Education Teacher Leaders Network

Top Teacher Movies of All Time

By John Norton — October 15, 2008 8 min read
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You’re a teacher, so you must have a favorite teacher movie, right? Not long ago, amid discussions of national education policy, new teacher mentoring and other weighty subjects, members of the Teacher Leaders Network took a break to name their own favorite films about teachers and teaching -- and justify their choice in 100 words or less. A lively discussion ensued, and it was clear that TLNers admire films about teachers who refuse to be just another brick in the wall. After you’ve perused our top picks, we encourage you to name your own favorite and tell us why you’re willing to watch it again and again.

Our Top Ten

#1 Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)

The undisputed top choice among teachers in our TLN community, this film about the life of a frustrated composer turned high school music teacher earned praise for its focus on the importance of passion in teaching and Richard Dreyfuss’s portrayal of the teacher as “a real human with all the quirks and poor judgment calls that make us part of the same species.”

For Barbara, the movie is a reminder that “our students are indeed our magnum opus.” Nancy, herself a 30-year music teacher, also rates Mr. Holland #1, but for a different reason: “It’s one of only two or three movies about school that ring true for me. I especially love the ironic twist at the end -- give up what you think is your life’s passion (music) so you can teach kids to have the same life passion, then get the boot after 30 years because your life passion is not valued by policymakers.”

#2 Stand and Deliver (1988)

Teachers, as you will see throughout these selections, like movies based on real events and characters. A close second in our top teacher-movie poll, Stand and Deliver gained praise for actor Edward James Olmos’ convincing portrayal of Jaime Escalante, who “earned the respect of his at-risk students” and refused to let them “define themselves as failures.”

When the movie was released, Jane wrote, “I had just moved from my cozy San Diego college environment and was placed in a tough school in Los Angeles. The movie spoke to me because the students and teaching environment were familiar. I wanted to be the kind of teacher Escalante was -- a ‘rebel’ with extremely high standards who saw the potential in the students.” Kathie, another LA teacher, added that unlike Escalante, “I’ve never felt pushed out because of my success. But it’s an all-too-real eventuality for some dedicated teachers. This movie touched my heart, and still does.”

#3 October Sky (1999)

Another top movie on our TLN list, this adaption of the book Rocket Boys is the true story of Homer Hickam, a miner’s son who pursued his interest in rocketry despite community ridicule – and with the help of an inspirational teacher. Marsha wrote that she shows the movie to her students every year as part of her middle school astronomy unit. “That’s saying something because I had to purchase the viewing rights out of my own pocket!”

Patty added that while we “usually think about the awesome problem solving in that movie, definitely the teacher was the motivation.” Georgiean says it was “exciting to see the intrigue of science develop into a career. The rocket boys also reminded me of students I have had in my science classes who get caught up in an idea and keep at it.”

#4 Dangerous Minds (1995)

Michelle Pfeiffer plays an ex-marine teacher struggling to connect with her students and eventually opting for “unconventional” teaching methods. The film, based on an autobiography, drew mixed reviews in our group but has plenty of fans.

“I absolutely hate how Hollywood portrays great teachers as martyrs who sacrifice everything (including their own funds) for their students,” wrote Ellen B. “But the passion of LouAnne Johnson for her students caught me.” Ellen says Johnson’s story “helped me connect with the idea that ‘those kids’ outside my own personal experience were, actually, just kids with much harder lives than I’d had. In reality, she is one of those great teachers in the trenches, not looking for glory but for success for her kids.”

#5 Freedom Writers (2007)

Many TLNers were already fans of Erin Gruwell’s 1999 book The Freedom Writers Diary and its focus on writing as a powerful learning strategy. The film depicts the brief but bright career of Gruwell (played by Hillary Swank) with particular attention to her commitment to social justice and the potential in every student.

Carolann, who works with pre-service teachers, says it’s “the best education-based movie I have ever seen,” in part because of its accurate portrait of “the struggles a beginning teacher faces as she enters her first classroom.” It reminds us, Carolann says, that “novice teachers often appear overconfident and brash but they can bring a renewed sense of energy and enthusiasm to a school, and can rejuvenate those of us who have been teaching awhile.”

#6 Chalk (2006)

Chalk has one of the great teacher-movie taglines: “Real Teaching Leaves a Mark.” Written by former teachers, it is (as the Los Angeles Times put it) a “squirm-inducing but very funny mock documentary (that) shows real empathy for its subjects.” Susan G. loved the film because “it deals with situations that happen in real schools.” Copiers are always jamming (and freaking out time-enslaved teachers). There are “mindless faculty meetings and nasty little territorial tiffs” that deal with issues like hall duty and tardy slips.

“The teachers aren’t always clever, resourceful, or kind,” Susan notes, “and they don’t always love their students. The children don’t all get fixed, embrace learning, express their gratitude and love their teachers. It leaves you hanging and wondering exactly how it will all play out in the end and if it was all worth the pain or effort.”

#7 To Sir With Love (1967)

TLN member Sherry A. admits to having met Sidney Poitier at an education conference and has the picture to prove it. With that disclaimer in place, she says this late ‘60s British take on the blackboard jungle “brilliantly portrays the clash between idealism and reality. It demonstrates the profound effect teachers play in the lives of students.” The movie manages to avoid the schmaltz and still convey the message that students should “work hard every day and accept nothing less than their best.” Marsha recalls the title song, performed by U.K. pop singer-turned-actress Lulu: “I also thought the music was groovy!”

#8 Dead Poets Society (1989)

Veteran teacher Anne J. says this film about a private boarding school “continues to stick with me almost 20 years after its release. The memorable and heart wrenching performance by Robin Williams, as professor John Keating, inspired me to continue my somewhat off-the-wall teaching style and to let passion drive my teaching rather than traditional approaches. Keating challenged his students to seize the day and make something extraordinary of their lives. Don’t we all want that for our students?”

#9 Remember the Titans (2000)

Denzel Washington plays another “true character” in this film about an African American high school coach who helps previously racially segregated players learn to win together, after displacing a highly successful white coach. “It makes me cry and laugh and gives me chill bumps,” writes Cindi. “I’ve watched it about 50 times. It reminds us that the best coaches are some of the most powerful teachers we have in our schools.”

#10 Teachers (1984)

This early Nick Nolte vehicle also stars JoBeth Williams and Judd Hirsch. By turns gritty and funny, it includes memorable characters like Ditto, the teacher who apparently invented the worksheet, and the sub played by Richard Mulligan who takes student engagement to new heights. And then there’s the dark bureaucracy. One TLNer said the movie “made my skin crawl,” but Claudia liked Nolte’s “portrayal of a teacher who cares about his students enough to cross some lines. Is it realistic? No. Are the problems real? Absolutely. The pressure to ‘give in’ and make the politicians happy is too real.”

Other favorites

Other films with teaching themes that TLN members admire – or describe as guilty pleasures – include: Up the Down Staircase (1967); School of Rock (2003); Lean on Me (1989); Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986); Kindergarten Cop (1990); Good Bye Mr. Chips (1939/1969); The Great Debaters (2007); The Paper Chase (1973); Finding Forrester (2000); Summer School (1987); Music of the Heart (1999); The Ron Clark Story (2006); The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969); Sister Act (1992); The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004); Small Change (Argent de poche, 1976); The Karate Kid (1984); Fame (1980); Sky High (2005); and, of course, Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

And one dissent ...

Our survey report wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of Robyn’s comments, which speak to the angst many teachers feel when they see how Hollywood has chosen to portray their daily professional work:

“So maybe being from New York I’m too cynical, but I usually cringe at movies that focus on teachers. Yes, I watch them; yes, I root for the underdog, etc. However, the saccharinity usually is what drives me crazy. I handle the documentaries on teaching and education much better. The Hollywoodization of the profession irks me. Sometimes it makes me think this is why some people believe anyone can teach.

“I know it’s a movie where storytelling comes first, but I am always reminded of being in a class at Teachers College in a post-modern theory course. A student asked a question about teaching. The professor spoke and then the student responded with, “Yeah but that’s not what Michelle Pfeiffer did.” The professor looked puzzled, and the student then said, “You know, in Dangerous Minds.” I was concerned that this was his image of what teaching was going to be for him.

“I think one could put together a fascinating course or even symposium on images of the teacher from multiple perspectives -- movies being one of those lenses.”


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