The 10 Greatest Teachers in TV History
These beloved characters go to the head of the class
Class is in session! This month, ABC premieres its new sitcom, Abbott Elementary, an Office-style mockumentary set in an underfunded public school in West Philadelphia. Series creator and star Quinta Brunson — who you may know from HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show — based the workplace comedy on the experiences of her mother, a retired kindergarten teacher who provided the inspiration for the show’s firm but loving teaching vet Barbara Howard, played by Sheryl Lee Ralph, 65. The educators at Abbott Elementary continue a long tradition of televised teachers that extends as far back as Our Miss Brooks. Here, 10 all-time greats who more than make the grade. Let us know about some of your favorite fictional educators in the comments section below.
Connie Brooks, Our Miss Brooks
Played by: Eve Arden
Why we love her: Best known to later generations as Principal McGee in Grease, Eve Arden played the sardonic high school English teacher, Connie Brooks, across radio, TV and film from 1948 to 1956 — even winning the first best actress Emmy in 1954. A groundbreaking sitcom, Our Miss Brooks was one of the first shows centered around a working woman, and she’s depicted as competent, sharp-witted and equal to (if not better than) her male peers. And the job itself is realistic and unglamorous, with Miss Brooks often lodging a complaint that still rings true today: She’s woefully underpaid.
Lessons taught: How to excel in the workplace at a time when domesticity was prized above all else; how to handle a buffoonish boss.
Watch it: Our Miss Brooks on Tubi
Pete Dixon, Room 222
Played by: Lloyd Haynes
Why we love him: Who wouldn’t want to be a student in Mr. Dixon’s American history class at Walt Whitman High School? Inside the four walls of the titular classroom, he doles out gentle wisdom about tolerance and community, but he isn’t afraid to also dive deep on the big important issues of the day, such as drug abuse, abortion, gay rights, racism, Watergate and the Vietnam War. In the early 1970s, there was something quietly revolutionary about a show focused on a Black male teacher, especially considering how many TV teachers who came before him looked more like Miss Canfield from Leave It to Beaver or Miss Crabtree from The Little Rascals. In addition to helping out his students, Mr. Dixon also serves as a mentor to student teacher Alice Johnson, played by Karen Valentine (74), who won an Emmy for the role.
Lessons taught: How to find commonality with people of different races; how to talk to your parents about tough subjects.
Watch it: Room 222 is not currently available to stream online, but you can buy the DVD on Amazon
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Gabe Kotter, Welcome Back, Kotter
Played by: Gabe Kaplan, 76
Why we love him: Mr. Kotter has his work cut out for him when he returns to his inner-city alma mater, Brooklyn’s James Buchanan High School, to lead a remedial class of “unteachable” troublemakers, known as the Sweathogs. But he comes prepared: Years ago, he was a founding member of the motley crew. Despite his wisecracking jabs and constant sarcasm, Mr. Kotter serves as a role model for his students, both inside the classroom and out, and they often drop by his apartment — even through the fire-escape window — seeking advice.
Lessons taught: How to deploy a well-timed catchphrase; how to use your wit to disarm your enemies; how to prove the doubters wrong.
Watch it: Welcome Back, Kotter on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube
Lydia Grant, Fame
Played by: Debbie Allen, 71
Why we love her: The no-nonsense dance instructor at the New York City High School for the Performing Arts didn’t rule with an iron fist, but she did wield a big wooden cane — a nod to Debbie Allen’s real-life ballet teacher, Madame Tatiana Semenova. Lydia pushes her students, but she knows she has to if they want to make it in the hyper-competitive world of professional dance. As she explains in the first episode: “You’ve got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying — in sweat.” Allen, a recent Kennedy Center honoree, picked up two Emmys for her choreography on the show.
Lessons taught: How to stand out from the pack as a dancer; how to nail an audition.
Watch it: Fame on Amazon Prime, Apple TV
Ms. Frizzle, The Magic School Bus
Played by: Lily Tomlin, 82
Why we love her: Outfitted in her colorful and wildly patterned dresses, the lovable if slightly mysterious Ms. Frizzle is equipped with a secret weapon that none of the other teachers on this list have: her fantastical titular vehicle. It has the power to whisk her students away on far-flung field trips to outer space, into the digestive system, to a haunted house or even inside an ant colony. Lily Tomlin voiced Ms. Valerie Frizzle in the original ’90s PBS series; in the Netflix sequel, which premiered in 2017, she earns her Ph.D., retires from teaching and hands the steering wheel over to her little sister, Fiona, voiced by SNL’s Kate McKinnon.
Lessons taught: How white blood cells attack viruses; why friction is needed for everything from baseball to walking; how to pair statement fabric patterns with chunky red heels.
Watch it: The Magic School Bus on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Netflix, YouTube
Mr. Feeny, Boy Meets World
Played by: William Daniels, 94
Why we love him: For millennials, Mr. Feeny is the platonic ideal of an inspiring teacher, the kind of man who cares more about the growth of his students as people than he does about their grades. He’s warm and wise, and his helpful but never treacly life advice proved a guiding light for students like Cory Matthews (Ben Savage). The show’s creators clearly knew they had a good thing going in Feeny: Besides being the gang’s elementary school teacher, he also lived right next door to the Matthews family (so he could dispense wisdom after hours), and he later followed our young protagonists to high school as their principal and then to college, where he taught archeology, English literature and quantum physics.
Lessons taught: Why you shouldn’t let people’s perceptions of you dictate your behavior; why hard work is sometimes more important than natural intelligence or skill; how you should live your life to be a better person — as he said in the final episode, “Believe in yourselves. Dream. Try. Do Good.”
Edna Krabappel, The Simpsons
Played by: Marcia Wallace
Why we love her: She wasn’t cute and cuddly, but Springfield Elementary’s jaded, chain-smoking, fourth-grade teacher had moments of inspiration, as when she took pity on a failing Bart Simpson and gave him a passing grade in the 1991 episode “Bart Gets an F.” When longtime voice actress Marcia Wallace — who you may know as receptionist Carol Kester on The Bob Newhart Show — died in 2013, producers decided that the character would die as well, rather than recast the role. In a sweet tribute, Bart writes “We’ll really miss you Mrs. K” on the chalkboard in the opening credits.
Lessons taught: How to laugh your way through a job you don’t love anymore — her catchphrase isn’t “Ha!” for nothing.
Watch it: The Simpsons on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Disney+, Google Play, YouTube
Miss Eva Beadle, Little House on the Prairie
Played by: Charlotte Stewart, 80
Why we love her: A fixture in Walnut Grove for the show’s first four seasons, Miss Beadle cared deeply for her pioneer students, often going out of her way to help them when times got tough. When the Ingalls family faces financial problems, for instance, she buys Laura (Melissa Gilbert, 57) tablet paper so she doesn’t fall behind on her work. “Now, we’re friends, aren’t we?” she asks Laura. “Well, when you have a problem, you should be able to tell a friend, shouldn’t you?” Ahead of her time, Miss Beadle welcomes students of all backgrounds — including Solomon Henry (Todd Bridges, 56), the son of formerly enslaved people, and half-Sioux boy Spotted Eagle (Caesar Ramirez) — into her classroom with open arms.
Lessons taught: How to be good people in an unforgiving environment; how to talk about controversial current events, like the recently ended Civil War, even if the debate in the classroom gets a little heated.
Watch it: Little House on the Prairie on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Peacock
Jessica Day, New Girl
Played by: Zooey Deschanel
Why we love her: Zooey’s character has been described by critics and fans alike as “adorkable,” and while we can’t tell if that’s meant as a compliment or a dig, we think it’s a great quality for a middle-school teacher. She’s quirky. She’s creative. She loves the handbells. She sticks up for kids who are underdogs. And she seems truly invested in her students. Jessica later takes a job as a creative writing teacher for adults, before being named vice principal.
Lessons taught: How to turn your personal experiences into great writing; how to play “Eye of the Tiger” on the handbells; how not to deal with bullies (when she’s targeted by a mean student, she breaks the robotic arm the girl made for her science fair project — don’t do that!).
Watch it: New Girl on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Netflix, YouTube
Will Schuester, Glee
Played by: Matthew Morrison
Why we love him: In the first episode of Fox’s Emmy-winning musical comedy, Spanish teacher “Mr. Schue” puts together a ragtag glee club called New Directions, made up of football players and theater kids, cheerleaders and nerds. He becomes something of a surrogate father to them, a shoulder to cry on as they deal with personal problems, and his mastery of musical mashups and pop hits — from Journey to Lady Gaga — eventually leads to a win at nationals. Considering that Will is played by Broadway star Matthew Morrison, it’s no surprise that he gets more than a few chances to sing throughout the series. For a particularly great performance, check out his medley of “Singin’ in the Rain” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella” with substitute teacher Holly Holliday (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the New Directions in season 2, episode 7.
Lessons taught: How to get along with students from other cliques; how to sing and do jazz hands at the same time; how to deal with bullies — even if they’re teachers, like cheer coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch, 61).
Watch it: Glee on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.