Man, there are a lot of shows about cops. Every third show on the air at any given time is about a SWAT team, a special victims unit, or a pair of partner cops solving mysteries and hashing through their own complex personal relationships.
And doctors. Just a ton of shows about doctors: doctors scrambling around ERs, intubating people, putting stents in things, moving swiftly down floodlit corridors while exchanging witty repartee peppered with honest-to-goodness medical terminology.
And lawyers. My goodness, there are far too many shows about lawyers: people in smart suits calling on surprise witnesses, uncovering shocking evidence, and doing other things that result in collective courtroom gasps.
Granted, these are all important professions that are ripe for dramatization. But what about teaching? Why aren’t there more shows about teachers? Teachers solve mysteries. Teachers exchange witty repartee. And yes, teachers sometimes say things that make rooms full of people gasp.
But there just aren’t that many shows about teachers. Even when a show is set at a school, it usually revolves around a clique of snotty kids played by actors in their 30s. Teachers are an afterthought, side characters, mediators for episodes in which students learn stuff about things. When we leave the classroom, we go home with the student. Often, the lives of TV teachers are left unseen.
Doesn’t it feel like we’re missing a pretty big market here? What’s happening in the teacher’s lounge or the faculty parking lot? What goes on when your teachers go home and let down the veil of consummate educator? For all you know, your woodshop teacher moonlights as a crime-fighting vigilante code-named Safety Goggles (he’s still working on the name).
Point is, the plotline potential is endless. Matter of fact, if a half-hour situational comedy featuring a colorful cast of misfit educators engaging in wacky antics while learning valuable lessons suddenly pops into the primetime, you’ll know it was my idea. I’ll be contacting an entertainment attorney as soon as I finish this list.
Regarding said list, there may not be a whole lot of shows on TV that revolve specifically around teachers, but that doesn’t mean the small screen has not had its share of memorable educators. Hereafter, we consider some of our favorites. These characters may not all be role models. Some of them may not even be very good teachers. But we certainly learned something from each of them. For your consideration, 10 Classic TV Teachers.
Edna Krabappel – The Simpsons (1989- ∞ )
Bart Simpson’s long-suffering, nicotine-hooked and frequently lovelorn teacher, Ms. Krabappel taught the same exact class of 4th graders for 25 years. She may have been generally apathetic, prone to oversharing details of her personal life and completely useless without her teacher’s edition texts (the ones with all the answers in the back). But Edna Krabappel was a model of consistency. For more than 500 episodes, she not only trudged wearily to work, but she displayed an unwavering commitment to early 20th century disciplinary measures. Without fail, every single afternoon, there she sat in detention, reading dating classifieds while Bart Simpson scrawled one-liners on her blackboard.
Inspired in name only by the far sunnier Mrs. Crabtree, of 1930s Our Gang comedy short films, Edna Krabappel was voiced by Marcia Wallace. Her origin story tells of a Bryn Mawr College grad with a Masters in education and a bright-eyed optimism. Sadly, years in the public school system, and grappling with the unteachable Bart Simpson, turned Ms. Krabappel into a jaded and disenchanted figure. But it was, ironically, through this animated set of eyes that primetime viewers were given a realistic window into the sometimes thankless latter years of professional education. Ms. Krabappel is a cautionary tale, though one with a heart of gold.
Sadly, voice actress Marcia Wallace passed away in 2013, bringing an end to Ms. Krabappel’s decades in the profession. The Simpsons marked her passing with an opening sequence chalkboard message reading “We’ll miss you, Mrs. K.”
Mr. Kotter – Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-1979)
Admit it. If John Travolta was in your class, you’d be the world’s strongest advocate for corporal punishment. Well, comedian Gabe Kaplan’s Gabe Kotter instead paddled his students with deadpan sarcasm.
The premise behind this mid-70s relic–resplendent as it is with flared pants and afros–is that Mr. Kotter has returned to his old high school in Brooklyn to teach social studies to a class of remedial students. Known as the Sweathogs, the ethnically diverse students of Room #11 are largely viewed by the school’s curmudgeonly Vice Principal Woodman as lost causes. In fact, Mr. Woodman often visits Room #11 simply to deride both the Sweathogs for their low academic prospects and Mr. Kotter for his unconventional teaching methods.
In spite of his cutting sarcasm, Mr. Kotter is truly a teacher of dedication and compassion. This is because he was once himself a Sweathog. It is for this reason that he alone believes in the potential of his students, guiding them through the typical gauntlet of teenage uncertainties even as other educators have given up on them.
As it happens, the conditions at the fictional James Buchanan High School were based on Kaplan’s real experiences at his own Brooklyn alma mater, New Utrecht High School. Characters like Travolta’s Vinny Barbarino and Ron Pallilo’s Horshack were based on some of Kaplan’s actual classmates.
In spite of the personal nature of his inspiration, Kaplan found himself in contract disputes with the show’s producers in the midst of filming for Season 4. When talks broke down, Kaplan’s appearances became increasingly limited. To accommodate the situation, Kotter was promoted to the job of principal. Hereafter, he largely interacted with his Sweathogs in hallways, courtyards, and to his wife’s chagrin, the fire escape outside his city apartment.
That was the show’s final season. Of course, after that, Gabe Kaplan went on to star in some of the biggest blockbusters of all time, becoming a household name, a humongous superstar and the envy of chin-dimpled men everywhere. Oh wait, that was Travolta. My bad.
Mr. Feeny – Boy Meets World (1993-2000)
It’s hard to imagine a worse fate then living next door to your school’s smuggest educator. But if you have to, at least he should sound exactly like KITT from Knight Rider. This was the premise of Boy Meets World, a coming-of-age sitcom starring Ben Savage as Cory Matthews. (As it happens, Ben is younger brother to Fred Savage, famous for his lead role in coming-of-age sitcom Wonder Years.)
When the ABC/Disney series premiered, George Feeny was something of an antagonist. A strict and old-fashioned educator, Mr. Feeny typcially offered harsh and unflinching opinions that nobody asked for. The part was played by William Daniels, who did all kinds of respectable stuff like serving as the president of the Screen Actor’s Guild and winning an Emmy, but as I said, most importantly, he provided the voice for Hasselhoff’s car in Knight Rider. Kind of makes all that other stuff seem small, doesn’t it?
In spite of these accomplishments, Mr. Feeny is probably William Daniels’ defining role, largely due to the evolution of his character. Once a thorn in the side of Cory, his brother Eric, and his best friends Shawn and Topanga, Mr. Feeny increasingly becomes the ethical and emotional center of the show.
Cory, his friends, and even his parents would frequently wander out into the yard in search of advice from the prickly but wise Mr. Feeny. So important was his counsel to the show that he followed his young charges throughout the course of their education, with the show’s writers basically giving him a new job every time the characters graduated to another school. At different points in the show’s history, Mr. Feeny has instructed Cory and friends in 1st grade, 6th grade, as a high school principal, and even as a professor at Pennbrook College.
Boy Meets World ran for 7 seasons, and was pretty beloved by its audience. Mr. Feeny would deliver the closing line of dialogue in the series finale of Boy Meets World. But that was not the end for Mr. Feeny. In 2014, Girl Meets World debuted, featuring a now-married-with-children Cory and Topanga, the former so inspired by his childhood neighbor that he has become a history teacher. Mr. Feeny makes regular appearances on the show as, wouldn’t you know it, the voice of moral authority (and if you close your eyes, the voice of KITT).
Check out Mr. Feeny giving some tough life lessons to the class. Admit it. It feels like he’s yelling right at you, doesn’t it?
Charlie Moore – Head of the Class (1986-1991)
Charlie Moore was an out-of-work actor who took up substitute teaching to earn a few bucks on the side. He ended up staying on the job for four school years. Like Welcome Back, Kotter, Head of the Class was largely a vehicle for its star teacher, portrayed in this case by Howard Hesseman theretofore best known as stoner DJ Johnny Fever on WKRP in Cincinnati.
In contrast to Kotter’s class of low acheivers, Mr. Moore presided over a class of uniquely gifted students. As the teacher for Millard Fillmore High’s Individualized Honors Program (IHP), Mr. Moore dispensed droplets of hippie-wisdom to a group of kids who were brilliant but who nonetheless struggled with contemporary issues (contemporary to the ’80s that is). Charlie’s casual, familiar and unconventional style of instruction forced his students to think more critically, to pursue their individual talents, to respect each other’s considerable differences.
Believe it or not, this sitcom broke some pretty serious socio-political ground too. During Season Three, Head of Class became the first American sitcom to film an episode in Soviet Russia. For a fairly silly television show, the two-part Mission To Moscow arc is a pretty fascinating time-capsule from the Reagan/Gorbechev era, making light of the thawing relations between our two nations just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. At any rate, the kids from IHP vanquish their Russian opponents in an academic olympiad while Charlie strikes up romance with a local schoolteacher.
After four years behind the desk, Charlie left the IHP program (which is to say that Hesseman left the show). He was replaced for the final season by comedian Billy Connolly. After the show went off the air, producers even tried to spin Connolly off into his own series. Billy lasted for 13 episodes. Class just wasn’t the same without Mr. Moore.
Anyway, here’s Charlie doing basically nothing while a gang of hoodlums threaten to beat up one of his prized students.
Mr. Cantwell – The Wonder Years
You probably don’t recall Mr. Cantwell by name, but maybe this will help: “Bueller…..Bueller……”
Former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein is as dry as a saltine tanning under the desert sun in his portrayal of junior high science teacher, Mr. Cantwell. He is perhaps one of the most unwitting tormentors in the history of primetime television as Kevin Arnold’s stultifyingly boring science teacher on The Wonder Years. (If your scoring at home, Kevin Arnold is the character who helped make Ben Savage’s older brother Fred a household name. For more on the Savage brothers, simply look up “awesome” in the dictionary.)
Anyway, Stein got his teaching career off the ground playing basically the same exact character in the classic truancy saga, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. While Ferris doesn’t bother to show up for the guy’s lesson on Voodoo Economics, Kevin Arnold and best bud Paul Pfeiffer must endure every one his narrated filmstrips in incredulous misery.
Mr. Cantwell nails with grating precision the most soul-crushing boredom you’ve ever experienced in class. You know this teacher. You’ve had this teacher. You once faked a case of Dutch Elm Disease just to get out of a class with this teacher.
Because of the unparalleled dryness of his voice, Stein continues to enjoy a successful career both as a live and voice actor. He even won an Emmy for his later work as the host of Win Ben Stein’s Money on Comedy Central. His unique political experience also means that Ben Stein is frequently tapped for commentary on electoral and governmental affairs.
For some reason, there doesn’t seem to be a clip available from the Wonder Years featuring Stein, but again, here he is in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off playing pretty much the exact same teacher.
Mr. Cooper – Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper (1992-1997)
Not sure how many people remember this, but when comedian Mark Curry launched his own show in 1993, he moved his family into the very same house formerly occupied by the Seaver family on Growing Pains. There was even a Fourth Wall-breaking crossover moment as Alan Thicke returned to the house to retrieve a family photo, meeting Mark Curry and wishing him well.
Cooper live in the house with roommates Robin, a music teacher, and Vanessa, an EMT. Childhood best friend Robin scored her buddy Mark a gig at the Oakbridge High School and thus, the primary plot point was born. Cooper and company were based out of Oakland, California, existing in the same sitcom universe as the San Francisco-based family from Full House. Mr. Cooper was your typical popular teacher, the kind of guy that seem cool and relatable but who is not above imparting valuable life lessons about teamwork, trying hard and all that other junk. It didn’t hurt his reputation with the kids that Mr. Cooper had a short-lived professional basketball career with the Golden State Warriors.
By the time we meet him, however, he is a substitute teacher on his way to permanent status as both a phys ed instructor and a basketball coach. Anchoring ABC’s anodyne but popular TGIF Friday nights, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper largely revolved around the idea that a reluctant educator could ultimately become a great inspiration to his young charges.
Sadly, Mr. Cooper’s ratings declined each year that it was on television. And in fact, the broadcast of the series finale–in which Mr. Cooper and Vanessa are to be engaged–was actually preempted five minutes in by breaking news about the shocking death of Princess Diana.
As a testament to the show’s popularity at that point, nobody seemed to notice. But here’s where it all started, in an awkward exchange with Robin Thicke’s dad.
Walter White – Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
As teachers go, Walter White is not what you’d call a model citizen. But he was an exceptionally gifted chemist. A high school science teacher in New Mexico, at least at the start of the series, White is a portrait of personal descent. From the desperation of his terminal cancer diagnosis to the ruthlessness which marked his reign as a methamphetamine kingpin, White is pretty much the worst role model to ever to stand before a blackboard.
Portrayed by thespian extraordinaire, Bryan Cranston, Walter White is as severe an educational cautionary tale as you’ll find. Forced to outsource his chemistry talents to the drug trade in order to pay staggering medical bills, Walter White is the worst-case-scenario example of what can happen when you underpay your teachers. As Breaking Bad demonstrates, the transformation from mild-mannered and disenchanted educator to meth-slinging killer is quicker and more seamless than you’d think.
So convincing was Cranston that he shares the record for most Emmys for portraying a single character, holding four alongside only Dennis Franz of NYPD Blue fame. (See? So many cops on TV.)
Now, in most instances, I don’t mind telling you how a series ends. I don’t think I’m ruining it if I tell you what ultimately happened to Mr. Cooper. But no spoilers on this one. You’ll have to watch Breaking Bad yourself. I promise, it will be educational.
Meanwhile, check out this click from the first episode, in which Walter basically lays out the show’s primary theme of transformation without arousing even the slightest bit of interest from his students.
Mr. Garrison – South Park (1997-)
If you think the children in South Park, Colorado are foul-mouthed and inappropriate, you should meet their teacher. Mr. Garrison’s misadventures and various personal and surgical transformations are a steady source for some of South Park‘s most cringeworthy moments. Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to create an educator more likely to be fired from his position every single day of his career than Mr. Garrison.
Given over to tremendously inventive profanity, explicit oversharing from his colorful sexual history, uncensored debasement of his students, and an unhealthy co-dependent relationship with an ideologically extreme hand-puppet named Mr. Hat, Mr. Garrison is the very definition of professionally unfit.
Often, Mr. Garrison has been a vessel for some of the show’s wildest character fluctuations and most challenging social observations.
It is perhaps for this reason above all others that the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, cast Mr. Garrison as a candidate for president during the 2016 season (Remarkably,South Park’s 20th season on the air). Donning orange face paint and running on a campaign promise targeting Canadian immigrants with harsh and suggestive rhetoric, Mr. Garrison ascended to one of the few jobs that he was even less qualified for than teaching.
After a season of outrageous promises and increasingly unhinged rhetoric, Mr. Garrison shocked the world by winning the presidency. For a guy who was never actually very good at his day job, Mr. Garrison’s arc actually titled toward the highest office in the land, an outcome that perhaps proves South Park to be as attuned to reality as any show on television.
Below, enjoy a 19 second clip of Mr. Garrison in action. This is literally the longest thing I could find that did not include language or imagery NSFW.
Miss Brooks – Our Miss Brooks (1952-1956)
Miss Brooks is the model for all television teachers to follow, a wisecracking high school English teacher with a crummy car and a crush on clueless biology teacher Mr. Boynton. Perhaps more than any other show on our list, this one really was more about the lives of its teachers than its students. Our sympathies largely gravitated to the title character, played by the magnetic Eve Arden, as opposed to her archetypal students.
A simple premise on its face, Our Miss Brooks was actually a groundbreaking series for its portrayal of a professional, competent and multidimensional woman. Rarely to this point had a lead female character been portrayed as something other than a homemaker or an affable scatterbrain. Connie Brooks was witty, charming and good at her job.
With respect to her job, she was also constantly airing her sarcastic frustration over low pay, a recurrent theme that most teachers could probably relate to today. And don’t be deceived by what might appear a short run. In fact, Our Miss Brooks was a hit in three different formats. Before making the leap to television, the majority of the cast got its start on a hit radio show of the same name, premiering in 1948. Thus, by the time it hit the small screen, Our Miss Brooks was already lined up for success. So popular was the show that following its series finale, Our Miss Brooks drew its long story to a close with a full-length feature film. Herein, Miss Brooks and Mr. Boynton are finally married.
Here below is the trailer for the film. You should be warned that a cartoonish World’s Fair-type voiceover guy begins this clip by referring to Miss Brooks as that “irrepressible gadabout whose mad about men.” (Yup. This is what qualified as progressive programming in the 1950s.)
Miss Bliss – Saved By the Bell: The Junior High Years (1987-1989)
It’s hard to believe that the original Saved By the Bell was only on the air for four seasons. So many stupid things happened that it just seems like longer. Even more short-lived than the show itself was the series which preceded it, as well as the tenure of its most dedicated teacher. Following the adventures of a bunch of scheming teens in acid-wash jeans and dayglo shirts, Saved By the Bell actually began with a totally different name, on a totally different network, and with a marginally different cast.
In 1987, Disney piloted a show called Good Morning, Miss Bliss, in which a junior high school teacher played by Hayley Mills counseled her favorite students at the JFK Junior High in Indianapolis. The original 13 episodes of the show also featured future Saved By the Bell mainstays Zack Morris, Lisa Turtle, Screech Powers, and Principal Belding. While the students and their principal made the transition to Bayside High when NBC purchased, retooled and renamed the series, Miss Bliss was ultimately retired.
But for her one season, Miss Bliss was the glue that held the Saved By the Bell student body together, teaching Screech to stand up against bullying, enjoying a flirtatious relationship with Zack’s father, and even earning Teacher of the Year honors. None of this was enough to save her job though. By 1989, the students at Bayside used giant cell phones and poorly lip-synced music videos to torture a whole new faculty. The original run of the series was retconned as Saved By the Bell: The Junior High Years.
And in case you ever wondered, Saved by the Bell is actually classified as “educational and informational” television, a fact which is insulting to both the words “educational” and “informational.”
Here’s a piece of the pilot, indescribably awful intro song included. You can be forgiven for not sitting through the whole thing:
Any classic TV teachers we missed? Tell us about your favorite small screen scholars!