Tinseltown Teachers: A Guide To Teachers In Film

By David Hill — March 01, 1995 27 min read
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Here’s the pitch: Idealistic teacher, fresh out of college, gets first teaching job, preferably at hellish inner-city school. Encounters “difficult’’ students and cynical colleagues. Tries teaching methods learned in school, to no avail. On verge of giving up when breakthrough occurs with students. Discovers he or she is a “natural’’ teacher after all. Decides to sign up for another year.

Or how about this scenario: Idealistic, gifted teacher runs afoul of the administration by teaching students more than just facts and figures. This leads to tragic incident, for which teacher gets blamed. Principal (or headmaster) fires teacher, restoring school to “proper’’ order.

Sound familiar? They’re Hollywood’s favorite plots about teachers, and they form the basis (with some variations, of course) of some of the best-known movies about the profession: Blackboard Jungle; To Sir, With Love; Up the Down Staircase; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; Conrack; Children of a Less-er God; Stand and Deliver; and Dead Poets Society. Sometimes the formula works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

I recently watched these and about a dozen other movies about teachers (or that feature teachers in supporting roles). I wanted to find out which movies ring true, which ones teachers might find inspiring, and which are best left on the shelves at the video store.

Hollywood is basically of two minds when it comes to teachers. In the few movies specifically about teachers (there aren’t as many as you might think), the central figure is almost always portrayed favorably: heroic, dedicated, and inspiring. But when teachers are used for comic effect, look out; nine times out of 10, they’re letches, buffoons, and self-serving idiots. Teacher-bashing, apparently, is considered good sport in Hollywood.

Fortunately, I began my movie-watching binge on a positive note: the 1939 version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Based on the novel by James Hilton, the movie stars Robert Donat as Charles Edward Chipping, the shy English schoolmaster who comes out of his shell when he meets Katherine, the love of his life (played by Greer Garson). She shows “Chips’’ that it’s better to teach with benevolence, not fear. As a result, his “boys’’ are utterly devoted to their selfless teacher. (Donat deservedly won an Oscar for his memorable role.)

Next up: Blackboard Jungle, the 1955 film that set the tone for many subsequent teacher movies. An exploitation melodrama that capitalized on the growing middle-class fear of juvenile delinquents, the film opens with first-time teacher Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) getting off the bus, taking a look at “North Manual High School,’' and wondering what the hell he’s gotten himself into. When he asks about the school’s obvious discipline problem, the principal tells him, “There is no discipline problem in this school. Not as long as I’m principal.’' The resident cynic, who teaches history, calls the school “a garbage can’’ and tells Dadier, “Don’t be a hero, and never turn your back on the class.’'

“Listen,’' Dadier counters. “These kids can’t all be bad, can they?’'

“No?’' asks the history teacher. “Why?’'

Things get off to a bad start when Dadier forgets the teacher’s advice and makes the mistake of turning his back on his students as he writes his name on the blackboard. Someone throws a baseball, nearly bopping Dadier in the head. He keeps his cool, though. “Whoever threw that,’' he says, “you’ll never pitch for the Yanks.’'

Dadier and his colleague Josh, a first-year math teacher, seek refuge in the bar across the street, where they swig martinis and wonder about the rate of alcoholism among high school teachers. Leaving the bar, they get jumped in the alley by a gang of students; Dadier recognizes some of the faces from his class. When he gets home, his pregnant wife tells him, “You’re never going back to that school again! Never!’' To which Dadier replies, “Oh, yes I am! I’ve been beaten up, but I’m not beaten. There’s a big difference. I’m not beaten, and I’m not quitting!’'

He finally gets through to his students by showing them a cartoon of “Jack and the Beanstalk,’' which gets them talking about things such as racism and poverty. But when Dadier finds out that one of his students is sending anonymous letters to his wife telling her that her husband is having an affair with another teacher (he isn’t), he decides he’s had enough. This time, however, his wife convinces him to stay on.

Back in Room 206, things come to a head when Dadier’s nemesis, an Irish gang leader named Artie West (Vic Morrow), pulls a switchblade on the teacher. But Dadier stands West down, winning the respect of the other students, including tough guy Gregory Miller, who decides not to drop out of school after all. (Miller is played by a young Sidney Poitier, who must have been taking notes for his future role in To Sir, With Love.)

Blackboard Jungle caused quite a stir when it first came out, partly because it was the first movie to feature a rock-and-roll song: “Rock Around the Clock,’' by Bill Haley and His Comets. But the film hasn’t held up very well. The acting is stiff, the characters are one-dimensional, and the discipline problems at the school seem downright quaint by today’s unfortunate standards. Still, Blackboard Jungle’s influence can be seen in a number of movies that have followed, particularly To Sir, With Love and Up the Down Staircase.

Before we get to those films, let’s take a little detour to “Madison High School,’' where Constance Brooks has just been hired to teach English. The movie is Our Miss Brooks, from 1956, and it’s the screen version of the popular CBS television series of the same name. Starring Eve Arden as the wisecracking--and man hungry--Miss Brooks, this lighthearted romp is more about Brooks’ attempts to nab the handsome new biology teacher (Richard Crenna) than it is about the teaching profession. But it’s worth watching, if only for the idealized portrait of a small-town, 1950s high school. The students--all white, of course--have nicknames like “Stretch,’' and they say things like “swell.’' Miss Brooks’ students may not speak good English all the time, but they raise their hands when they wish to be called upon, and they apologize when they’re late for class. “Let’s settle down now, shall we?’' is about all it takes for Brooks to get her kids under control. North Manual High School it ain’t.

To Sir, With Love and Up the Down Staircase both appeared in 1967, and they’re practically mirror images of one another. In the former--written, produced, and directed by James Clavell--Sidney Poitier stars as Mark Thackeray, an engineer by training who takes a teaching job in London’s tough East End. The movie begins with Thackeray riding a double-decker bus, on his way to “North Quay Secondary School.’' Upon arrival, he meets the resident cynic, a teacher by the name of Theo Weston, who spends most of his time reading the newspaper in the teachers’ lounge. “So you’re the new lamb for the slaughter?’' he asks the first-time teacher. “Or should I say, ‘black sheep’?’' The principal informs Thackeray that “most of our students are rejects from other schools,’' and they are definitely a motley crew, a collection of mods and rockers who speak with thick cockney accents. They’re bored, uninterested, and uncooperative, and they aim to break down their new teacher as fast as they can.

When traditional teaching methods prove fruitless, Thackeray throws the textbooks in the wastebasket as his students sit in stunned silence. “Those are out,’' he tells them. “They are useless to you.’' He decides to treat his students as adults, not as children, and he intends to teach them about things that aren’t part of the standard curriculum.

“What are we going to talk about, Sir?’' a boy meekly asks.

“About life,’' Thackeray replies. “Survival. Love. Death. Sex. Marriage. Rebellion. Anything you want.’'

Thackeray takes his class to museums. He tells them what it was like growing up poor in British Guiana. He teaches them how to make a salad. “This is survival training!’' he explains, lettuce in hand.

“Sir’’ wins the class over with his unorthodox teaching methods and his charismatic personality. The prettiest girl in the class, Pamela (Judy Geeson), develops a crush on her handsome teacher. She even offers to “tidy’’ up his desk every day. But after several misunderstandings, she and the other students turn on him. When the class bully challenges the teacher to a sparring match during a PE class, Thackeray reluctantly takes him on. He “wins’’ the fight by knocking the wind out of the student--but then refuses to prolong the fight any further, thereby regaining the respect of all the students. (Shades of Blackboard Jungle!)

By the movie’s end, even Weston, the old cynic, is forced to concede that Thackeray is a good teacher. “You’ve done wonders,’' he tells him. “Anybody can be an engineer, but teaching this mob--well, I wish I had your gift.’'

Thackeray, however, has other plans. He’s finally gotten an offer to become an engineer, at a radio factory, and he decides to take the position. But at the end-of-the-year dance, his students shower him with affection. When Pamela gets him out on the dance floor, she stares at him with her big blue eyes and says, “We were lucky to have you.’' Then pop singer Lulu, dressed in a miniskirt and white go-go boots, does her big song, “To Sir, With Love,’' while another student presents Sir with a gift from the class--a silver cup. Holding back tears, Thackeray says, “I think I’d better go put it away.’' Back in his classroom, he rips up his job offer--he’ll be back next year. He’s no engineer; he’s a teacher.

If it all sounds a bit sappy and predictable, well, I suppose it is. But To Sir, With Love holds up very well. Poitier’s acting is first-rate, and the supporting actors are just as good. But ultimately, it’s the message that makes the film work so well. Sometimes teachers really do need to throw the text-books in the wastebasket, figuratively if not literally.

Up the Down Staircase, directed by Robert Mulligan and starring Sandy Dennis, isn’t nearly as satisfying. Dennis plays Sylvia Barrett, an inexperienced and idealistic teacher assigned to teach English at New York City’s “Calvin Coolidge High School.’' Arriving by city bus on the first day of school (do I detect a pattern here?), she is taunted by a group of students hanging out near the entrance. Of course, it’s a sign of things to come.

The school itself is a bureaucratic mess. Bells ring indiscriminately. Supplies are nonexistent. And the students don’t give Miss Barrett an inch. The other teachers are, predictably, cynical and burned out. When the principal introduces Barrett to her colleagues, he says, laughing, “She is to be commended for her courage.’'

Barrett no doubt speaks for all inner-city schoolteachers when she laments, “There is no time for teaching! Only time for memos, directives, circulars, letters, notices, forms, records, blanks, and keys!’' But she comes across as a snob, which makes her an oddly unsympathetic character.

By the end of the movie, when Barrett decides not to resign after all (she rips up the official resignation form), we really don’t care.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, on the other hand, is one of those movies that sticks with you for a long time. Released in 1969, it’s one of the best movies ever about a teacher. Maggie Smith (who won an Oscar for her performance) plays Jean Brodie, an eccentric teacher at a boarding school in Edinburgh, Scotland, who wields tremendous influence over her students. (She refers to them as “my girls.’')

“Little girls,’' she tells her charges, “I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème! Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life! You girls are my vocation!...I am dedicated to you in my prime!’'

Like Mr. Thackeray in To Sir, With Love, Miss Brodie teaches her girls about life. She takes them to the opera, to museums, on picnics, all because of her dedication to “goodness, truth, and beauty.’' The school, she complains, is dedicated to the status quo, “to the point of petrification,’' practically choking on the word.

The petty headmistress, Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson), is not amused. She wants Brodie out. “We do not encourage the progressive attitudes,’' she tells the teacher.

“To me,’' Brodie responds, “education is simply a leading out of what is already there.’'

“I had hoped that there might also be a certain amount of putting in,’' the headmistress says.

“That would not be education but intrusion,’' Brodie counters.

She may be an excellent teacher, but Brodie is also something of a nut. She gets teary-eyed as she tells her students about the virtues of fascism and the glory of Mussolini (the movie is set in the early 1930s). In short, she crosses the line that separates teaching from indoctrination, yet she’s too arrogant to see her own shortcomings. One student, after hearing Brodie wax eloquently about Franco, decides to go to Spain and join the dictator’s cause. When the girl is killed in a bombing, Brodie can’t seem to understand that she is partly responsible.

In the end, she’s betrayed to the headmistress by one of her favorite girls.

“I didn’t betray you,’' the girl tells a stunned Brodie. “I simply put a stop to you.’'

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is really about the limits of teaching. You can go too far, it seems.

Conrack, from 1974, isn’t in the same league as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but it’s still a pretty good movie. Set in 1969, the film stars Jon Voight as Pat Conroy, a young man who takes a teaching job on a remote island off the coast of South Carolina. Based on author Conroy’s real-life experience, which he chronicled in the book The Water Is Wide, the movie has the ring of truth to it, thanks in part to Voight’s fine performance.

Conroy has been hired to take over a class from a teacher who’s on leave to have her gallbladder taken out. He’s shocked by what he finds: a school not much bigger than a shack, full of poor black students who don’t even know the name of the country they live in. (He teaches 5th through 8th grade.) Worse, the principal, Mrs. Scott, is a nasty woman who seems intent on keeping Conroy from working his magic. He simply ignores her--and the bigoted superintendent, played by Hume Cronyn--and goes about teaching his students (who mispronounce his name as “Conrack’’) in his quirky, energetic manner.

He takes them on walks in the woods. He shows them how to brush their teeth. He teaches them the names of wildflowers while reciting English poetry. He plays Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for them. All of this and the three R’s.

Nonetheless, when Conroy takes his class to Beaufort, on the mainland, to go trick-or-treating on Halloween, the superintendent decides the young teacher has gone too far, so he fires him.

“I’m gonna replace you just as easily as I would a light bulb,’' the superintendent tells him.

“With what?’' Conroy asks.

“Well, it won’t be with no outside agitator,’' he replies.

Conroy takes to the streets of Beaufort, driving around town in a van with a speaker mounted on the roof. “I was paid five hundred dollars a month,’' he tells anyone who’ll listen, “to teach a bunch of kids on a little island off this coast how to read and write. I also tried to teach them to embrace life openly, to reflect upon its mysteries, and to reject its mysteries.’'

The parents on the island jump to Conroy’s defense--but it’s all for naught. The superintendent stands firm in his decision. Conroy must pack up his bags and bid his farewell.

Conrack may be imbued with the spirit of the ‘60s, but its message--fight for what you believe in, even if you may lose in the end--is timeless.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) has become famous for launching the careers of such future stars as Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Forest Whitaker, and Judge Reinhold. But it’s also a highly entertaining movie about a group of high school students in suburban Southern California. And if it isn’t exactly about teaching, the film does have one memorable instructor among its characters: Mr. Hand. Played by Ray Walston, the well-known character actor, Mr. Hand is the kind of teacher most students did their best to avoid. He walks into class on the first day of school, shuts the door behind him, and says, “Aloha. My name is Mr. Hand. I have but one question for you: Can you attend my class? It is for your own good, and if you can’t make it, I can make you.’' He goes through his list of rules, then adds, “Also, there will be no eating! E-A-T-I-N-G. No eating in this class!’' He passes out quizzes to students, barking the grades out loud: “C. D. F. F. F. Three weeks we’ve been talking about the Platt Amendment! What are you people on--dope?’'

When stoned surfer dude Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) has a pizza delivered to him in class, Mr. Hand can’t believe his eyes. “Am I hallucinating here?’' he asks. “Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?’' His Solomonic solution to Spicoli’s little interruption is to take the pizza and offer it to the other students, who gladly accept.

Mr. Hand may be played for laughs, but he’s also a caring, dedicated teacher. We know this because he shows up at Spicoli’s house on prom night to review material for the final exam. “According to my calculations, Mr. Spicoli, you wasted a total of eight hours of my time this year,’' he says. “That is a kind estimate. Now I have the unique pleasure of squaring our account.’' Spicoli, who’s just taken a hit off of a bong, is dumbfounded. But he soon realizes that Mr. Hand isn’t doing this out of spite; he’s there because he wants to help Spicoli graduate.

(The science teacher, on the other hand, is portrayed strictly as a dope. Dressed in a lab coat, he sits playing with a Rubik’s cube while his students brazenly cheat on their final exam. He doesn’t have a clue.)

I missed Teachers (1984) when it first appeared, so I was eager to finally get the chance to see it. After all, if any institution deserves to be satirized on film, it’s high school. Unfortunately, the movie offers few surprises--you can see exactly where it’s going after the first five minutes.

Nick Nolte stars as social studies teacher Alex Jurel, a former idealist (and one-time teacher of the year) who’s about to burn out. “I’m just getting tired of the whole damn thing!’' he tells vice principal Roger Rubell (Judd Hirsch), who has long since lost whatever idealism he once had.

Jurel may show up in class with a hangover, but he’s obviously one of the school’s best teachers. Which isn’t saying much, given his colleagues. The principal appears to have had a lobotomy. One teacher regularly falls asleep in class. Another is actually an outpatient from a mental hospital. And the boys’ PE teacher has a penchant for getting girls pregnant.

“Just what are you guys running here,’' fumes the superintendent, “a zoo?’'

When the parents of a former student decide to sue the school because their son graduated without learning how to read or write, Rubell plots a coverup. But Jurel refuses to go along. He vows to spill the beans at the deposition. The case gets settled, but Rubell and the superintendent decide to fire Jurel anyway; he’s too much of a troublemaker. Will he or won’t he fight the system? (Do I really have to ask?)

To its credit, Teachers does offer an occasional glimpse of the lunacy that exists at big city high schools. And Nolte does a credible job of playing the jaded but ultimately dedicated Jurel. (I suspect most teachers can relate to Jurel’s frustrations in dealing with the system.) But Teachers tries just a little too hard to do for teaching what M

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  • H did for war. There’s just no comparison.

It’s safe to say that John Hughes never met a teacher he liked. At least that’s the conclusion I reached after watching three of his mid-1980s offerings: The Breakfast Club (1985), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987). (The last one was actually directed by Howard Deutch, but it was written and produced by Hughes and has his imprint all over it.) The teachers in his movies are vain, easily flattered, self-serving idiots.

In The Breakfast Club, about a group of high school students serving Saturday detention in an otherwise deserted school library, comic relief is provided by the ridiculous Mr. Vernon (Paul Gleason). “Don’t mess with the bull, young man,’' he tells Bender (Judd Nelson), the delinquent member of the group, “you’ll get the bull by the horns.’' But Vernon is all heat and no light, tossing off such shopworn phrases as “What do you think, that I was born yesterday?’' To top it off, he’s got squeaky shoes and ill-fitting clothes. “Does Barry Manilow know that you raided his wardrobe?’' Bender asks him.

At one point, he screams, “I will not be made a fool of,’' then walks away with a paper toilet-seat cover sticking out of his pants.

Then there’s the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, played by former Nixon speech writer Ben Stein, who has made a second career out of playing essentially the same character. (He was Kevin’s teacher in the television show The Wonder Years.) While Ferris (Matthew Broderick) skips school, the teacher drones on about the Great Depression, the Laffer Curve, and voodoo economics, punctuated by the occasional question: “Anyone? Anyone?’' Which brings a response one. That’s because most of the students are sound asleep at their desks. Meanwhile, the dean of students is a self-important clod who’s determined to catch Ferris at his game. He can’t, of course; he’s too stupid.

Some Kind of Wonderful takes place mostly outside of the school, but there’s one memorable scene sure to anger even those teachers who don’t take themselves too seriously. In an attempt to get out of detention, pretty senior Amanda Jones (Lea Thompson) tugs at her teacher’s tie and coos, “I love the way you wear your hair.’'

“Really?’' he asks, obviously flattered.

“Yeah, it’s great,’' she replies. “All the girls say that.’'

“No,’' he says, feigning modesty.

“Yeah!’' she says, walking away with a big smile on her face.

But here’s the joke--the teacher’s bald!

John Hughes has certainly taken teacher-bashing to new lows, but there are a number of sexploitation movies involving teachers that make Hughes’ efforts look like high art. I’m talking about such films as The Student Teachers (1973), The Teacher (1974), Summer School Teachers (1975), Prep School (1981), and Private School (1983). I’m sorry to report that I was unable to locate these fine works in my local video store, so I can’t offer a firsthand account of the way in which they portray members of the teaching profession. However, thanks to Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies and Video Guide, I know that The Teacher is a “trashy and enjoyable film that has older woman [Angel] Tompkins introducing [Jay] North (TV’s Dennis the Menace all grown up) to sex, while a psychopathic killer threatens both their lives.’' Get the idea? Such movies give new meaning to the phrase “student-teacher relationship.’'

I did manage to sit through a mild comedy called Just One of the Guys (1985), about an attractive high school student named Terry (Joyce Hyser) who is convinced she’s been passed over for a writing contest because of her sex. When she overhears her journalism teacher and a colleague making sexist comments about her, she decides to masquerade as a boy at another school--to prove a point. She writes another essay, titled “I Was a Teenage Boy,’' and wins the contest. To the movie’s credit, the journalism teacher admits that he was wrong not to take Terry seriously in the first place. Most of the teacher-bashing in this one comes at the expense of the boys’ PE coach, whose office is lined with bowling trophies. “It’s more than a game!’' he gushes. “It’s the ultimate challenge! One man, one ball, ten pins!’' In Hollywood, nothing beats a stupid coach for comic relief.

In Children of a Lesser God (1986), William Hurt plays James Leeds, a talented but unorthodox special education teacher who takes a job at a remote school for the deaf. “I have a lot of energy,’' he tells the school’s skeptical principal, who warns Leeds, “Nobody’s trying to change the world around here. Just trying to help a few deaf kids get along better, that’s all. Everything else is razzle-dazzle. Am I making myself clear?’'

Despite the principal’s advice, Leeds employs some creative teaching techniques--such as teaching his students the lyrics to disco songs, which he blares at top volume in his classroom. But when he meets Sarah (Marlee Matlin), the beautiful and stubborn ex-student who now works at the school as a janitor, Leeds becomes a man obsessed. He may not want to save the world, but he sure wants to save Sarah. “I am a really good teacher!’' he tells her, with no apparent modesty. “You should let me help you!’' Of course, he falls in love, and for the rest of the movie, Leeds’ classroom duties seem to fade into the background. Which is exactly what bothered me about this film. I couldn’t help but wonder how much better a teacher Leeds would be if he weren’t so busy tutoring Sarah.

The Principal (1987) and Lean on Me (1989) both offer the same premise: All you need is a good, strong principal to whip a failing inner-city high school back into shape.

In the first film, James Belushi plays Rick Lattimer, a teacher who goes after his ex-wife’s new boyfriend (and his Porsche 911) with a baseball bat. He gets arrested, but instead of firing him, the school board decides to offer him a new job: principal of “Brandel High School,’' a nightmarish enclave of feuding gangs and scared-to-death teachers. After sizing up the situation, Lattimer decides to play tough. He gathers all the students for an assembly and tells them, “No more! No more missing classes, no more gambling, no more extortion, no more selling drugs on this campus, no more gang intimidation, arson, robbery, rape, or whatever the hell you’ve been majoring in here. No more!’' (He angers the teachers, though, when he insists that all students--even the miscreants--attend classes.)

Lattimer is the Dirty Harry of principals, cruising the campus and the nearby streets on his huge motorcycle, baseball bat in hand, looking for troublemakers. When the beautiful Miss Orozco (Rae Dawn Chong) gets attacked in her classroom by a student, Lattimer comes to her rescue, riding through the hallways on his Honda like John Wayne on his loyal steed.

In Lean on Me, principal Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman) doesn’t have a motorcycle, but he carries a baseball bat and a bullhorn as he roams the halls of Eastside High School in Paterson, N.J. Based on a true story, the movie glorifies Clark--at the expense of teachers. “You think you can run this school?’' he barks at one instructor. “If you could, then I wouldn’t be at this school.’'

Clark preaches self-respect, yet he humiliates teachers in front of students, and he fires the ones who dare to question his authority. He’s an equal-opportunity tyrant, unable to discriminate between the good teachers and the bad ones.

Toward the end, the movie makes a half-hearted attempt to show that Clark realizes he’s been too hard on his staff, but it doesn’t ring true. After all, this is his movie--and when the principal is the main attraction, you can be certain that teachers will be portrayed as part of the problem, not the solution.

Stand and Deliver (1987) is also based on a true story. Edward James Olmos plays math teacher Jaime Escalante, who proved that poor Hispanic students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles were just as capable of passing the Advanced Placement Calculus exam as their more affluent peers. It’s a heartening story, and the movie succeeds because it shows a master teacher who simply won’t take no for an answer. He motivates his students with his boundless faith in their capabilities, and he refuses to give in to his critics--such as the math department chairwoman, who says, “You can’t teach logarithms to illiterates.’'

The movie isn’t perfect. For one thing, it portrays Escalante as a lone wolf, when actually he worked quite closely with another excellent calculus teacher. Thus, it reinforces the popular notion that the good teacher must always be a renegade, rather than a member of a cohesive team. Nonetheless, Stand and Deliver is one of the best movies ever about teaching. I can’t imagine any teacher watching it without coming away feeling inspired to do better.

I can’t say the same thing about Dead Poets Society (1989), a cliche-ridden movie that pounds you over the head with its message. Robin Williams plays John Keating, the new English teacher at prim and proper Welton Academy, a New England prep school where students have names like “Knox Overstreet’’ and “Charles Dalton.’'

“What are the four pillars?’' asks Mr. Nolan, the stern headmaster (Norman Lloyd). “Tradition. Honor. Discipline. Excellence,’' respond the students, practically quivering in their blue blazers.

The teachers are depicted as strict, lifeless, humorless lecturers who go strictly by the book--except, of course, Keating. He’s different. On the first day of classes, he leads his students out to the hallway and starts reciting Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!’' He preaches the gospel of carpe diem, or “seize the day.’'

“In my class,’' he tells his students, “you will learn to think for yourselves again!’' He stands on his desk to remind them that they should constantly see things from a different perspective. “Boys,’' he says, “you must strive to find your own voice!’'

It’s not that Keating isn’t a good teacher; obviously, he is. And teaching is about getting students to think for themselves--at least, it should be. But the movie’s good intentions are undermined by one-dimensional characters and a predictable plot. We just know that Keating’s “subversive’’ ideas are going to lead to a tragic incident, and they do. And we just know that Keating will get nailed for it in the end. Dead Poets Society covers some of the same territory as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Conrack but without the finesse and skill of those two earlier movies.

Kindergarten Cop (1991) follows the classic fish-out-of-water formula. In this case, the fish is tough-guy cop John Kimble (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and the water is an elementary school in Astoria, Ore., where Kimble goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher.

“I assume you have some teaching experience,’' the principal wonders.

“They wouldn’t have sent me otherwise,’' Kimble lies.

His first day in the classroom is a disaster. Obviously, being a cop is a piece of cake, but being a kindergarten teacher--now that’s hard work. (Kindergarten teachers have known this for a long time.) Kimble, however, is determined to become a good teacher; he takes his undercover work seriously. So he turns his classroom into a sort of kiddie boot camp, emphasizing running, jumping, and other forms of exercise. The kids respond, and Kimble ends up being praised by the principal for his impressive classroom skills. (Meanwhile, he’s trying to find the bad guys before they harm his pretty teaching colleague, played by Penelope Ann Miller, and her son.)

Arnold Schwarzenegger as a kindergarten teacher is an inspired conceit, but the idea that someone with absolutely no classroom experience can become a master teacher in a matter of weeks--well, that stretches the imagination. (Oddly, Kindergarten Cop is one of the few teacher movies I’m aware of that is set in an elementary school rather than a high school.)

So, here’s my list of the top five movies about teachers: Goodbye, Mr. Chips; To Sir, With Love; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; Conrack; and Stand and Deliver. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to come up with a top-10 list, but there just aren’t that many good movies out there.

And why is that? Why are there so many movies about cops, yet so few about teachers? After all, most of us have been to school, yet few of us have been to jail. Why does Hollywood think that a detective is so much more interesting than a schoolteacher? (Kindergarten Cop must be the only movie to combine the two professions.)

And of the movies that are about teachers, why do so many of them adhere to the time-tested formulas? Why aren’t there more movies about elementary school teachers? About middle school teachers? About rural teachers? The majority of teachers are women--so how come most teachers in the movies are men?

(I can’t say I’m hopeful about My Posse Don’t Do Homework, due in May. Michelle Pfeiffer stars as an ex-Marine turned inner-city high school English teacher. Based on the autobiography by LouAnne Johnson, the movie has been in the can since last June--not a good sign in the high-stakes world of Hollywood filmmaking.)

As for teacher-bashing, we can be thankful that John Hughes seems to have gotten suburban high schools out of his system and that the teen sexploitation genre has all but died.

Meanwhile, until Hollywood comes up with something better, stick with the classics. Get thee to a video store, rent one of the five movies mentioned above, and enjoy. When the credits roll, you’ll be proud to be a teacher.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1995 edition of Teacher Magazine as Tinseltown Teachers: A Guide To Teachers In Film


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