Bad Teacher is satirical portrayal of education system

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I miss school, now that it's out, mostly because I spent a lot of time this year thinking and writing about it for a Star series on public education. Luckily, there's the summer movie, Bad Teacher. People like me, who are on the left or, as Alexander Cockburn wickedly says, "pwogwessives," are supposed to hate it because it portrays teachers negatively at a time when they're under right-wing attack for being the chief cause of U.S. education failure. But I adored the film.

Cameron Diaz is the bad teacher and she's very funny. She went into teaching for "all the right reasons," like summers off. In fact, the best teachers I know say that helped motivate them and I don't see what's bad about it: everyone deserves decent holidays. Nor how it differs from CEOs getting bonuses for making profits or athletes for making the playoffs. Oops, is that the problem?

She yearns for a boob job so she can snag a rich husband in a singles bar and quit teaching, but it costs too much. She doesn't know her kids' names ("You and you: hold that girl.") Then she finds out there's a big money prize for the teacher whose students score best on state-wide tests so she steals the test, gives her students the answers, and wins the money.

I ask you: Is this an attack on teachers? No, it's an attack on the rotten system that overstresses test results and undermines real teaching, as if education is a competitive marketplace like the stock exchange that you can quantify in numbers and dollars. It's satire, stupid. It's in the tradition of classical theatre like Molière's plays in the 1600s. He wrote about religious hypocrites and inept doctors to expose the forces that produced and encouraged them. He portrayed his targets in order to dissect them. I've always felt the best U.S. sitcoms, from Mary Tyler Moore to Two and a Half Men, are Molière's equal. Try the episode where Charlie's family has dinner at his housekeeper, Berta's, for a brilliant comedy of manners. Bad Teacher is big-screen sitcom.

Positive or inspirational films tend to be boring and to leave you (or at least, me) feeling manipulated. That warm gooey feeling is also slimy. If you pine for To Sir with Love, or Stand and Deliver, rent them.

Come to think of it, Molière was criticized too, though from the right, not the left. His answer, echoing down through the ages, was: "The comic is the outward and visible form that nature's bounty" -- i.e. reality -- "has attached to everything unreasonable, so that we should see, and avoid, it." Cameron Diaz couldn't put it better, or maybe she could. Moliere also sometimes let his characters grow, or show ambiguity, versus being static targets.

Diaz has said she likes her character, Elizabeth Halsey, because she is totally unredeemed in the film, but I think that's just something the PR people told her to say to sound devilish. In fact, her teacher is redeemed. She rejects the boob job, partners up with an impoverished gym teacher who has a sense of humour of gold, and returns to school, not in a classroom but in guidance, where she can really help kids by being her street-smart self. Of course, this is Hollywood. In reality, there likely won't be many gym or guidance positions left, as most resources in the system continue to be directed at bumping up test scores while paying minimal attention to those complex entities, kids.

Real life often trumps art, even when the art is satirical. Yesterday came news from Atlanta, Ga., that 178 teachers and principals apparently "cheated on standardized tests to inflate student scores" due to "pressure to meet score targets." The system's boss, who was named National Superintendent of the Year in 2009, covered up and punished whistleblowers, going back to 2001. Now she's no longer in the position. Wow. Maybe next summer's follow-up will be Bad Principal or Bad Superintendent, to go along with yet another Pirates of the Caribbean. Molière never minded building on his successes. It's part of the learning process.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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