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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

These are the top 20 movies every educator should watch. While every movie is not specifically about educators, there is definitely something to take away from each. These movies are not listed in order of importance, just the order they came to me. Each title is linked to their IMDB page.

Summer School
Mark Harmon tries to be the teacher he is not and only succeeds in reaching his students when he is the teacher they need him to be. Be true to yourself and the students will listen.

Lean on Me
Morgan Freeman plays Joe Clark, the principal who is willing to do anything it takes to help make his school safe and create an environment for all students to learn. Sometimes doing what's tough is what's best for kids.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off
As a teacher, this movie is a bit funnier when you think about the things Ferris is able to pull off and the craziness Edward Rooney, the principal, must have had to deal with to push him over the edge.

Dead Poets Society
One of the main reasons I wanted to be an English Teacher my captain, my captain.

Stand and Deliver
This is a great movie about reaching students who feel like they have no hope of success in their life. Looking at it now, it also has something to say about standardized testing.

Searching for Bobby Fischer
A young chess prodigy is pushed by his father and chess teacher to be the best, when he just wants to play. Thought provoking story about how we treat gifted children. Do we really know what is best for them?

The Karate Kid
A wimpy kid is trained to defend himself by a old Japanese man. What I always take away from this movie is the unconventional ways that Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel. Sometimes the unconventional is the way to go.

Max Fischer, played by Jason Schwartzman, is the student that seems to be involved in everything, but can't seem to get his studies done. Bill Murray should have won an Oscar for his performance. I think every school has a Max, but how do we reach them?

Besides being the right thing to do, Carrie showcases a great reason on why kids should never bully other students. You never who has telekinetic powers, so be nice to everyone.

Mean Girls
Tina Fey does a great job with this script showing how high school gossip and overall cattiness plays out. It is a funny take on a serious issue in some high schools.

Reese Witherspoon and Mathew Broderick (now playing a teacher) are amazing in this film showing the dark underbelly of student government. It is a funny movie that, as a teacher, makes you wonder what student leadership is all about.

It might seem like a bit dated for today's schools, but Heather's commentary on cliques is still relevant. Heathers is an excellent movie that still packs a punch today.

Dazed and Confused
Forget about the herbal parts of the movie and focus on Jeremy London's character. He is supposed to be "the jock" and commit to being a certain person. He fights to be himself and that is something to be admired.

The Breakfast Club
A movie that is a must-see for everyone. When I watch the movie now, it reminds me that no matter how I might perceive a student to be, there is a good chance they have some darker parts they are just waiting to share. Sometimes they just need someone to ask.

Finding Forrester
One of Sean Connery's last movies before he retired and he is magnificent. A young man gets into a fancy prep school on a basketball scholarship, but it turns out he is a great writer who butts heads with his tyrannical English teacher. Connery is reclusive writer who helps the student find his voice. There is more to students than we realize at times.

The Mighty
This is a story about two unlikely friends that have much to learn from one another. I stumbled upon this movie a few years ago and loved it. I will always stop and watch it.

Real Genius
Val Kilmer is very funny in this movie. He mentors a young kid who skips ahead to college. It's interesting to see what the pressure of being a "genius" can sometimes do to a person.

School Ties
This has an all-star cast dealing with bigotry during the 1950's. Even though it deals with anti-Semitism, the story truly applies to all types of discrimination students might face in schools.

Super 8
The reason this movie is on the list is because I feel it nailed the type of relationship young boys have at a particular age. JJ Abrams did an amazing job of writing exactly how young boys act when they are goofing around or when there is a girl in their midst. When dealing with boys in the classroom, this movie might help you make sense of their actions.

Stand by Me
This is another example of boys being boys, but also young kids being forced to deal with unfair expectations or labels based on their families. Whether it's not living up to your all-star brother or trying to escape the reputation of a criminal brother, fighting to be yourself is never easy.

What other movies would you add to this list? Please add to the comments section below.

Do you have an education-related list of 20 you'd like to submit? Please send to community AT edutopia. Be sure you have a profile on Edutopia.org with a photo and bio included.

Comments (136)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Susan Anne Crawford's picture

Wonderful french language films for teachers :

Les Choristes
Au Revoir les Enfants
Etre et Avoir
Monsieur Lazhar

zep's picture
Education Specialist

Sadly both Dangerous Minds & Freedom Writers are built on the age old stereotypes that students of color need white saviors to come in and rescue them. Taken 1 step further, think about who these saviors are rescuing the children from? Their Black community and culture. Another often beloved film Avatar falls short on this behalf as well. Why do our films choose to highlight a white teacher rescuing students of color and rarely an educator from their community? While arguable how good a film it is, a shout out to Half-Nelson for at least making an effort to flip these stereotypes on their head.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

Zep, when will people like you learn that you only ensure failure when you frame your entire perspective solely on race? This is not progress. This is not "moving forward." The only thing it accomplishes is to further stoke liberal guilt into action. Perhaps these films are written that way for no other reason than because they are based on actual events? Did you see To Sir With Love? That was a black teacher "saving" lower class white kids.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

So what happened, you're right there are enough To Sir With Love stories out there to last Hollywood a lifetime, so why exacerbate the stereotype of white saviors? Next thing you know someone will extoll the virtues of the fraud perpetuated in Lean On Me, only "tough love" works within urban communities... when an adult of color is involved. You're right its time to move forward and stop perpetuating racial stereotypes.

Barbara's picture

As far as the racial comments go about White heroes rescuing Black children or other racial stereotypes, "Freedom Writers" is a TRUE story about a real person- she was White, but that didn't define her behavior- she was a TEACHER. The spirit of the teacher flowed through her and to them. She could have been purple for all that mattered. I also have to nominate "Footloose"- there is a moral dilemma within the great music and dancing- a spiritual crisis-= and a generational conflict that is a part of every student's life.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

I hope that the film portrayed the reality in Freedom Writers, and I certainly don't denigrate the good work any well-intentioned teacher does. My point is simply that there are thousands of teachers who are self-defined people of color who have done just as good, if not a better job, of educating our youth, yet their voice is largely unheard on the silver screen. While not perfect, I enjoyed Half Nelson, a film which purposefully sought to flip racial stereotypes in large part.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia
Facilitator 2014

Thank you everyone for your recommendations. Here are a few more that came in via email:

Shorouq wants to add "Dangerous Minds" to the list saying that the movie touched his heart. In the film, Michelle Pfeiffer plays an ex-marine teacher who struggles to connect with her students in an inner city school.

Rebecca and Gia both recommend "Mr. Holland's Opus", which is one of my favorites as well. Richard Dreyfuss is great as a frustrated composer who finds fulfillment as a high school music teacher.

And finally, Sofia recommends "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", which won Maggie Smith an Academy Award for her role as a headstrong young teacher in a private school in 1930s Edinburgh.

Frances Santiago's picture
Frances Santiago
Spanish teacher for grades 5-11 in Washington, DC

I personally hated Freedom Writers, and not only because the White savior theme made me uncomfortable. I remember watching her marriage fall apart because of the amount of time spent on her job and I could see only too well how that would/could happen to me very quickly.

Honestly, as a Latina teacher who teaches primarily students of color, the only teacher movies I can watch repeatedly without feeling incredibly depressed or uncomfortable are Stand and Deliver and Akeelah and the Bee.

Richard Cottingham's picture

If you really want to see a depressing movie about teaching see Teachers with Nick Nolte and JoBeth Williams. If you are offended by nudity skip the first and last 5 minutes.

It is a great movie and I think it tells much about the stae of the profession but it is hardly a morale booster.

Richard Cottingham's picture

I could not agree with your comment more. Was this teacher's pereformance and success anymore noteworthy because she was white and her students were Black? I am a white man who taught in all Black schools for the final 20 years of my career. I had many successes during that time and absolutely none of those successes were due to my race. I worked hard and treated all students with dignity and respect and elicited their best efforts.
If the teacher in the movie was more effective than I it had nothing to do with the race of either teacher or child.

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