Teachers deserve respect, not mockery
NBC’s new sitcom ‘AP Biology’ portrays a college philosophy professor who takes a position to teach AP Biology at a public school in Toledo, Ohio, and refuses to teach his students. This is a description of the show:
“When Harvard philosophy professor Jack Griffin fails to get his dream job and reluctantly moves back to Ohio to work as a high school Advanced Placement Biology teacher, he makes one thing very clear: he will not be teaching one bit of biology. Instead, realizing he has a room full of honor roll students at his disposal, Jack recruits the kids to help him mentally break his job-stealing nemesis and win back the position that's rightfully his.”
In the first episode of the show, Jack Griffin compels his students to harass a former colleague on the internet. He makes one of his students read aloud one of the messages he has forced them to write, and as the young woman blushes reading the sexual innuendo Jack Griffin coaches her on what is appropriate tone for a first sex message, as the principal of the school watches in disbelief. It is not just Jack Griffin whose unprofessionalism is the subject of the show, all educators portrayed in the first show are shown in a demeaning light. At the teachers lounge, two teachers engage in conversation about how one of them sends her boyfriend pictures of her behind. Jack asks them what to do with a student who is been bullied and they reply that he should force the victim to hang out with the perpetrator. The principal of the school is incapable to sanction Jack who has destroyed school property.
Humor is in the eye of the beholder, and no one is obligated to watch this show. Perhaps some people will find it funny.
I don’t find a show portraying a teacher teaching out of field, who exploits his students for personal gain and who refuses to teach them, funny. A teacher who spends class time describing his sexual fantasies to his students, who forces them to sexually harass a former colleague and who describes how he urinated in a public place because he was frustrated that he was unable to have sex with a former girlfried, now in a new relationship. Sexual harassment and bullying in schools are topics that deserve serious attention, not the subjects of jokes. Some of the pathologies which this show uses to try to make people laugh belong in the same domain as the pathologies that the #MeToo movement is beginning to expose, not in the category of entertainment.
The countries in which students have the best opportunities to learn are those that make teaching a respected profession, the kind of profession that attracts talented people, where teacher candidates are rigorously prepared and supported for the job, and where once in the job they are continuously supported, and held accountable, to teach their students. Whether it is in Singapore, China, South Korea or Finland, teaching is the kind of profession which the society admires, not makes fun of. In Singapore, for instance, teachers are revered as ‘nation builders’, a message that is repeated often, including in signs on buses It would be hard to imagine a sitcom focused on the pathologies that AP Biology portrays in those countries.
The United States has work to do still to build a real teaching profession. We face the most severe teacher shortage in the last twenty five years. Teaching is no longer as attractive a profession as others that require similar levels of preparation and skill. While multiple factors contribute to diminished candidates to schools of education, one of them is the esteem in which the profession is held in the society.
Highly qualified teachers are critical to help students gain the competencies they need to thrive in the twenty first century. The development of the expanded range of skills that are needed for the jobs of the present and of future, requires not teachers teaching out of field, or people who don’t teach, or characters as those portrayed in NBC’s sitcom, but professionals of high standards and integrity. We certainly need students to learn science, and math, and ethics, and making fun of how none of this is happening in the imaginary public school where AP Biology takes place is hardly a subject of lighthearted humor.
It is clear that NBC is not celebrating these behaviors, but mocking them. But NBC would in all likelihood not air a sitcom portraying a psychopathic member of the military, the clergy or even an anchor in one of their prime time news. In particular, it would be especially offensive if the mockery focused on professional malpractice. I would hope the leaders of the network would see a sitcom mocking TV anchors sexually harassing their employees as inappropriate, as NBC in particular is aware of the devastating consequences of such events when they happen in real life.
That a major TV network would have the good sense not to make the military, the clergy or news professionals the subject of mockery would be fitting for it is in America’s interest that we treat these professions with the respect they deserve, not as a subject of ridicule or normalizing the disfunctions that lead to highly unethical behavior in sitcoms. NBC’s leadership should revisit their choice of mocking teachers.