09.04.11

TV’s Best and Worst Teachers

As students head back to school on Tuesday, take a lesson from small-screen educators through the years, from Gabe Kotter to The Simpsons’ Mrs. Krabappel.

BEST: Mr. Feeny, Boy Meets World

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It may be every student’s worst nightmare to live next door to his or her longtime teacher, but when that teacher is Mr. Feeny of Boy Meets World, it’s a dream come true. Though Mr. Feeny began as Eric and Cory Matthews’s neighbor and the sixth-grade teacher to Cory, Shawn Hunter, and Topanga Lawrence when the series premiered in 1993, he followed them in the classroom throughout the show’s seven-year run, becoming their principal and even their college professor. Putting the improbability of that situation aside, Mr. Feeny’s sage advice was heartfelt without being maudlin, and he made sure not to blur the line between teacher and friend. In the final scene of the 2000 series finale, Shawn tells Mr. Feeny: “You’re the best person I know.” Cory adds: “You’ll always be with us as long as we live.”

WORST: Coach Sylvester, Glee

As much as audiences and critics love Jane Lynch’s portrayal of Sue Sylvester on Glee, she is easily one of the most atrocious educators to ever walk the halls of a high school. The coach of the William McKinley High School Cheerios is a ruthless bully, tormenting both students and teachers alike. Though she does have a soft spot for the disabled, Sue is pretty much horrible in every other respect. “She's pure evil and doesn't hide it” is how Emmy winner Lynch described her character. “She says exactly what she's thinking, doesn't pretend to be a good person—why bother? I love the contrast between her and the kids, who are pure in their desire to excel—and I just crush their spirits!” Insert evil laughter here.  

BEST: Miss Crabtree, Little Rascals

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For her first day at school, Miss Crabtree hosted a cake and ice-cream party for the "little rascals" she taught in the 1930s film series. Despite her prickly name, Miss Crabtree, who first appeared on the episode “Teacher’s Pet,” was sweet but stern. Soon enough, the motley crew loved her. No matter what nonsense the little devils got themselves into, Miss Crabtree was always tolerant, patient, and ready with sweets. What more could elementary-schoolers ask for?

WORST: Mr. White, Breaking Bad

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AMC’s hit series Breaking Bad revolves around Albuquerque high-school chemistry teacher Walter White, who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. In order to make some extra money to support his family, the 50-year-old teacher starts producing and selling crystal meth with his former student turned dealer Jesse Pinkman. But since the series premiere in 2008, Walt has transformed from a man who teaches teens to one who watches them overdose and die—without so much as a hint of remorse. “If you watch enough of these episodes, you realize eventually that Walt was a good man, but this thing he’s chosen to do is changing him,” Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan told The New York Times. “He becomes harder and harder to root for.”

BEST: Mr. Kotter, Welcome Back, Kotter

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In addition to rocking one of the best ‘fros in TV history, Gabe Kotter had one of the best attitudes of any small-screen educator. On the late 1970s series Welcome Back, Kotter, the wisecracking teacher returned to his alma mater, Brooklyn’s James Buchanan High School, to teach remedial students known as the Sweathogs, including a young John Travolta. “I want to be a teacher more than anything in the world, but I want to go to a place where I can have some effect on my students,” Mr. Kotter tells his wife in the first episode. And that’s exactly what he did—he earned the title of Most Memorable Teacher on Television in 2005.

WORST: Mrs. Krabappel, The Simpsons

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Bart Simpson’s fourth-grade teacher at Springfield Elementary is a chain-smoking divorcee named Edna Krabappel. After years of frustration with students like Bart, The Simpsons’ constant drag seems far more interested in finding a romantic partner than in her youngsters’ futures. In the 2009 episode “Bart Gets a ‘Z,’” the troublemaker proposes the class “Irish up” her coffee after she takes away their cellphones. When Mrs. Krabappel gets drunk in front of the entire school, she finally loses her job. Considering she once did a bubble dance to Peggy Lee’s “Fever” in front of all of Springfield Elementary, it was really only a matter of time.

BEST: Miss Bliss, Saved by the Bell

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Before Bayside became one of the most famous high schools in teen TV history, Miss Bliss was the one who put smooth-talking Zack Morris, superficial Lisa Turtle, king of the nerds Screech Powers, and many other eighth graders in their place at John F. Kennedy Junior High. Hayley Mills played the title role on Good Morning, Miss Bliss, the 1989 series that was the predecessor of Saved by the Bell. Besides not taking Zack’s mouthing off, Miss Bliss helped a disgruntled student mourn the death of his brother and was nominated for a Teacher of the Year award. She did more in one season for Morris and Co. than Mr. Belding did in five.

WORST: Ezra Fitz, Pretty Little Liars

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On the premiere episode of ABC Family’s current hit teen series Pretty Little Liars, high-schooler Aria stops by a bar to pick up a cheeseburger and also winds up picking up a good-looking guy named Ezra, a recent college graduate who is about to start his first teaching job. After bonding over the pub’s music selection and their shared love of literature, they find themselves making out in the bathroom. Days later, Mr. Fitz (as Ezra later introduces himself) walks into his first English class and sees Aria’s familiar face among his 16-year-old pupils. Though the two know “it’s not right,” as Ezra says at one point, they continue to see each other. This time the tired hot-for-teacher trope takes an unsettling turn: Ezria (the portmanteau that fans have coined for the forbidden couple) have yet to meet any consequences for their illicit affair.

BEST: Mr. Collins, The Wonder Years

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Mr. Collins, the hard-assed algebra teacher on The Wonder Years, never seemed like a second-chance kind of guy. But Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), who struggled with numbers, soon learned that his strict math teacher just wanted him to learn from his own mistakes. Once he sees that Kevin is willing to do the work, Mr. Collins offers him private lessons to boost his grades. The two grow to respect and admire one another in their after-school sessions until Mr. Collins unexpectedly leaves before the big exams. A betrayed Kevin purposely bombs his final test, only to find out that his teacher had passed away. “Mr. Collins wasn’t your average teacher—he was more like a force of nature,” Kevin’s monologue explains at the beginning of the heartfelt episode in which he learns of Mr. Collins’s passing. “And he never let up.”

WORST: Ms. Frizzle, The Magic School Bus

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“The Friz,” as she is known by her third graders, was nothing but fun on the early-1990s series The Magic School Bus, based on the books of the same name. Ms. Frizzle, an elementary-school teacher at Walkerville Elementary, has disheveled red hair and wears ensembles that are connected to her field trips— her earrings glow when an adventure is about to begin, and her themed dresses correlate to wherever she plans on bringing her students. Sure, she’s a great time—but are her students truly learning? The Washington Post put her through D.C.’s teaching-evaluation system, and it turns out a magic school bus actually does not prepare a student for college.

BEST: Mr. Moore, Head of the Class

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When Charlie Moore first set foot in New York’s Monroe High School on Head of the Class in 1986, the principal told the substitute teacher to “just baby-sit.” But six episodes in, the out-of-work actor became the full-time history teacher for a group of gifted students in the Individualized Honors Program (IHP). Though some of his pupils may have been smarter than he was in terms of academics, Mr. Moore taught them that there’s more to life than books. He didn’t give conventional classroom lessons, but he proved to be a great listener and mentor. He guided them through problems, inspired them to pursue extracurricular activities, and even helped the ultimate nerd, Arvid, get a date. In one episode Arvid even says, “You’re my teacher; you’re my mentor; you’re a god!”

WORST: Mr. Noblet, Strangers With Candy

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Stephen Colbert’s character on Strangers With Candy, Chuck Noblet, is the most disturbed educator at Flatpoint High School. Not only does the history teacher make things up—e.g., “the Opium War was fought in 1840 to 1842 between the Chinese and the Mexicans”—but he’s cruel to the main character, 46-year-old high-school freshman Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris). In an NPR interview, Colbert explained that the closeted Mr. Noblet “detests Jerri Blank because he actually has no personal authority and no sense of himself and … he has no way of backing his authority with action, with integrity, or with information.” Here’s an F+ for honesty.