‘A Teacher’: The Consequences of Breaking Societal Boundaries

Every society is built around established norms and expectations.

We have certain power relations and professional behaviours that it is expected are followed. When these do take place, as in the vast majority of circumstances, people is relieved. Our expectations are met. But this prevents any kind of story. Only when such established norms are broken is there a tale worth telling. 

This is certainly the case in ‘A Teacher’, the latest miniseries to reach BBC iPlayer. Originally released on FX last year, it explores an affair between a student and their teacher. Immediately, that professional boundary has been broken. A high school teacher is there to deliver a class and ensure their students can academically flourish. By becoming emotionally connected with one of them, an unfolding scandal is inevitable. 

Our story centres around Eric Walker (Nick Robinson), a high school senior trying to balance his academic future with maintaining a social life. At his high school, Claire Wilson (Kate Mara) starts teaching. Both dissatisfied with their lives, they yearn for something more. Claire’s character, though still loving her husband Matt (Ashley Zukerman) feels slightly disconnected and as if things aren’t the way they used to be. 

The relationship between them is not immediate. Though the series is ten episodes, every episode is less than half an hour. It is quite literally a miniseries, using its time wisely to try and drive the action forward. That said, the drama and shock begins subtly: initially, Claire agrees to tutor Eric to improve his chances of attending the University of Texas. Outside of school, she allows him to refer to her as Claire rather than Mrs Wilson. One weekend, Claire agrees to take Eric to the university to explore.

Gradually, the boundaries that separated them were being eroded away. Notably, at the beginning of one episode, Eric was supposed to be punished for attending a house party and being in far too drunk a state to drive. Remembering that Claire mentioned her brother, Nate Wilson (Adam David Thompson) was a police officer, he avoids punishment. As the favours soon develop into a full blown relationship, it becomes obvious this is not going to end well. 

While such an age difference between them might not be so out of the ordinary when they are older, at a younger age, this is far more noticeable. Most importantly though are the differences in the positions of power. Claire is a teacher and grown adult. Eric, though aspiring to be treated like an adult, is still fundamentally a child. I felt the series was at its best when the characters were trying to maintain that secrecy. The ability to come up with repeated excuses for one’s absence and whereabouts can only be successful so many times. 

Later on, ‘A Teacher’ tries to be more reflective. Both Eric and Claire have to deal with the aftermath of the events that have unfolded around them. The conflict between deciding who, if either of them, is responsible for what has happened drives the story. The story then become a philosophical tale that reinforces how our childhood years shape who we later become as adults. Our school days are not something that can easily be viewed in isolation. 

The miniseries is no masterpiece. Frequent cliches and stereotypical tropes of high school and American university life are portrayed in great detail, with mixed effect over what they offer the drama. Some of the best parts are when Eric and Claire are surrounded by nobody else. Alone in their own thoughts, it’s their facial expressions that translate to the audience their true expression. It is fundamentally what acting and good TV should be. 

‘A Teacher’ is a story then of the numerous roles we play. While Claire’s profession was a teacher, she was also a wife and someone who desired love. Though Eric was an academic student, he clearly also had feelings for someone he should have only had a professional relationship with. The writers are therefore demonstrating how we all differ from day to day in the roles we play. While, to most people, we may adapt one mask, an external presentation of normality, our internal disposition is something quite different. ‘A Teacher’ never fully provides the answer for how to resolve this. That it raises the question in such a memorable way though is something worth commending.

Every society is built around established norms and expectations.