An English teacher I had at school couldn’t stand that Robin Williams movie, Dead Poet’s Society. The ideal of the enthusiastic teacher jumping about on all the desks, monologuing center stage gave him the shits, I was surprised to learn.

Then, when I was at teachers’ college myself, I remember the tutor saying a few times, “Now you may have seen [X] happen on the movies, but don’t ever do that.” If you overthink it, it’s bizarre that teachers’ college students need to be told this, because we’d all spent 13 years in the school system ourselves, so you’d think we’d have known the difference between movies and real life. But no, a few things still needed saying. Especially since university lectures are different again, and in just four years you tend to forget.

Then there are simple details which you see all the time in school stories without really thinking (perhaps until the fridge moment), that doesn’t really happen in schools.

Take for example The History Boys (film or play), written by Alan Bennett.

COMPULSORY PHYSICAL EDUCATION

Bennett went to school a long time before the 1980s, which is when this play is set. He writes in his 2004 diaries of some issues faced when depicting a modern(ish) school.

First he had to take out a gymnasium scene, because by the 1980s sixth formers wouldn’t have been enrolled in physical education.

LOCKERS

As part of his research, Bennett visited the London Nautical School to avoid outdated clangers.

My main impression is how burdened the boys are, humping all their possessions with them wherever they go so that they’re slung round with coats, togs, books and bags, none of them seemingly having their own locker or desk.

This is true in my experience too (both as student and teacher). Students (at least outside America? don’t tend to have allocated lockers anymore. This was to do with theft and vandalism, and no doubt also to do with the tendency for students to leave uneaten food in their lockers, to rot the wood and attract rodents.

The students at our local high school can rent a locker, which costs ten bucks per term. I wondered who paid that (parents, I guess) and according to the local high school girl I know, they’re popular for storing jackets in. It is terribly uncool to wear a jacket around here, but some parents make kids take them anyway. Once at school, the jackets/coats are shoved into the lockers and that’s where they stay.

If you’re wondering how the local youth keep warm, short answer they don’t, but the slightly longer answer is that they wear two jumpers instead.

I wonder how many schools still have lockers, compared to how many fictional students still have lockers. In American school dramas we always see scenes involving lockers. The lockers themselves are often used as a plot device, with plantings of drugs and offensive graffiti emblazoned across them, and love notes pushed through the cracks, and timid boys being locked inside… In fact, everything I know about lockers comes from fiction:

Now, it is possible to slip a note into a locked locker through the vents. Even, with some pushing, a pencil. Once, Tiny Cooper slipped a Happy Bunny book into my locker. But I find it extraordinarily difficult to imagine how Jane, who, after all, is not the world’s strongest individual, managed to stuff an entire winter coat through the tiny slits in my locker.

– from Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan.

But I have no idea how many North American schools still provide lockers for their students. (Perhaps one of you will enlighten me.) In New Zealand, as in England (like Bennett observed), most students lump around a bag full of textbooks all day. This can’t be good for the back. I think at some schools parents are starting to complain about this, and lockers may be making a comeback.

SARCASM

Bennett writes:

Nicholas Hytner has shown the script of The History Boys to one of his former teachers at Manchester Grammar School, who says that teaching these days is so circumscribed that many traditional tools of the trade are now impermissible. Sarcasm, for instance, is out, pupils are never touched and there are often viewing panels in the doors.

Each of these observations is very true, and it does frustrate me when I see sarcastic dialogue from teachers in modern fictional schools. We were taught firmly at teachers’ college that sarcasm is a no-no — and the objection doesn’t just come from above; today’s students detect sarcasm in a second, and will pull you up on it. I remember filling in for another teacher, turning up to anarchy and saying, ‘Some quiet would be nice.’

One of the students was listening, at least. She turned to me and said, ‘Watch the sarcasm, Miss.’

And if I hadn’t been so busy with the humdrum, time-consuming and dreary job of calling a class of unknown students to attention, I might have delivered a lesson on what ‘sarcasm’ actually means, and how it compares to ‘understatement’ but this was a maths lesson. (I also remember later in the hour being asked how to do quadratic equations, and I was of no help whatsoever with that.)

Yet authors of fictional teachers are still making heavy use of sarcasm in lessons, and this lacks authenticity to me… Which is problematic if authenticity is what they are going for.

PHYSICAL CONTACT

Regarding the touchy issue of touching, in every school you’ll probably find at one point in staff history:

  • a teacher who gets away with quite a bit of physical contact because they have a wonderful rapport with all of their students, and it never gets them into trouble
  • at least one teacher who crosses the line, and who seems to get a certain titillation out of mildly through wildly inappropriate touching of students. This is my own experience of schools.

But most teachers never, ever touch students, not even in kindness. So when I see a teacher in a fictional drama touching a student, even on the shoulder, even to gain attention, I notice.

I also notice when a teacher keeps a student behind after class for a talking to. Even if this is innocent — like ‘Where’s your homework?’ — I always think how unlikely it is, that a teacher would keep a student behind after class. Teachers know to keep their classroom doors open, and when speaking to an individual student, keep their friends along too, or just outside the door, within earshot. Isn’t every modern teacher ever-aware of fictional claims of sexual abuse and harassment? Even fictional characters? I get the impression that authors of fictional teachers underestimate this unfortunate and lingering anxiety.

BEFORE THE BELL

So often in American dramas the bell rings; students snap their books shut, stand up, walk out.

I have never seen this scenario (except with one teacher who, it was widely acknowledged, had major problems controlling her classes).

What usually happens is this:

1. The teacher is keeping an eye on the clock about every five minutes. (You don’t see this much in dramatised classrooms either.) The teacher is often more cognizant of the end of class than the students, and it is the teacher who orchestrates the wind-up of a lesson.

2. About ten minutes before the end, a good teacher will ask the class to contribute to a recap of the day’s learning material. There’s usually some boring admin stuff, like homework, but I can forgive a scriptwriter for leaving that stuff out.

3. A tidy teacher will ask students to pick up any litter on the floor, and if it’s the last lesson of the day, the chairs will go up onto the desks. (Can you think of a single time you’ve seen this on the screen?)

4. If students start packing up before they are requested, any teacher with middling management skills still knows to put the kybosh on that, or else students soon learn that they can pack up a good 20 mins before the end of each class and battle for position near the exit, ready to burst out the door with the first tinkle of the bell. Any teacher who lets this happen is not on top of things.

So why, in fiction, do students pack up and leave taking their cue from the bell, not their teachers, with ‘good’ teachers shouting over top of the ruckus in order to finish their sentence?

STUDENT CENTERED LESSONS

In modern classrooms, students have far more to say than in the classrooms of yesteryear. The teacher is no longer a lecturer; rather a facilitator. Students are frequently divided into groups, set to work on a task (often on a computer), then present to their peers.

What I see in fictional classrooms: The teacher yaks. Students listen. This is a particularly vexing scenario when the class is supposed to be ‘difficult’.

I can tell you for a fact, modern students have little tolerance for lengthy lectures. There are still lessons during which teachers do a goodly proportion of the talking, but they are not met with the bright and alert faces which are seen so often on TV and movies. What you definitely get during a high school lecture lesson is a teacher who is telling Amy to stop talking, Corey to refrain from tapping the desk with his pencil, Riley to quit rustling with whatever is in that plastic bag yadda yadda yadda.

The most realistic depiction of a fictional classroom that I have seen is Summer Heights High (Australia), closely followed by Seven Periods With Mr Gormsby (New Zealand). Matt Lucas as Vicky Pollard and Catherine Tate’s ‘am I bovvered’ are also scarily accurate. That, of course, is exactly why they’re funny. These are all parodies, yet they achieve a realism that serious drama can’t seem to match.

These depictions get a bit closer to what really happens in a modern high school lesson, at least in Australia, NZ and England. The Catherine Tate sketch is scarily accurate… A VERY similar thing happened when I went to teach English to the English with a New Zealand accent. I almost think Catherine Tate was a fly on the wall that day, especially since my main sparring partner was called Lauren.

Related Links:

High School Hierarchy in YA Fiction

The Most Realistic TV Shows About High School, like, ever, from Flavorwire.