Even if you're a caricature of the worst kind of maintenance person, such as Groundskeeper Willie in "The Simpson", there's a lesson for real life teachers.
Apparently, the lesson is 'don't be like that.' And the rest of the Simpsons supporting cast can teach educators a thing or two as well, say two academics in their paper, “Images of the Teacher in The Simpsons: Subversive, Superficial, or Sentimental?” which was presented at “The Teacher: Image, Icon, Identity” conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
“Given the often central role that the figure of the teacher plays in ‘The Simpsons,’ there is a…rich vein that could be mined for the purposes of teacher education, whether through initial training or continuing professional development,” says Gavin Morrison, curator of the University Galleries at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and co-author Alan Britton of the University of Glasgow.
In the animated series, famous for its subversive and satirical subject matter, school plays a central role for its ten-year-old protagonist, Bart Simpson.
School functions as an “authoritative foil to free-spirited youth,” say TCU’s Morrison and Glasgow’s Britton. “The show’s critique and satire often plays out within the context of education involving Bart and Lisa’s school and its roster of (usually) dysfunctional teacher and auxiliary employees.”
Morrison and Britton argue that educators in “The Simpsons” provide “sources of reflection on professional knowledge, purpose and identity.”
“By examining the extreme caricatures (in the show), perhaps teachers at the outset or throughout their careers might consider aspects of their practice that are at the mild end of the spectrum of behavior and character found in ‘The Simpsons,’” says Morrison.
The characters roaming the halls of Springfield Elementary include:
• Principal Seymour Skinner – “A stern authoritative figure wracked with a dark history. He is haunted by his experiences as a Vietnam veteran,” says Morrison. But “his apparently stern demeanor is ridiculed by the juxtaposition of his domestic arrangements. He lives with his mother who continues to exert a strong, often Freudian control over him.” Despite his harshness, Skinner sporadically shows elements of warmth, likeability and commitment to education.
• Edna Krabappel – Bart’s teacher. She is the world-weary single woman whose motivation for teaching ceased long ago. Her classroom is “a perpetual conflict zone…where inappropriate details of her personal life are permitted to become widely known, usually through the good offices of Bart Simpson.” Krabappel struggles with thoughts of what could have been, inappropriate sexual trysts and the demanding task of educating the uneducable. Ultimately, Krabappel explores the teacher as a pressurized, reactive classroom “firefighter.”
• Miss Hoover – Lisa’s instructor and Krabappel’s professional foil. She is a softy, “notable for excessive use of smiley-face stickers” and pent-up under-the-surface aggression. Hoover deals with Lisa’s alternating curiously intellectual queries and cynical flip-outs. As a response to the pressures of teaching, Hoover has become a hypochondriac, which allows her to be absent from school.
• Groundskeeper Willie – Though not a teacher, Willie plays an important role. Morrison says he is “a caricature of the worst excesses of a school janitor. He provides a regular and reliably aggressive foil to both Bart and Principal Skinner, with whom he has a tempestuous working relationship.”
Though the cartoon falls within the genre of comedy, Morrison and Britton argue that teacher portrayals in “The Simpsons” take on educational and social policy issues.
“The representations of teachers and the school environment in ‘The Simpsons’ may occasionally appear superficial and primarily ‘played for laughs.’ However, this often masks a serious satirical and subversive intent, driven by intellectual imperatives,” says Morrison.