Movies and TV shows set in schools tend to lionize hard-working, inspiring educators, from Freedom Writers’ Erin Gruell to “Boy Meets World”’s Mr. Feeney (video below). Less remarked upon but just as ubiquitous, though, are the teachers and administrators who break the rules in ways ranging from the mostly harmless (working on an erotic novel on school time) to the actually illegal (breaking into a student’s house). Here’s a look at the worst infractions by pop-culture teachers and administrators, along with an assessment of what consequences this behavior would have in real life.
1. Stealing the answers to a state test (Ms. Halsey, Bad Teacher)
Like many teachers, Ms. Halsey feels tremendous pressure to ensure her students do well on their high-stakes standardized tests. (Unlike most teachers--hopefully--she wants her kids to succeed so she can get a bonus to pay for breast implants.) She crosses the ethical and legal line, though, when she poses as a journalist to gain access to the state test questions and answers.
Movie-world consequences: Ms. Halsey’s students ace the state test, she gets the bonus, and though a fellow teacher accuses her of cheating, Ms. Halsey is never punished. In fact, she gets promoted to guidance counselor the following year.
Real-world consequences: As teachers and administrators in the Atlanta school system have learned, the punishment for cheating on state testing is severe. 35 district staff members allegedly involved in a multi-year cheating conspiracy were recently indicted on a total of 65 charges, including racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy and making false statements.
2. Defacing school property (Mr. Keating, Dead Poet’s Society)
Mr. Keating shows he’s not your average prep-school instructor in all sorts of ways: encouraging his students to stand on their desks, requesting to be called “O Captain, My Captain,” and so on. But perhaps the most bizarre (and therefore the most delightful to his buttoned-up pupils) example of his iconoclasm comes when he instructs his class to rip out the introduction to their poetry books.
Movie-world consequences: None for this particular incident, though Mr. Keating does eventually get fired for other reasons.
Real-world consequences: “There would definitely be some kind of citation for destruction of property,” says Bradford Uchacz, Vice President of Imagine Schools and a former principal and assistant principal in Mesa, Arizona, “either asking employee to pay retribution or something along those lines.”
3. Assisting a student in defying her parents’ punishment (Ms. Norbury, Mean Girls)
Naive homeschooler turned public school Queen Bee Cady gets grounded at the worst possible time: the weekend of the mathlete state championships and the spring fling dance. She manages to talk her dad into letting her compete with the mathletes, but she knows she should go straight home after the team wins. Her teacher Ms. Norbury encourages her to ignore her parents. “You’re already out,” she shrugs.
Movie-world consequences: None
Real-world consequences: This isn’t a firing offense, according to Uchacz. The worst that could happen would be a letter of reprimand in the teacher’s file.
4. Rigging a student election (Mr. McAllister, Election)
Mr. McAllister has a semi-irrational hatred for one of his students, the indomitable Tracy Flick. He hates her so much, in fact, that he becomes determined to sabotage her campaign for student body president, first by talking a more popular student into running against her, then by committing ballot fraud to ensure his victory.
Movie-world consequences: The principal is presented with evidence that Mr. McAllister committed fraud, prompting him to resign.
Real-world consequences: Pretty much the same. Uchacz said the principal would put the teacher on leave while the fraud accusations are being investigated; if they were found to be true, the teacher would be dismissed.
5. Letting students change their grades after report cards have been issued (most of the staff of Bronson Alcott High School, Clueless)
Most schools have some sort of formula for calculating students’ final grades every semester. Exams, papers, homework, and class participation all get a percentage weight; teachers plug in the numbers for each category and come up with a grade that goes on the report card. But at the school in Clueless, the system seems a bit more subjective. When Cher receives her report card at the beginning of the movie, she’s horrified--but then declares that the grades are “just a jumping-off point to start negotiations.” Her gym teacher boosts her grade after Cher tells her she’s going through a break up; her world history teacher also gives her more points for promising to start a letter-writing campaign; her debate grade goes up after she finds the teacher a girlfriend. Cher’s father’s incredulousness when he sees the revised report card speaks for itself: “What’d you do, turn in some extra credit reports? Take the midterms over?” When Cher answers no to both questions, it dawns on him, “You mean to tell me you argued your way from a C-plus to an A-minus?”
Movie-world consequences: None
Real-world consequences: “I suspect there would be a reprimand,” Uchacz said. Every state has different laws regarding grades, but most require a student to meet certain criteria (beyond having good arguing skills) to get their grades changed.
6. Breaking into a student’s house (Mr. Rooney, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
Ferris Bueller may be the most popular student in school among his peers, but Dean of Students Ed Rooney really, really hates him. So much so, in fact, that he breaks into the Bueller home in an attempt to prove that Ferris isn’t actually home sick. Fortunately, Ferris’s dour sister is there to kick him in the face repeatedly and call the police.
Movie-world consequences: The police don’t believe Jeanie when she calls to report the intruder, so she takes the law into her own hands.
Real-world consequences: According to state law in Illinois (where Ferris takes place), criminal trespass to a residence can result in up to a $2,500 fine and/or up to a year in jail.
7. Ditching a school trip to go on a date (Mr. Rod Belding, “Saved by the Bell”)
Most millennials are familiar with Mr. Richard Belding, lovable principal of Saved by the Bell’s Bayside High. But only true SBTB fans remember Rod Belding, Principal Belding’s cooler (but far less responsible) brother, who appears in one episode early in the series’ run. Rod gets a job at Bayside and wins over the students initially by letting them call him by his first name and sharing stories of his youthful defiance of authority. He soon shows that there’s a dark flipside to his laid-back nature, though: He’s unreliable. Rod ditches a class whitewater rafting trip so he can spend time with a sexy flight attendant. Fortunately, the other Belding steps in at the last minute and the trip is saved.
TV-world consequences: Rod gets fired.
Real-world consequences: Uchacz says the real fault here is with Mr. Richard Belding—he never should have hired his brother in the first place. “This is a case of nepotism,” he said. “Mr. Belding’s in trouble.”
8. Blackmailing a student into joining the glee club (Mr. Schuester, “Glee”)
There’s a lot of questionable behavior that goes on at McKinley High, but one of the most egregious examples has to be the lie that helps start the glee club in the first place. Mr. Schuester, desperate to recruit a few popular kids to join his extremely uncool club, realizes football-player Finn has a great voice. Rather than persuading Finn to be part of glee club with logic or flattery, Mr. Schuester uses fake blackmail: He tells Finn he’s found pot in his locker. The only way to avoid getting kicked out of school, according to Schu, is to start singing.
TV-world consequences: Finn joins the glee club and never figures out that he was framed.
Real-world consequences: “That would be the most clear-cut cause for dismissal, next to rigging an election,” said Uchacz.
9. Writing a romance novel during school hours (Ms. Perky, 10 Things I Hate About You)
Ms. Perky’s job at Padua High is to be a guidance counselor, but she makes no attempt to hide her true calling: erotic novelist. She spends more time working on her manuscript than she does advising students, and she even asks her advisees for help in coming up with words to describe her hero’s anatomy.
Movie-world consequences: None.
Real-world consequences: “The principal would sit down and counsel [the teacher],” says Uchacz. “If that’s a personal endeavor of theirs, they need to not be doing it on school time.”
10. Throwing student work out the window (Mr. Racine, “My So-Called Life”)
When Angela’s English teacher quits unexpectedly, a charismatic substitute (who seems to have taken a few pedagogy tips from Dead Poet’s Society) fills in. His first order of business is to read the class’s submissions to the school’s literary magazine. He deems their poems “safe, banal, homogenized, cutesy, appalling” before tossing them out the window.
TV-world consequences: Angela’s parents are indignant (“you worked very hard on that poem!”) and tell her to stand up to Mr. Racine, which she does, only to be won over by his tough-love style. Like his inspiration Mr. Keating, though, Mr. Racine eventually leaves the school for reasons unrelated to his unconventional poetry lessons.
Real-world consequences: Uchacz says the school's response to a substitute like Mr. Racine would be simple: "The administrator would have the substitute called into the office and say, 'Thanks for subbing for us. Your services will no longer be needed.' That would be the conversation."
Eleanor Barkhorn is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she edits the website’s Sexes channel.