The myth of the monstrous teacher

Recently we took the kids to see the stage musical Matilda in London’s West End. We’d all read the book and seen the movie but this was something different. It’s a great show with memorable tunes, entertaining performances (especially the ten year old girl in the title role) and lots of parent-pleasing stuff about how much cooler books are than TV. But towards the end one thing about the story struck me as being perhaps a little bit dated, albeit in an interesting way.

The main thrust of the plot has Matilda (and other characters) standing up to a vile, cruel, child-hating teacher called Miss Trunchbull, and one of the repeated musical refrains has Matilda asserting her right to stand up to bullying adults, “be a little bit naughty” and defy authority. What I wondered whilee listening to this was that the archetype of the monstrous teacher may have a long and popular history, but does it really have any basis in reality any more? When (spoilers, although it shouldn’t come as a surprise) the whole class rises up in noisy defiance, I found myself thinking that maybe contemporary teachers would view this scene rather differently. I don’t think kids any longer have the kind of cowering fear faced with adults in positions of authority, and they probably no longer need such encouragement to rebel and talk back. Might not a teacher these days think “Actually we could do with a little more classroom discipline, and some of the kids I teach need to sit down and shut up and listen a bit more”?

Now the novel was written by Roald Dahl in 1988, which to my mind already puts it into an era when this kind of monstrously cruel teacher was already probably a thing of the past, more or less. And I don’t recall anything in the other versions of the story about it being a period piece. But compare this portrayal of teachers with what you can see nowadays on children’s TV drama on channels like CBBC. You see very few scary, authoritarian teachers and a lot more weak, comically ineffectual ones trying in vain to control a rowdy, aggressive bunch of kids.

This is maybe a small complaint, as the rest of the story is very much about using your intelligence, self-respect and fighting anti-intellectualism. But it might be nice to see more stories which present teachers as heroes, rather than villains.

By the way, this was probably my favourite song from the show.


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