Salute to TV HS Teachers
Let’s go back to school – via the powers of TV. Pretty much every kid growing up in America longed to have a teacher as cool as some of the ones we’ll talk about.
TV has always considered teaching to be a respectable woman’s profession. Though a trend you’ll notice is that the teachers we discuss are largely single women. And there was a time, 50 years ago, when a married teacher was discouraged from teaching much beyond her wedding day.
Teachers today have it just as hard, but they do sport a more varied wardrobe than their predecessors.
There’s a veritable swarm of teachers who have graced the tiny screen over the decades. It would be positively TEDIOUS to run clips and profile each. Here’s why. Just like in your own school experience, some teachers were really profound. They inspired you. You remember them. You’d actually look them up when you go back to your hometown.
Then there are teachers who were like background noise
With 50 plus years of herstory – TV shows featuring women teachers as main characters or regular supporting ones – we’ve got quite a highlight reel. We’re paying extra attention today to extraordinary performances, positive messaging and quirky style.
There’s so much to cover, that our Salute to Teachers will cover two segments. We’ll review college and high school teachers and administrators in this segment. Elementary school teachers – about a dozen – will be featured in another podcast segment.
Let’s start off with higher education. There haven’t been too many TV shows that took place in a college or technical school, let alone law school, which is where we are introduced by the very cool, smart and confident professor and defense attorney Anna Lise Keating played by Viola Davis. The show, How to Get Away with Murder.
Davis has twice been nominated for Oscars for her work in film. She’s won a host of other awards, including an Emmy for lead actress in a drama – for How to Get Away with Murder, which premiered in 2014 and begins its third season soon. Give it a try if you aren’t already a faithful fan!
Due to the fact that there really are few memorable shows that take place in a higher education setting and feature a woman character. It’s kind of amazing to realize and it certainly begs the question - why? Here’s another question - Have I missed one? It wasn’t on purpose so please let me know.
There are, however, a plethora of women high school teachers who’ve graced the small screen over the years. It’s a list worth savoring - some mighty talented actresses who appeared in dramas and comedies and yes we looked at characters who were administrators, not necessarily teachers.
We can all appreciate the drama-filled years of high school. Pack a few hundred kids into a building, toss in hormones, immaturity and all sorts of pressures and good writers and producers can create a great show. We’re reminded too that this phase of life may appear different from generation to generation – hair, clothes, speech – but the underlying life lessons and growing pains are the same.
Take high school counselor Liz McIntyre played by Denise Nicholas, who was on Room 222 during its run from 1969 to 1974. While this might seem like ancient herstory, let me underscore that this show was huge. While technically a 30 minute sitcom, it broached all sorts of coming-of-age plots experienced by the older half of the baby boom.
Those were years where most houses only had one TV and it only got 3,maybe 4 channels. Cable TV’s draw on the major networks was still a few years off. Room 222, created by James L. Brooks, brought a diverse cast to prime time and offered up frank discussions about teen marriage, drugs, cheating, money and pushing the boundaries of the establishment.
Denise Nicholas and her co-star Lloyd Haynes, both African-Americans, received top billing. Denise’s character Liz was an educated woman who was well-respected by her peers and the very diverse group of students with whom she interacted. Late in the first season, she tries to gently help a female student come to her senses about why getting married while still in high school, when you don’t have to, is a bad idea. Liz pushes the limits of possibly aiding the young woman’s decision by hosting her bridal shower at her apartment.
This was must-see TV in the late 60s and early 70s, much like Friday Night Lights was from 2006 to 2011. Tami Taylor played by Connie Britton was a counselor who sometimes got embroiled in the complicated social network of football players, young women students and the parents of a very football-oriented, conservative community. Here’s how Connie Britton described the show’s foray into an abortion plot and her character’s involvement to the Archive of American Television.
Friday Night Lights is excellent family viewing if you’ve got teens. It will age well, in part because the plots involve all those familiar, universal growing pains of young adulthood.
As counselors, Liz McIntyre and Tami Taylor served as confidantes and advisors. And just as Tami Taylor helped young men AND women through the politics of football – with all the pressures that come with that, we can’t forget a certain motivator who set the standard for women coaches. In this case, we’re talking about the rough and tumble world of grooming world-class dancers… just a few steps off Broadway.
Seriously, I listen to the incredibly talented and prolific actress, producer, director AND dancer, Debbie Allen bark those words to her students at New York City High School for the Performing Arts. I feel like a total slacker.
Allen’s character, dance teacher Lydia Grant, was a carry over from the 1980 movie Fame to the TV show of the same name, which ran from 1982-1987. For more on Debbie Allen and her incredible career, tune into an entire segment of this podcast.
Those are some very memorable characters who held key roles in ensemble shows. Apart from How to Get Away with Murder, a show that includes a teacher is likely to be a family show. Some years we have time to watch a family show, some years we don’t. And maybe we’re more drawn to the colors, plots or performers in a family show as a young viewer – pre-teen or teenage.
Now this list is by no means exhaustive, but here are a few you might remember…
Also from Room 222, student-teacher-turned-permanent Alice Johnson played by Karen Valentine at the incredibly large and diverse Walt Whitman High School. These 5 years as this young perky teacher made Karen Valentine a household name and she earned an Emmy in the show’s first year. Amazingly, she hasn’t done a significant series or film since. But I’m guessing that during the early 70s, her character inspired all sorts of young people to become teachers. She was THAT perky.
Don’t believe me? Catch an episode on You Tube or buy the DVDs of Seasons One and Two.
Now about eight years later, you had to have not blinked or you’d have missed Square Pegs, a great series created by a woman that ran just 20 episodes in 1982 and ‘83. It’s available online and on DVD. Honestly, it should come packaged as the consummate 80s time capsule. Teacher Ms. Loomis played by Catlin Adams influenced lead characters Patty Greene, played by Sarah Jessica Parker and Lauren Hutchinson played by Amy Linker. Also worth the price of admission – performances by Devo and The Waitresses.
Fast forward another 5 years and you get another show aimed at teens and pre-teens. From 1987 to 1989, Good Morning Miss Bliss was about a fictional high school in Indianapolis and starred acclaimed British actress Hayley Mills in the title role.
Disney Productions launched the show initially, though with some misguided belief that teens would find a middle-aged Hayley Mills as charming and provocative teens found her as a teen.
Umm… going to great lengths to prank any teacher, even if it IS Hayley Mills. No. Not even close. Wrong audience. Disney handed it off, the show re-oriented around the students and became Saved By the Bell. They eventually became Miss Bliss-less.
About that same time, Canada sent us quality television for teens in the form of the Degrassi franchise. It started in 1987 as Degrassi Junior High and quickly morphed into Degrassi High. Maybe any show with junior high in the title registers just doesn’t resonate with American teens.
Once renamed, it embarked on all sorts of heavy teen topics and ultimately spawned a few more series that focus pretty realistically on teen life. In that first series, Degrassi High teacher Ms. Karen Avery was the focus of a few early plots as they reveal her to be a lesbian. Remember, this is 1987 and was breakthrough stuff. The character of Karen Avery didn’t remain with the spin offs, but Michelle Goodeve, the actress who played her, helped establish the show’s street cred.
By the mid 90s and into the 2000s, there weren’t as many women authority figures on shows centered around teens. There are all sorts of theories as to why that occurred. Moesha, starring Brandy Norwood in the title role, was one of the many quality sitcoms that appeared on independent network UPN that featured almost exclusively African-American casts. In this case, Moesha is the daughter in a middle class, stable home. The smooth and divine Sheryl Lee Ralph, a veteran of both the big screen, Broadway and TV played Moesha’s stepmother and principal at her high school.
What do these high school teachers and administrators have in common? They appear in shows where young people are part of the ongoing plots. The ensemble cast revolves around a family or a school. It makes total sense.
So my personal favorite high school teacher is one with super-human powers to not only defeat the forces of evil, but to engage with young people in a charming and effective manner. Of course I’m talking about The Bionic Woman – Jamie Sommers played by the incomparable Lindsay Wagner.
Some background about the show. It aired from 1976-78 and was a spin-off from the Six Million Dollar Man. Jamie Sommers had been a tennis pro turned teacher who was injured in a sky-diving accident. Her hometown friend Col. Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man, pleads the case for her survival to the government agency that installed his bionics after his accident.
Thus, in her own show, Jamie is a government agent going undercover in all sorts of situations as payback for her being rebuilt with bionic hearing, one bionic arm and two legs. Yes she was a retired world-class tennis player who appeared at Wimbledon (a nice tip of the hat to Billie Jean King and the strength of women’s tennis in the late70s) and yes, in her spare time she taught classes on a military base in California.
But once when Oscar Goldman, the director of the OSI and source of Jamie’s spy assignments asked her to go undercover to tutor the son of a foreign target, well…
Seemingly Jamie will never learn that when the government needs her, her protests fall on deaf ears. There’s excellent backstory to the amount of influence Lindsay Wagner had on the plots and approaches to keeping violence to a minimum. But we can’t get into that now.
Jamie meets with Ishmael’s father, the king of a Middle Eastern country which has recently gained great wealth from oil. Remember, this was the 70s. Jamie checks in with a little New Age Earth Mother Western pedagogy…
Before we move on to the next clip which has Jamie working one on one with Ishmael, you should know that Ishmael was played by Afterschool Special Teen Throb Lance Kerwin. There’s no editing his really bad accent and I just won’t ask the question of whether there was a teenage actor any closer to Middle Eastern descent or appearance than blonde-haired blue-eyed Kerwin. True to form, Jamie steers past bad acting and boorish men… even young men.
WINNING OVER [needs trimming]
Where would America be without its high school teachers, both women AND men. The great part about having so many high school teachers – women – featured in TV shows - spanning nearly 50 years - is that this is indeed an occupation that helps us better understand the culture at the time. Perhaps not perfectly, but it’s all preserved, ready for interpretation – different approaches to addressing the universal drama of American teens and young people. From Liz McIntyre on Room 222 to AnnaLise Keating, it’s just plain fascinating to see how writers empower these women to use their position of respect, trust, knowledge and life to change the world.
Aaaah! It’s taken 36 installments but I was finally able to squeeze in a little Bionic Woman! Audio clips from this segment are mainly from videos posted on You Tube. The episode from the Bionic Woman, entitled Jamie and the King aired in February 1977 and was pulled from the show’s DVD set.
Please, send your thoughts, ideas or memories of teachers in TV to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do it in 140 characters on Twitter by finding us AT TVHerstory. This show and all podcasts live at the mercy of iTunes, so the nicest thing you could do would be to rate the show at iTunes & post a few kind words of review.
Stay tuned for a tour de force of those wonderful elementary school teachers. I’ve got 8 on my list… what about you?
Thanks for listening, I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.