In an episode of the new Netflix comedy “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” there were a number of jokes about public education as the lead character goes to school. It seemed like a good idea to blog about this at the time, largely because it was 11:42 at night and I hadn’t yet made a blog post.
Without wanting to provide too many spoilers, Kimmy hasn’t been to school since the eight grade after being forced to live in a hole for 15 years. Now that she is out, she has decided to go back and get education which leads her to a GED program that she begins work on in the episode “Kimmy goes to school.” Through the shoe she goes to school and finds out that her teacher is terrible and has kids watch the movie “Major League” on VHS as a lesson plan. You should watch it if you get a chance.
The school related jokes appealed to two sides of my funny bone. There are a number of satirical jokes about well-worn cultural norms around schooling that the episode pokes fun of, like the classroom decor and Kimmy’s desire for a teacher who “sits backwards in the seat” like in the movies. The cynical side of me looked at the way they portrayed the apathetic teacher and laughed at how off base the writers were. No teacher can show up to work with a movie for a lesson plan day after day and expect students to sit quietly and not complain, especially not with a principal who is supposed to be “dead” serious about education.
Then the episode took a turn that made me uncomfortable. The apathetic teacher encourage Kimmy to get him in trouble because he wanted to get sent to the “rubber room” where he could continue to do nothing and get paid. First off, the idea that this principal would be unable to build up enough of a unfavorable observations about this tenured teacher’s stubbornly unprofessional behavior seemed beyond ridiculous. Also, the rubber room is unfairly characterized in this episode. The 4 teachers I’ve known who were sent to a rubber room returned to work and hated the time they spent away while the charges against them were investigated and dropped, although one deservedly lost his job. No one really stays there forever, and the alternative is that people who pose potential risks to kids stay at home, or continue working at their schools. NYC’s rubber room, actually ended in 2010. If you are interested you can learn more from this 2008 episode of This American Life.
The portrayal of bad teaching is more unsettling than the writer’s thoughts about tenure and rubber rooms. This portrayal of a bad teacher is, from my point of view, a level of apathetic ineptness that almost any kind of teaching could have been better to serve the shows purpose. Given how intimate a relationship we all have with teachers, I’d be interested to see a more nuanced picture of a bad teacher painted. Couldn’t the bad teacher be the one using outdated teaching methods, or one who loads a bunch of outdated social norms on students? Did they have to paint such a drastically poor picture of teaching because they didn’t know if viewers wouldn’t believe a slightly less incompetent version of the “apathetic urban educator”? It would be a little validating to know that the rest of the country has almost as high a standard of urban teachers as I do for myself.