Where is the inspirational teacher in Australian popular culture, literature and film?

My last session with EDGD824, my English pre-service teachers at the University of Wollongong, arrives this week and I wanted to say something to inspire them. There’s endless pages of quotes that Google can deliver in service of such oratory and many American or British television shows, novels and films that could provide an uplifting excerpt or inspiring Youtube clip. I looked at my bookshelf and rifled through my memories. What about our Australian literary or cinematic culture? Hmmm…I searched, thought some more, tweeted, asked my friends and colleagues:

There are many fictional teachers in novels and films but can you name any inspirational Australian teacher-characters?

What did my search and own memories uncover? Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook is a great novel and film but hardly the stuff to inspire. In fact, I read this just before heading off to my own first country appointment and almost didn’t make it. Read the synopsis if you need to know why it is a dose of unhealthy realism and why it won’t feature. Similarly, the novel and film of Fortress by Gabrielle Lord is not what is needed and is all a little desperate.

I was sent links with no Australian texts and offered some very negative portrayals, including, from my good friend Mark who said, “Picnic at Hanging Rock…hold on, the teacher lost the kids”. Brendan tried to help, “what about Heartbreak High”? It was soon pointed out that the teacher had an affair with a student. The Bamboo Flute by Garry Disher has some poignant moments but I just remember when the teacher threw the flute in the bin (even though he redeems himself later on). Various tweets and Facebook posts mentioned The Getting of Wisdom and Letters from the Inside but neither seem to fit. The novel and film of Storm Boy, by Colin Thiele, is a personal favourite but the protagonist is avoiding school. He learns much though from the enigmatic Fingerbone Bill who memorably teaches him about the cycle of life. When Storm Boy does eventually go to school the teacher is very nice.

Source: http://www.yourkidsed.com.au/info/acmi-storm-boy

If one widens the search and thinks about teachers in a more holistic sense, we do not seem to have many, if any, Yoda-like characters or wise ones. Is there an Aboriginal elder in our fiction or cinema besides Fingerbone Bill whom fulfils this role? Not that I can find or has been suggested yet. The laconic bushman as teacher? Not really. Crocodile Dundee is not the answer either. Mr Fisher in Home and Away does not inspire, in my opinion.

Mr G from Summer Heights High was suggested – but not seriously. Although, I love our comedy, especially the ability to satirise, lampooning, with a skewer, hypocrisy and pretension, perhaps this skepticism is, in some ways, debilitating? Do Australians celebrate ordinariness to such an extent that holding a figure up as wise, or as someone to learn from, just feels uncomfortable?

In an era where teachers are often criticised by politicians and our standing in the Australian community is often talked down, certainly in comparison to Asian and Scandinavian countries, it is important that we work to build an improved attitude towards learning. Maybe my words should be about a shared future shaped by a generation of creative teachers and their students? It would be wonderful to build a vision into something tangible, something that that allows us to have a society where such positive imagery about teaching and teachers enters our popular, cinematic and literary culture and is not viewed as pretentious, elitist or cringeworthy. Wouldn’t it?


cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by BWJones 

There are many fictional teachers in novels and films but can you name any inspirational Australian teacher-characters?

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7 Comments

  1. David Chapman:

    Excellent question. I cannot think of any notable Aussie teacher characters, but then as I go on to imagine what a story might look like – it has me thinking about what kind of Aussie characters are presented as inspirational or heroic? Often our protagonists are affable, bumbling (often foolish), lovable rogues. It is hard to imagine a teacher like character starring in the third season of ‘Rake’ that would be inspirational (though would certainly be entertaining).

  2. Andrew FitzSimons:

    My family have been considering this question; nothing leaps to mind. Many of us have had inspiring teachers, I think I know that these relationships often resonate long after formal schooling finishes.

    One of the most intriguing/satisfying/frustrating/humbling aspects of teaching at Dapto HS is meeting up with former students and discussing their reflections on their schooling. Even those who struggled with our expectations are usually positive and open. A complex web of support for former students and them assisting current students (eg work experience opportunities) bubbles along beneath the surface.

    Something about Australia’s democratic culture and opportunity seems to shine through. Schools with a generous, inclusive, participatory spirit can grow this positive vibe.

  3. Lyndal:

    Mrs Carey in Mrs Carey’s Concert is a strong example of a rather single-minded teacher. Shame she’s not fictional

  4. Nic:

    Oh yes! As I was reading it, I was trying to think. Fortress is a great story but psychopathic, gun-toting criminals herding kids in the outback (if it’s the one I’m thinking of) is not the in the same league at To Sir With Love, Mr Holland’s Opus or Tuesdays with Morrie. I think the kids we teach appreciate things but don’t have the idea nor the stamina to follow through with getting stories out in public. Society devalues us and doesn’t care. My Canadian friend said when she first arrived she couldn’t believe how teachers were spoken about and treated here. Her father was a teacher in Canada so she was well aware of the respect teachers have there. Any teacher that can manage 30 different personalities, behaviours and their parents, for a year, should be revered or just accepted as a professional not dismissed and abused.
    Something needs to be done before none of our best and brightest go into teaching which would be a tragedy for the future.

  5. Jeremy de Laroche:

    Well, we’re talking about fictional mentors, aren’t we? There’s always Mr Wombat in Blinky Bill. I’m not sure if he was included in the original literature piece, but he was definitely in the animated cartoon in the 90s. Although, his advice was rarely heeded, he still was some form of ‘teacher’.

  6. Mark:

    I think we Australians have difficulty with heroes who are from positions of authority.

    And Darcy, thanks to your heroic efforts and leadership at CPHS, and your ability to see my potential to teach drama (or at least to be a warm body in the room), there are about a dozen people who can say that they were taught drama by Mr Gee. ;)

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