An Actual Bad Teacher Explains Why ‘Bad Teacher’ Is the Truest Teaching Movie Ever

bad-teacherThough it pulled in over $200 million on a $20 million budget, Jake Kasdan’s raunchy 2011 comedy Bad Teacher is nobody’s idea of a masterpiece. It’s the kind of movie that cable networks use to pad out their schedules when they have nothing better to run. The Cameron Diaz vehicle never even got a proper sequel, though it did inspire a short-lived CBS series in 2014.  

Of the original film, Roger Ebert complained that it “immediately brings Bad Santa to mind and suffers by the comparison.” He’s not wholly wrong. Kasdan’s movie is slack, unambitious, spotty, and only sporadically funny. It goes for cheap laughs, and the romantic subplot (pairing Diaz with doofy gym teacher Jason Segel) feels underdone. And yet, thanks to some sharp performances and an (occasionally) observant screenplay by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, Bad Teacher gets an astonishing number of details correct about the teaching profession. This movie knows things that other classroom-based movies don’t even come close to guessing. Every prospective teacher ought to see it.

How do I know? Because I was a bad teacher myself, and my ill-fated career in education bears numerous similarities to that of Elizabeth Halsey, Diaz’s character in the film. Elizabeth teaches junior high, as did I. Her subject is American literature, which I also taught. (I also taught some rudimentary Spanish.) And the film is set in suburban Cook County, where I did most of my teaching.

Like Elizabeth Halsey, I never wanted to be a teacher. It was just something that happened. I’d stayed in college an embarrassingly long time and had taken nothing particularly useful, so what the hell else was I going to do? I entered my college’s education program with absolutely zero enthusiasm. A faculty advisor told us that, for many people, teaching was often a fallback career, a Plan B. He was right, except that I had no Plan A. I was kind of hoping that someone would see I had no aptitude for this work and stop me from making a huge mistake. No one did. I stuck with teaching for a few torturous years before dropping out to become an office temp.

Being a real-life bad teacher is not as fun as the movie makes it look. I liken it to being a standup comic at an endless open mic night in Hell. But it paid my rent and got me health insurance. And I did learn a few things along the way, including these golden truths about the education biz contained in Bad Teacher.

For instance:

1. When in doubt, play dead.

Roger Ebert complained that the Elizabeth Halsey character, a cynical pothead who begrudgingly teaches so that she can save up for breast implants, is not “bad enough” to live up to the title of her movie. And it’s true that Elizabeth is really more lethargic and lazy than truly wicked or malicious. But this aspect of her personality really rang true with me. If you suck at the job, as Elizabeth clearly does, the kids will spot it immediately. Trying to win a battle of wits or wills with junior high students is a lose-lose situation. They have more energy and stamina than you do, and their careers aren’t on the line. You’ll just end up making yourself miserable, and the kids get free entertainment at your expense.

For the bad teacher, then, the only viable solution for making it through the day is to turn off your emotions entirely. Go limp. Play dead. Disengage from your surroundings. And that’s exactly what Elizabeth does in the movie. I noticed that, for the first half of the film, she rarely steps out from behind her desk. She tries to keep interactions with students to a minimum. Once the students see that they can’t get a rise out of you, most will stop trying.

2. At all costs, avoid “perfect” teachers.

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One of the best parts of Bad Teacher is the character of Amy Squirrel, as played by British actress Lucy Punch. Amy is a terminally perky overachiever who becomes Elizabeth’s professional rival as well as her romantic rival, as they both vie for the affections of dweebish coworker Scott (Justin Timberlake). As the film progresses, Amy is driven to madness as she fails again and again to topple Elizabeth. By the end, hellbent on revenge, she could be described as a cross between Captain Ahab and Frank Grimes.

While Ms. Squirrel is an extreme case, I definitely knew teachers like her. Their lesson plans are complete months in advance. Their rooms are neat as a pin, with motivational posters in every corner. These teachers gladly volunteer for extracurricular activities and fundraisers, usually as an attempt to get in good with the administration. And, trust me, they’re not shy about dispensing unsolicited advice, just as Amy does to Elizabeth. Because this is a movie, their rivalry goes to a ridiculous extreme, but it’s rooted in reality. At one school where I worked, the English teachers got along so poorly that the librarian had to act as our department chair just to keep the peace.

And speaking of keeping the peace…

3. Remember that administrators mainly just want to avoid controversy.

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Another brilliantly observed character in the movie is Principal Wally Snur, a fumfering, ineffectual nebbish played to perfection by John Michael Higgins. Like many real principals I knew, Wally desperately wishes that any actual problem in the school would be kept far away from his desk. Being a school administrator is an inherently tense, ulcer-creating job. (Think of poor Principal McVicker on Beavis & Butt-head.) A successful principal must keep the student body relatively under control while simultaneously appeasing both the faculty and the parents. It’s like a plate-spinning act, except that it doesn’t end after a few minutes.

Considering all this, it’s understandable that Wally is very hesitant to fire or even discipline Elizabeth, even when Amy keeps bringing him evidence of the titular bad teacher’s many shortcomings and misdeeds. Sure, Elizabeth skimmed off the top of a school car wash, but it was still a highly profitable fundraiser, so Wally is willing to look the other way. Amy is livid about this, but just about everyone else involved is satisfied. And that’s what being a principal is about: making as many people happy as possible.

The best strategy for a subpar teacher who wants to stay employed is to lay low, avoid making waves, and hope that the principal barely knows who you are. Principals have enough headaches; don’t give them any more. That said, Elizabeth’s biggest blunder in the movie is her blatant drug use on school property. This is the kind of thing even Wally couldn’t ignore. Elizabeth is no dummy; she should be too smart to smoke pot in the parking lot or the gymnasium. Keep that shit at home.

4. A veteran teacher who isn’t an asshole can be your best friend.

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While Bad Teacher is (self-evidently) about a bad teacher, the film also provides an example of a good teacher, and it’s not perfectionist Amy Squirrel. Instead, the real role model here is Lynn Davis (played by The Office‘s Phyllis Smith), a soft-spoken, unassuming woman who befriends Elizabeth. I met numerous teachers who were a lot like Lynn. These are the true heroes of the educational system. They do their jobs competently without fanfare, year after year. Plus, they generally get along with everyone, including the faculty and the students. Cherish them like gold.

In the film, Lynn becomes a valuable ally and confessor figure to Elizabeth. This is a wise choice of companion on Elizabeth’s part. Teachers like Lynn can help newbies navigate the often choppy waters of school politics. They may have valuable suggestions on dealing with particularly difficult students, parents, or administrators. Better yet, they may even cover for you if you happen to duck out on one of the many, many dull staff meetings that teachers have to endure.

5. Standardized tests are your god. Pray to them.

Bad Teacher is an episodic affair that’s generally pretty light on plot. The most important thread in the film deals with Elizabeth’s attempts to cheat on a statewide standardized test. The teacher whose students score the highest on the test gets a hefty bonus check, and Elizabeth wants that money to put toward her breast implants. She dons a (stolen) Annie wig and seduces and drugs the hapless Carl (Thomas Lennon), an employee of the test company, so that she can steal an answer key from his office. And this scheme basically works. She’s caught — yet again — by Amy, but she’s able to weasel her way out of it. There are no long-term consequences for her actions, and I’m pretty sure she even gets to keep that bonus check.

This subplot is, like most of the movie, a silly exaggeration. But yet again, there’s a grain of truth in it, too. Standardized tests are beloved by politicians, pundits, and parents, most of whom haven’t set foot in a classroom since they were students themselves. The reason is simple: These tests take something very abstract (student achievement) and turn it into something simple and comprehensible (a number or, rather, a bunch of numbers). Nearly every teacher I knew had a healthy contempt for standardized tests, but we couldn’t deny the power they had over our lives and careers. While we wouldn’t do what Elizabeth does, we probably wouldn’t condemn her for it, either.

And, hey, the movie has one more unexpected lesson up its sleeve. Elizabeth’s desire to get that bonus check is what jolts her out of her complacency and makes her actually teach instead of showing movies every day. So maybe, as profoundly dumb as they are, standardized tests do have some value.

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