Thoughts on Umbridge from a Former Teacher
It’s that time of year again: Kids joyfully skipping off to school, their backpacks full of new pencils, fresh notebook paper, calculators, cell phones, iPads… etc. Quite a far cry from the quills and cauldrons in the trunks of Hogwarts students, but we all know that J.K. Rowling was astute in creating parallels to Muggle education when writing about schools for wizards. The most obvious, and most critical, parallel is embodied in the character we all love to hate: Dolores Jane Umbridge.
Before I go on, here’s bit about me: I just spent two short (but awesome) years as a high school English teacher. I went to college for English Secondary Education, and now I’m back in school for Library Science because I feel I belong more in a library than in a classroom. When I read Harry Potter as a kid for the first time, Umbridge’s allegorical significance was lost on me. But growing up rereading the books, one gets a deeper understanding of all the details and nuances in Rowling’s world. From the first read, Umbridge always stood out as the character I hated most, more than Voldemort himself. My most recent reread confirmed this hatred, and with it an understanding of just why I hate her so much: She embodies everything I hated about my former job.
Teachers are miracle workers. Teaching is one of the most important jobs in the world, and in my experience, it can be one of the most fulfilling jobs in the world. For being such a young teacher, I was pretty good at my job. I didn’t quit because of burn-out or not being able to handle it (though I am not saying those aren’t legit reasons to quit – they are the legit-est of reasons). I actually just didn’t jibe with the way the education system runs, and Umbridge reminds me of that. Here’s the Umbridge quote that gets my goat: “It is the view of the Ministry that a theoretical knowledge will be more than sufficient to get you through your examination, which, after all, is what school is all about” (OotP 243). If this doesn’t ring true for our Muggle schools, than I’m a Crumple-Horned Snorkack.
Umbridge is the very embodiment of flawed principles of education students and teachers alike detest. She argues that exams are the end-all-be-all purpose of schooling and pushes for strict regulation of curricula. She insists that theoretical knowledge is all one needs and that school “is not the real world,” so students don’t need to actually know practical skills. Furthermore, any teacher who’s read Order of the Phoenix will surely sympathize with the professors undergoing Umbridge’s evaluations: Who hasn’t had an administrator in your classroom at the exact wrong moment? Fortunately, I’ve never had to deal with an Umbridge-like evaluator, but I’m sure they are out there. Her style is obviously a caricature of reality, but sadly an accurate one.
Here’s the good thing, though: Very little of what Umbridge stands for (extreme levels of teacher scrutiny, the all-importance of standardized testing, controlled or scripted curricula, etc.) is, in my experience, the fault of the teachers. Teachers are not to blame for the broken system. Teachers are fighting back and doing extraordinary things to work within the conditions they have. For every Umbridge out there, there are hundreds of Flitwicks, McGonagalls, Sprouts, and Grubbly-Planks fighting back.
One could write an entire book about the educational theories present in the Potter books (if someone hasn’t already). Rowling does an excellent job of critiquing many of the problems in education through Umbridge’s character, and even though she is extreme, it sometimes takes an extreme example to get us to think about how pressing these problems are. I jumped what I thought was a sinking ship when I quit teaching (and sometimes wonder whether I’m adding to the problem rather than trying to fix it by doing so), but the ship can stay afloat if we heed such warnings. The Umbridge way of educating does not work. It didn’t work for wizards in the 1990s, and it doesn’t work for Muggles in the 2010s. We must trust our teachers, because more often than not, they just might be McGonagalls trying to do their job right within an Umbridge-controlled system.