Skrull Invasion, he lost his director’s position, went underground and recruited a cadre of young superheroes he could train to function as an independent, uncorrupted force for good. He trained them to accomplish missions, follow orders unquestioningly and get the job done – whatever it takes, with the end justifying the means (kind of like Batman).
Teachers who come from the working world tend to have this attitude. In the “real world,” these Practical Teachers know that results matter and aren’t too hung up on matters of protocol, procedure or even decorum. They know that when students get into the working world, they won’t be allowed to submit a second copy, get an extension on a deadline or whatever extra consideration they’ve been known to get from previous teachers and, as such, prepare their students accordingly.
INDIANA JONES: THE COOL TEACHER
These are the words that describe Indian Jones: adventurous, brilliant, multi-disciplinary, charming…the list goes on. The man can lecture on ancient civilizations while simultaneously, unintentionally capturing the hearts of college sophomores. Later on, he gets hand-picked for an important archaeological expedition and one of the greatest adventure stories of all time. Who wouldn’t want to be taught by someone like this?
But what makes this guy the Cool Teacher type is his rarity. There aren’t many teachers who are gifted like this, who can bridge theory and practice with such ease, and who are as willing to get their hands dirty like Indy does – in other words, who practice what they preach and then some.
But we want them to be. We want our teachers to be so multi-capable. We hold them to such a high degree of expectations that we expect them to be parents, leaders, psychologists, protectors, administrators, as well as academicians and experts.
We want our teachers to be heroes.
Many people can remember at least one teacher in their life who was like this. Maybe she wasn’t a gun-wielding, whip-snapping expert on ancient cultures, but at least this person gave the student someone they could try to emulate. Even if there was just one such person in our schooling experience that we wanted toteach try and be like, don’t you think that the cumulative effect of that would improve the world just a little bit?
Maybe using figures in pop culture as teaching models is a bit silly, but remember: we are all the sum of our experiences and teachers are no different. Teachers are influenced by these archetypes in literature and pop culture and we, in turn, are all greatly affected by the way our teachers teach us. Most importantly, because these characters are so widespread and familiar, they help to enhance communication in the classroom. Students will know what you’re trying to teach because they’ve either read or seen a notable character try to teach something in a similar way. So if I have to channel a psychotic Death-Eater of a wizard to enforce a little bit of classroom discipline in a group of unruly teenagers, then so be it. Maybe there’s a lesson in that?
Editor’s Note: Just as this post was completed we learned that Marcia Wallace, the voice of Mrs. Krabappel, Bart Simpson’s teacher on The Simpsons, passed away. To another one of the great teacher characters in pop culture: thank you for the laughs.