Speechless to Speechless

Nontraditional Teacher Characters in Recent Sitcoms


Mary M. Dalton


Television series have featured teachers since the first years of the medium. Connie Brooks, of Our Miss Brooks (CBS 1952–56), is among the most popular sitcom educators, and she conforms easily to the pattern of the idealized teacher, which dominated among TV series until the last fifteen years. In keeping with traditional, gendered representations, she was a spinster. In recent years, depictions of TV teachers have become more complex, such as Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski (HBO 2002–08). At first, this was a positive development as women characters balanced a successful professional life with personal relationships, but the trend has reversed more recently. The “good” teacher on TV has become overshadowed by negative portrayals of educators who: flee in emotional distress (Mike & Molly, CBS 2010–16); behave inappropriately (Teachers, TV Land 2016–19); straddle the childish and tawdry (Those Who Can’t, 2016– ); and, are generally deplorable (Vice Principals, HBO 2016–18). Two of the most promising educator characters on television are not conventional teachers, Kenneth (Speechless, ABC 2016– ), an aide to a severely disabled student, and Issa (Insecure, HBO 2016– ) an employee at a non-profit education organization. Kenneth and Issa, both played by African-American actors, are not classroom teachers, and their status as “outsiders” to the institution of education (a concept also explored in terms of race) separates them from the downward spiral of depictions of educators on television, notably the deprofessionalization of teaching during the years since the enactment of No Child Left Behind and Common Core. This chapter examines intersectional approaches to Kenneth’s character in Speechless ranging from his positioning as a man of color, a caregiver, a “man’s man,” an honorary member of the family, and a school employee and explores these categories as a basis for the construction and performance of a character that brings more positive than negative attributes into the blighted media landscape featuring educators on television.

Teachers, Teaching, and Media

Original Essays about Educators in Popular Culture


Edited by Mary M. Dalton and Laura R. Linder

Popular representations of teachers and teaching are easy to take for granted precisely because they are so accessible and pervasive. Our lives are intertextual in the way lived experiences overlap with the stories of others presented to us through mass media. It is this set of connected narratives that we bring into classrooms and into discussions of educational policy. In this day and time—with public education under siege by forces eager to deprofessionalize teaching and transfer public funds to benefit private enterprises—we ignore the dominant discourse about education and the patterns of representation that typify educator characters at our peril.

This edited volume offers a fresh take on educator characters in popular culture and also includes important essays about media texts that have not been addressed adequately in the literature previously. The 15 chapters cover diverse forms from literary classics to iconic teacher movies to popular television to rock ‘n’ roll. Topics explored include pedagogy through the lenses of gender, sexuality, race, disability, politics, narrative archetypes, curriculum, teaching strategies, and liberatory praxis. The various perspectives represented in this volume come from scholars and practitioners of education at all levels of schooling. This book is especially timely in an era when public education in the United States is under assault from conservative political forces and undervalued by the general public.

Contributors are: Steve Benton, Naeemah Clark, Kristy Liles Crawley, Elizabeth Currin, Mary M. Dalton, Jill Ewing Flynn, Chad E. Harris, Gary Kenton, Mark A. Lewis, Ian Parker Renga, Stephanie Schroeder, Roslin Smith, Jeff Spanke, and Andrew Wirth.