Media Literacy

5-Minute Film Festival: Hollywood Teachers

July 27, 2012

Hollywood teacher movies typically provoke strong emotions: you either love to hate them or hate to love them. For better or for worse, those silver screen teachers shape how the public thinks about teaching. And most educators I know can't help but watch teacher movies, even if only to criticize them resoundingly, Mystery Science Theater 3000-style.

From heartwarming dramas about the optimistic, young (usually white) teacher who comes in to rescue the at-risk urban kids, to screwball comedies where burned out teachers do drugs in the staff room (hello Bad Teacher), teacher movies tend to fall into a few tired stereotypes, and yet we can't help but hope each one that comes out might actually capture a moment of what life in the classroom can be like. Check out my selection of scenes from teacher movies -- the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Best Teacher Movie Moments

Watch the first video below, or watch the whole playlist on YouTube.

  1. Stand and Deliver - What's Calculus? (01:07)

    Edward James Olmos delivers an Academy-Award-winning standout performance in this biopic about Jaime Escalante, a high school math teacher who encourages his disenfranchised and disenchanted East LA students to learn calculus.

  2. Dangerous Minds (1995) (01:38)

    This film is perhaps the prototypical white-savior-coming-to-rescue-poor-urban-kids movie, and it's admittedly heavy-handed in its message. Nonetheless there are some powerful teaching moments, as a feisty Michele Pfeiffer has to step outside the prescribed curriculum to connect with her inner-city students.

  3. Chalk (Trailer) (01:52)

    I couldn't find any excerpted scenes from this hilarious teacher-produced 2006 mockumentary, so here's the giggle-worthy trailer. I did find an earnest video about how the makers produced this indie film for a mere $10,000. Watch this one when you've had enough of the inspirational sob-fests.

  4. Blackboard Jungle (07:57)

    A period-perfect black-and-white film from 1955, setting the standard for high school students being played by actors that look thirty-something. Glenn Ford shows who is steely-eyed boss when he breaks up a fight in one tense scene. Here's hoping you don't have knife-wielding students who call you Daddy-O.

  5. Dead Poets' Society - Carpe Diem! (05:29)

    An ebullient but thoughtful Mr. Keating (played with love by Robin Williams) takes his prep school boys just outside of the classroom walls to open up their minds and spur them to live up to their potential. This scene also brought the phrase "Carpe Diem" into the public lexicon.

  6. Freedom Writers - We Mattered (02:36)

    Yet another true story where a dewy young teacher has to get tough when she's confronted by apathetic inner-city students. Of course, she manages to win their hearts with her unconventional teaching and inspire them to express themselves. Fact: Erin Gruwell, the teacher profiled, and her students started the nonprofit Freedom Writers Foundation, which is still going strong.

  7. To Sir With Love (09:17)

    Though the plot is familiar, there's a nice race-and-class role reversal in this 1967 film, as Sidney Poitier beautifully portrays an out-of-work engineer who becomes a teacher, and faces a class of mostly white working-class toughs in the slums of London. Ironically, a decade earlier, Poitier was playing the disruptive student in Blackboard Jungle, see above.

  8. Mr. Holland's Opus - Clarinet Scene (07:29)

    Lots of teachers take issue with this movie's hint of that tired refrain, "those who can't do, teach," and Richard Dreyfuss' title character's self-absorbed wallowing about having to be a teacher. But it's still a tearjerker with a solid message that one person can make a difference. This scene helps make the case for the power of music and arts education.

  9. Lean on Me - Meeting with Parents (03:35)

    Watch Morgan Freeman shine in his first lead role in 1989, as a determined and hard-line administrator tasked with turning around the worst school in the state before the government takes it over. In this scene, angry parents take issue with principal Joe Clark's radical policies, and Joe delivers a rousing sermon on why he did what he did. Sorry for atrocious clip quality.

  10. Goodbye, Mr. Chips - Mr. Chips' First Day at Brookfield (03:58)

    Looks like classroom management was just as challenging in 1939 as it is now. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a much-loved classic early teacher film about the long tenure of a teacher at a British boarding school for boys. Apologies for the out-of-sync sound.

  11. Teachers (1984) - Nick Nolte (03:58)

    This dramatic farce is a classic of the burned-out teacher genre, with said burnout played with gusto by Nick Nolte. But there's no Nick Nolte in this clip: I couldn't resist including this just for the mimeograph machine brawl.

More Resources About Teachers in the Media

I spent a lot of time in college thinking about media representation and how it affects audience perceptions of various groups, so I loved digging through all of these thoughtful articles breaking down the teacher movie genre. If you're a fan of media deconstruction and critical analysis like me, read on. And then, I included a few links to other teacher movie lists just for fun. Hat tip to Larry Ferlazzo for his blog post, "Best places to learn about and view video clips of teachers in the movies" for many of these resources.

Media Representations of Teachers
Collections of Teacher Movies

So of course, I'd love to know -- what are your most loved and most despised teacher movie moments? Please share in the comments below!

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