We Love to Hate the ‘Bad’ Teacher

The new novel Tampa fuels our national anxiety about public education

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Chris O'Meara / AP

Former schoolteacher Debra Lafave, right, arrives with her mother Joyce Beasley for a probation-violation hearing at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa on Jan. 10, 2008

With her new novel, Tampa, Alissa Nutting has given us American literature’s first psychological exploration of the female pedophile, an account of a Florida middle-school teacher, Celeste Price, who lures two eighth-grade boys into sexual relationships. Price is no Mary Kay Letourneau, who, after serving time in prison, actually married the student she abused when he was only 13 years old. Price is a coldhearted nymphomaniac who, after feeding her sexual needs, wishes for the deaths of her victims. She is based on Debra Lafave, a real-life Tampa pedophiliac teacher — and former high school classmate of Nutting’s — who avoided jail time after her lawyer argued that she was too beautiful to get locked up.

With its blunt descriptions of adult-teenager sex, Tampa has attracted significant media attention, with Nutting being billed as “the summer’s most controversial author.” Though the writing in Tampa is pedestrian in comparison with Nabokov’s Lolita, the great classic on which it is based, it certainly represents a gutsy attempt by a young, female author to embody a wholly unsympathetic female narrator and probe the question of whether society lets women essentially get away with crimes for which men are excoriated.

Nutting’s narrative is an extreme example of another genre as well: the story of the despicable, or at least morally compromised, teacher. Claire Messud’s divisive novel, The Woman Upstairs, features a single, childless woman who obsessively attempts to appropriate the happy family life of one of her students. Bad Teacher, a low-IQ Hollywood comedy starring Cameron Diaz, has now been turned into a CBS series. In the high-minded indie film Half Nelson, Ryan Gosling played a schoolteacher who is a secret drug addict. The contradiction inherent in a bad teacher makes for an entertaining character, which is why the meme has a long, rich history, from Nicholas Nickleby to the Harry Potter series. But the bad teacher has also become an overhyped target for our national anxiety about public education.

(LIST: Top 10 Bad Teachers)

Though much of Tampa’s narrative takes place within a school, only two teachers are depicted: Price, who is a criminal and a bad teacher — her discussions of classic literature are based on movie adaptations — and Janet Feinlog, an obese, “joyless” woman who seems to hate children and eventually loses her job after cursing out students and throwing a chair. At Price’s trial, Feinlog is called by the defense as a character witness; she claims that the clearly sociopathic Price is “a good woman.”

We know such monsters exist. In the Bronx, a 40-year-old male elementary-school teacher is accused of raping a 10-year-old girl. At the elite Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, a librarian has admitted to attending meetings of the North American Man/Boy Love Association. These incidents came to light recently in a series of articles published by the New York Daily News, which were inspired by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown’s advocacy campaign to weaken public-school educators’ union-won due-process protections.

But media reports of nightmare teachers tend to obscure how rare they really are. In New York City, since 2007, 128 teachers have been accused of sexual misconduct — less than two-tenths of 1% of the city’s massive 80,000-person teacher corps. In general, our national political focus on making it easier to fire ineffective teachers — and here I’m talking mostly about those who are educationally ineffective, not legally criminal — tends to leave the public with an inflated sense of how many bad teachers are out there, seeding distrust in the entire endeavor of public education. As a longtime education reporter, I’ve asked a number of no-excuses school reformers for their estimate of the number of working teachers who ought to leave the profession. The response I hear most often is “5% to 10%,” a stat supported by the research of Stanford University labor economist Eric Hanushek. That means even the toughest reformers believe that 90% to 95% teachers are capable of improving their practice and becoming effective professionals.

Of course, it isn’t a novelist’s job to capture the complexity of education policy. The media, however, could do a better job. One of the most covered public-school stories of the past year was the indictment of 35 Atlanta teachers and administrators for inflating students’ standardized-test scores. Few TV reports mentioned that the brave, ethical whistle-blowers — not just the bad guys — had been classroom teachers.

(MORE: Erika Christakis: What’s Really Scandalous About the Atlanta Schools Testing Scandal)

Indeed, the best fictional depiction of a predatory educator is John Patrick Shanley’s play and film Doubt, which is set at a Catholic school. It is fascinating exactly because it pits a charismatic, potentially pedophiliac priest against two ethical and suspicious nuns. Monster teachers like the characters in Tampa are out there, but don’t think for a minute that their real-life colleagues want them to get away with their crimes.