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How Hollywood stereotypes about teachers hold back learning


Hollywood often shows classroom scenes that depict a very glamorous version of learning.

These scenes are especially salient to Jessamyn Neuhaus, who is both a professor who teaches courses in popular culture and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.

There is one scene that she says typifies those moments. This is from a 2015 horror film called Pay the Ghost. It stars Nicolas Cage as a professor, and in one scene, after a dramatic lecture, his students burst into applause.

“It doesn’t help students and teachers to think, ‘Well, if it’s a good lecture, I’ll be moved by the applause,'” Neuhaus argues. “Studying is really hard and it won’t always feel like you want to get up and cheer when you’re studying. It takes a long time, requires struggle, failure and feedback.”

And the Hollywood image of the super teacher, she says, ends up limiting people who feel welcome in learning. Neuhaus explores these themes in his book “Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers,” as well as in an anthology she edited last year called “Imagine the professor: Interrupting preconceptions about teachers and improving student learning.»

EdSurge caught up with Neuhaus to discuss teaching stereotypes that many experts are now trying to combat — and even some recent TV shows about teaching.

Listen to the series on Apple Podcasts, It’s cloudy, Spotify, Embroiderer or anywhere you get podcasts or use the player on this page. Or read the partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: What do you see as the problem with how teaching is portrayed in popular culture?

Jessamyn Neuhaus: There is a cultural stereotype of the super teacher. It’s really ingrained in all of our minds. The only time you see someone teach in movies or on TV, the teachers we see on our screens are magnetic super dynamic performers who give lectures and the students sit there and magically learn just by being in the presence of this super – a teacher. This ideal is so impossible to achieve and really undermines how learning works. You can’t just pour knowledge into students’ heads.

And it undermines our self-efficacy [as teachers] unless we are super-performative, extroverted, or outgoing—which is often the case in academia. People with these skills may not enjoy sitting alone for long periods of time [researching].

Why do these images hurt teachers who don’t look like Hollywood actors?

It’s one thing to assume you know what you’re talking about – that you’re an expert in the field. Faculty who do not fit this truly limited embodied identity stereotype face far more student questions and skepticism. Does that person, especially in STEM, know how to do science, how to do math?

What can be done to stop these biases?

The book is full of specific strategies. One of the themes running through this is working to build understanding with students and improve student learning through proven methods such as active learning, anti-racist teaching practices and inclusive learning methods. Also find support—reach out and build community with other teacher educators. Several participants [in our new anthology] talk about how it made a difference just to talk to other teacher educators who are facing the same challenges and know, “Oh, it’s not just me.”

For example, when I started teaching early in my career, I was quite young. I was about 20 years old and I was indeed pregnant. If someone had said to me, “You know, students might have certain expectations or assumptions about you based on the fact that you’re a pregnant woman,” that would have been very helpful. The real irony is that I spent much of my graduate career studying how identity is created. But no one ever said, “Oh, and by the way, this will also affect teaching and learning when you come into the classroom.”

Is the way popular culture portrays learning improving?

I don’t see much change. There has been a slight diversification of super-teachers. So he’s not always white, not always straight, not always male. But the actual teaching and learning part? This stereotype has persisted. This is a description of learning as very passive and passive, that students can just sit, watch and listen. And of course, in the pictures, they are all magically watching, taking notes and asking questions.

I like to use the term effective learning, and I do so very consciously. I try not to even talk about “good” teaching, “great” teaching, and definitely avoid words like “super teachers.” I think those words can evoke that stereotype and that impossible ideal.

It makes me think of all the teacher of the year awards. Is that part of the problem?

I would never want to denigrate [winners of teaching awards] or refuse to recognize the really very effective training and work of people. But I think at all levels — from kindergarten to college — we live in a society that doesn’t give adequate credit and support to teaching. And every year it gets harder and harder to do my job. So in this context, what to focus on only a handful of exceptional people [through teaching awards] really undermines the fact that good, effective teachers are not born. They are made painstakingly, book by book, class by class. And I really think that this reward system can sap our energy and desire to just keep plugging away day after day always loving.

You said that the one exception to all of this is that you are a fan of the TV show “Abbott Elementary.”

There are some big differences [in that show]. The setting is very important, and the concentration of black American experiences as faculty and students is very important. But I think even beyond that, the way it reflects teaching is, as I talked about, the continuous learning process for teachers. The experience gained by senior teachers is very, very valuable. But they are all constantly learning to adjust and adapt and help their students learn. And I think it’s also very effective for demonstrating effective learning and all the different ways that that can look.

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