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The 20 Most Memorable Teachers in TV History

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Pop quiz: Recall the name of your favorite teacher.

Extra credit: Recall the name of your least favorite teacher.

Regardless of how many years removed you are from your school days, it’s impossible to think back on your educational career without also recalling the teachers who most impacted it. Whether because they were inspirational or horrendously ill-suited for the job, some teachers leave an imprint that stays with you for a lifetime. And the same goes for the fictional teachers who populate the world of television.

In honor of Teachers' Day, we’re paying tribute to the TV teachers who have shaped—and warped—the impressionable minds of generations of television viewers. (Chemistry teachers-turned-kingpins included.)

1. WALTER WHITE // BREAKING BAD

Sure, his lectures were a little dull (even if he did have open flames in his classroom), but no one could ever accuse Mr. White of not knowing his craft. And yes, he did steal equipment from the supply closet a couple of times and keep his burner phone in the classroom ceiling for a while, but he also turned a former flunkie student into his greatest protégé, and taught us all that when you see a product that you could greatly improve, you shouldn’t let little things like a shortage of Sudafed or menacing drug lords get in your way. Also, science has practical applications! Every Breaking Bad fan now knows that if you're going to try to dissolve something in hydrofluoric acid, you'd better do it in a plastic container (not a ceramic bathtub). —Erika Berlin

2. EDNA KRABAPPEL // THE SIMPSONS

Other teachers at Springfield Elementary had their cool character moments, but Mrs. Krabappel was a fan favorite from her first appearance in the series' second-ever episode. Yes, she dated around, drank on the job, and slapped Bart once (ok, twice), but Edna was a teacher who wasn’t afraid to say what she felt, even if those feelings were buried beneath quips and sarcasm. That school would have been boring if not for Edna’s 20-plus years as a teacher to the same fourth grade class. —Andrew LaSane

3. MR. FEENY // BOY MEETS WORLD

It’s easy to forgive Boy Meets World's eyeroll-worthy trope of having the school principal live next door to protagonist Cory Matthews. Not to mention him traveling with Cory and the gang from middle school to high school and then, coincidentally, also becoming a professor at the college that everyone attends because, gosh darn it, Feeny is the best. The well-spoken, well-read, highbrow neighbor transformed over the course of the series—from disciplinarian to teacher to friend to mentor and, finally, to father. As the series drew to a close, we learned that after all Feeny had given to Cory, Topanga, Shawn, Eric, and the rest of his students, the sometime-curmudgeon needed them (and the job) just as much as they needed him. He didn’t travel with them to New York at the end of the show (which they joke about in the final scene: “Come on Feeny, you haven’t even talked to another student in seven years”), but he did make it to Girl Meets World some 14 years later, gracing the audience with a few appearances to remind us that, just like Cory said in that final episode, he’d stay with us always. —Caitlin Schneider

4. MS. FRIZZLE // THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS

Ms. Frizzle’s mantra was, “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!” And what a testament that was to her adventurous, hands-on teaching approach. Ms. Frizzle was the type of teacher who’d literally go the distance in the name of scientific discovery and, as a character, had that fantastical-yet-familiar vibe that made her instantly beloved. From the bottom of the ocean to the edges of outer space, The Friz was blazing trails, setting an example for curiosity and exploration in learning, becoming an emblem for every quirkily-dressed teacher in the world, and doing it all with Liz on her shoulder. (Fun fact: Liz is actually a Jackson's chameleon, not a lizard.) —Caitlin Schneider

5. ROLAND “PREZ” PRYZBYLEWSKI // THE WIRE

As one of the first faces glimpsed in HBO’s drug-war indictment The Wire, a sheepish Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski appeared to be uncomfortable in his role as an authoritarian: He did his best police work solving puzzles and his worst while holding a gun. Disillusioned, he skittishly entered a new career as a Baltimore public school teacher, where students with one foot already in the criminal trade took advantage of his scrambled confidence. But Prez hung on, learning to navigate a fatally broken educational system. By the end, he was steadier on his feet in front of a classroom than he had ever been as a cop. His real talent wasn’t at a crime scene—it was making sure the city’s youth never got there in the first place. —Jake Rossen

6. MISS BLISS // SAVED BY THE BELL

It’s a shame that the students in Miss Bliss’s class didn’t have enough time to fully appreciate her talents. For 13 episodes she was a surrogate mother, shaping the lives of a group of kids who would inexplicably move their families to Los Angeles and reunite at Bayside High School. She always supported her often misguided class, and her English accent made everything sound, dare we say, blissful. —Andrew LaSane

7. COACH FREDRICKS // FREAKS & GEEKS

Most kids lucky enough to attend public school will remember struggling through the Health component of a physical education class, which was probably led by one of the school’s coaches and completely scripted from an outdated manual. Coach Fredricks was a complex character with stereotypical jock-like tendencies, but he also cared about his students and showed some humanity at various points in the show’s singular season. He had a man-to-man talk with Sam about sex after a porn video confused the geeks, his feelings were hurt by a prank call, and he fell in love with Bill’s mother and genuinely wanted the teenager's approval. The geeks may have hated PE, but deep down they respected Coach Fredricks. —Andrew LaSane

8. MR. GARVEY // KEY & PEELE

Look, no one likes a substitute teacher, and substitute teachers know that better than anyone. They also know that they aren’t really expected to conjugate Latin verbs or supervise frog dissection. Honestly, a substitute’s main objective it to keep the students in line and make sure they all showed up for class, but taking attendance is the worst. Names are pronounced oddly, some kids go by nicknames that aren’t on the official register, and on top of that, high school kids are jerks. So it’s understandable that Mr. Garvey would go into the day with a little trepidation. But props to him for standing his ground, throwing his weight around a little, and not allowing any back talk. Besides, who really knows how to pronounce O’Shaughnessy anyway? —Erika Berlin

9. WILL SCHUESTER // GLEE 

Like Breaking Bad's Water White, Glee's Will Schuester, a.k.a. Mr. Schue, knows of what he teaches. In casting the role of an Ohio high school teacher who reignites the school's glee club, show creator Ryan Murphy spent months observing a number of Broadway actors in order to find just the right fit for the series, and landed on Matthew Morrison. And while he's a teacher who takes the responsibility of enriching the lives of his students very seriously, we also get to see what his own life is like outside of the classroom (which isn't the case with every TV teacher), whether that means witnessing the crumbling of a bad marriage or trying desperately to win the affection of the school's guidance counselor. In the end, at least according to Glee, every problem can be solved with the perfect song. —Jennifer M. Wood

10. MR. GARRISON // SOUTH PARK

For 19 seasons, South Park Elementary’s fourth grade teacher has provided the series with what creator Trey Parker describes as “the soap opera element.” Some of Mr. Garrison's more colorful moments include attempting to assassinate Kathy Lee Gifford, marrying Richard Dawkins, and making a move on Cartman after discovering he was a member of NAMBLA. The character even spent a few seasons living as “Mrs. Janet Garrison” before deciding to undergo a reverse sex change in the episode “Eek, a Penis!” He may not be receiving a "teacher of the year" award any time soon, but Mr. Garrison (and his alter ego/puppet Mr. Hat) has definitely earned the title of one of South Park’s most unique residents. —Michele Debczak

11. MISS CRABTREE // THE LITTLE RASCALS

Not to be confused with Ms. Crabtree, the bus driver from South Park, Miss June Crabtree was the prettiest and nicest teacher that a bunch of rascals could ever hope for. She didn’t appear in many Our Gang shorts, but whenever her finger waves and smile were on screen, everyone was a little bit happier. Miss Crabtree was always sweet to her class, but she wasn’t afraid to punish them for misbehavin’ by sending them out to stand in the hall. —Andrew LaSane

12. MR. KOTTER // WELCOME BACK, KOTTER

Though it's Gabe Kotter's name that appears in the title, it quickly became clear that The Sweathogs—the group of remedial students he was hired to keep in line and, if possible, actually teach—were the real stars of this classic '70s sitcom. Which was just fine with Mr. Kotter (a.k.a. Mr. Kott-air), as he was one of the wayward group's founding members. Which might explain why a teacher would be so willing to let his students invade his life outside of room 111. But like any good story about a group of students who the world doesn't expect much of, Kotter's connection to his students helped him to get through to them in a way that no other adult (teacher or otherwise) ever had. Welcome back! —Jennifer M. Wood

13. JESSICA DAY // NEW GIRL

Don’t let her “adorkable” persona fool you: Jessica Day is a serious and passionate career woman. She’s dealt with a whole lot in only a few seasons—multiple office romances, dating a parent, failed field trips, bullies, weird bosses, strange coworkers, becoming a boss herself, and even helming an adult education creative writing class. It hasn’t always gone smoothly, but Jess’s passion for her students and learning itself have always been the driving force behind her sometimes ill-conceived efforts. She has the kind of determination and single-mindedness about her life’s work that makes her a standout among Nick, Winston, Cece, and even Schmidt. And let’s be honest, her spunk, quirky personality, and penchant for whipping out the guitar to give a lesson make her the kind of teacher we always wish we had. —Caitlin Schneider

14. MR. COLLINS // THE WONDER YEARS

Kevin Arnold's math teacher, Mr. Collins, only appeared in three of The Wonder Years' 115 episodes (four if you count a clip show). But to this day, his storyline remains one of the iconic series's most poignant. Initially portrayed as the "I'm too old for this sh*t" kind of teacher who has lost his enthusiasm for educating the snot-nosed kids who fill his classroom, Mr. Collins's true passion for his job is eventually revealed when he offers to give Kevin, who is struggling in the class, some extra help after school. Though their meetings are strictly business, Kevin is able to glimpse at the man behind the bad suits and comes to think of him as a friend. So when Mr. Collins makes it clear to Kevin that, "I am not your friend Mr. Arnold—I am your teacher," Kevin hits back in the only way his pubescent brain can fathom: He flunks the midterm on purpose. But Mr. Collins gets the final word when, over the weekend following the test, he dies. However, through a posthumous gesture, Kevin gets a second chance at the midterm, and a final opportunity to pay tribute to his dearly departed mentor. Fun fact: Before he was an actor, Steven Gilborn—who portrayed Mr. Collins—was a professor at MIT, Columbia, University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford (where he earned his own Ph.D. in dramatic literature). —Jennifer M. Wood

15. LYDIA GRANT // FAME

Both in front of the camera and behind it, Debbie Allen served as a teacher on the television adaptation of Fame. Reprising her role from the film as Lydia Grant, Allen lays it out for her students when she tells them: "You've got big dreams. You want fame. Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying: in sweat." And sweat they did. But Allen's role as a dance teacher didn't end when the camera panned away; she also choreographed the series, and won an Emmy for doing just that. —Jennifer M. Wood

16. MR. KATIMSKI // MY SO-CALLED LIFE

Poor Mr. Katimski had a lot to deal with in the single season My So-Called Life was on the air: In class, he helped both Brian and Jordan figure out their feelings for Angela via Shakespeare. As the drama club's leader, he was doggedly after Rickie to join up. In only four episodes, the perpetually sweater-clad teacher made a memorable mark as he navigated the angsty halls of Liberty High School in a nervous and spacey, yet sweet, way that only made his devotion to his students all the more endearing, even when they didn’t totally appreciate him. He was one of those teachers who was steadfast in a largely thankless role—all for those few punctuated moments of deeply felt success. —Caitlin Schneider

17. MISS BROOKS // OUR MISS BROOKS

When English teacher Connie Brooks would complain of being underpaid—and she did, often—teachers across the country rejoiced. Here was a portrayal of the profession that didn’t mince words. One of TV’s earliest educators, Brooks (played by Eve Arden) refused to conform to the stereotypical image of a mechanical authority figure. When a student drew graffiti on a wall, Brooks didn’t run to the principal’s office—she rushed to paint over it. Nor did she ignore the fact that teachers had feelings, too. (In Brooks’ case, it was unrequited love for fellow teacher Mr. Boynton.) After the series ended in 1956, Arden got the ultimate compliment: several job offers to teach. —Jake Rossen

18. CHUCK NOBLET // STRANGERS WITH CANDY

Before Stephen Colbert had his own late-night talk show, he played Chuck Noblet, a history instructor who provided the teenagers of Flatpoint High with bad advice and even more questionable classroom lectures. Noblet is mean to most of his students, but especially cruel toward fortysomething freshman Jerri Blank. However, some might say his meanness stems from a deep-rooted unhappiness—not an actual dislike toward Jerri. Noblet is an educator, yet he longs to become a rock star. He’s married to a woman, but he’s secretly having an affair with his co-worker, Mr. Jellineck. These dual identities cause him to resent Jerri, whose personality is brash yet honest—a quality Noblet feels like he can never possess. —Kirstin Fawcett

19. ANNALISE KEATING // HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER

Sure her methods are unconventional and she's been a bit preoccupied this semester, what with her cheating husband being accused of murder and then “disappearing,” but in-demand defense attorney and criminal law professor Annalise Keating also successfully mentored five students, won a handful of cases, and kept her gang of murdering, evidence-destroying interns out of prison—and presumably with solid GPAs to boot. Though learning textbook case law is all well and good, Keating’s pragmatic, brutally honest lessons are what's really going to help get her students jobs after graduation (and keep them out of the pen). "There’s no truth in the courtroom. There’s just your version of what happened versus theirs," she says, always urging her students to think harder, dig deeper, and be more creative in their approach. "That’s how the justice system works. It’s not what’s right and what’s fair. It’s who tells the most convincing story." —Erika Berlin

20. DEE REYNOLDS // IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA

Deandra “Sweet Dee" Reynolds has dabbled in many occupations during It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's 10 (and counting) seasons. She has been a street performer, a surrogate mother, and a YouTube star, but perhaps her most questionable career move was her stint as a high school drama teacher. One of her first actions was putting on a performance of Frankenstein, which she then used as a vehicle to recapture her high school glory days by playing the title role. She finally got booted from the job after taking her class to Paddy’s Pub to watch the gang’s reenactment of Lethal Weapon 5. Though her teaching career may have been brief, it was memorable nonetheless. —Michele Debczak

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

Key for hidden image puzzle.
Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

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