EDITORIAL: My top 10 movie teachers

Call out my bias, but I myself am an elementary school teacher first.  I do this movie review stuff for fun.  When I read this recent little wannabe gem from Movies.com, entitled "8 Great Big-Screen Teachers," both the movie critic in me and the school teacher in me felt jibbed.  Of all the great movie teachers out there, just those eight?  Not only were some a little thin to begin with (Helen Mirren in Teaching Mrs. Tingle?) some true great ones were flat-out omitted.

Well, as a teacher who just happens to write a movie review blog where the hook is discussing the life lessons anyone of any age can learn from any given movie, I felt obliged to make my own list, especially in honor of Bad Teacher coming out this Friday.  Much like my recent postings on fathers and father-figures, I will feature a life lesson stemming from each teacher and movie. So, here's this blog's top 10 (well, 12 with an honorable mention #11 and a respecting a tie of honorable classics at #12) movie teachers of all-time.  Enjoy!


1.  Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) in Mr. Holland's Opus-- Come on.  If this movie isn't the most emotional and respectful love letter to teachers and their long-term impact, I don't know what is.  It's the best Richard Dreyfuss has ever been (a Best Actor Oscar nominee for the role) and a borderline "guy-cry" film.  Some of his lesser teacher movie co-stars are better than some of the teachers on Movies.com's list.

HIS LESSON:  WE NEVER FORGET THE GOOD TEACHERS WE'VE HAD-- One of Mr. Holland's moral conflicts upon hearing that the music program was going to be cut and himself let go, was the thought that his students forgot him and what he tried to do over the course of his 30 years as an educator.  Even if the finale is a little Hollywood, how untrue that statement is.  I guarantee every single one of you reading this can name one, two, or many teachers who you will never forget and have made an excellent impression on you.

2.  John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society-- Peter Weir directed this much-beloved favorite where Robin Williams bucks the traditional standards as an inspiring English teacher.  "O Captain!  My Captain!"  Who can forget Williams and his students alike climbing on top of those desks?

HIS LESSON:  BREAKING CONFORMITY-- What Williams's Keating constantly harks on about is breaking the strict conformity, for both his students and his teaching methods, present in the 1950's setting of the film.  Whether it's "carpe diem/sieze the day" or other mantras, he's right that education is place we should be getting our most forward thinking while still learning from the past.

3.  TIE:  Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) in The Freedom Writers and LuAnne Johnson (Michelle Pfieffer) in Dangerous Minds-- You'll notice, not only on this list but in Hollywood movies in general, that not many women get noticed for great teaching roles compared to male actors.  This is disturbing considering the real-life percentage of women in the education field.  The odds show that there are way more incredible female teachers than male.  Both Gruwell (naive teaching rookie) and Johnson (former Marine) are two of them right here, both wonderfully based on two very opposite real people.

THEIR LESSON:  NO STUDENT IS UNTEACHABLE, YOU JUST HAVE TO LISTEN TO THEM-- Both teachers did their work in the inner-city areas of Los Angeles and both are given what are thought to be violent and unteachable black and Latino students.  Both connect with their students through letting them have their own voice, through language and particularly writing.  It's amazing what you can learn when you let the unspoken speak.

4.  Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos) in Stand and Deliver-- Fitting right in with the L.A. setting of our ladies at #3, Edward James Olmos gives a powerhouse performance teaching "logarithms to illiterates" as a high school math teacher who challenges to reach their potential.

HIS LESSON:  TEACHERS POSSESS AMAZING DEDICATION-- You don't see too many professions that match the dedication of a teacher.  They come early.  They stay late.  They bring work home, have mountains of paperwork, communicate with parents, and do all of that for sub-standard professional pay.  The public argues about the summers off, but Escalante did his best work in the summer on his own to improve and work with his students.

5.  Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) in The Great Debaters-- In an unprecedented (are you really that shocked?) marvel of acting, Denzel Washington makes his third straight "Every Movie Has a Lesson" blog editorial.  This time he plays a debate team coach at a black college who challenges his students to compete on an equal level with white schools during the turbulent 1930's.

HIS LESSON: EVERY STUDENT HAS A VOICE-- We commonly dismiss them as children or teenagers, but students, particularly high school students, pay attention to the world around them more than we give them credit for.  When given the right context and the right voice, those children have pertinent, real, and intelligent things to stay and can stand up for themselves.  They just need to be given a chance, a forum, and a little guidance.

6.  TIE:  Mr. Griffith (Thomas Hayden Church) in Easy A and Ms. Norbury (Tina Fey) in Mean Girls-- These two great comedic performers embody what we all dream of as the "cool teacher" we never had.  Both reasonably new movies also have their respective "cool teacher" as the guiding voice of reason to their conflicted teenage characters without being the stereotypical meanie or pain-in-the-ass.

THEIR LESSON:  TEACHERS CAN HELP STUDENTS WITH SOCIAL ACCEPTANCE-- Students forget that teachers were once kids too.  Sure, they may be older and the setting may be newer, but they dealt with the same gossip, cliques, bullying, lies, teasing, on their own quests for friends, acclaim, and social acceptance that their students are dealing with.  Those students who listen to that advice will find supportive and helpful people.

7.  Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) in Fast Times at Ridgemont High-- For as much as Mr. Griffith and Ms. Norbury in #6 represent the cool teachers we never had, Ray Walston's performance as Mr. Hand is a classic reminder of teachers we likely hated to have.  He, in his great scenes busting Sean Penn's Spicoli, encapsulates all of the take-no-crap disciplinarians and rigid watchdogs we had in our youths.  Funny thing is, he does it all because he cares.

HIS LESSON:  STUDENTS, NO MATTER WHAT, STILL NEED DISCIPLINE-- While different teachers have different methods for this, from the completely upright Mr. Hand to the sticker-chart kindergarten teacher down the street, students will always need rules and discipline for the proper expected behavior.  Teachers demand and expect a certain level of respect.  The good teachers earn that respect rather than rule by fear.  Then again, their fear sure worked on us, didn't it?

8.  Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) in Election-- The former Ferris Bueller, Matthew Broderick, put together one of his best performances as the complete opposite to his iconic 80's character.  As Mr. McAllister, he darkly seeks to thwart Reese Witherspoon's manipulative do-gooder, Tracy Flick, from winning the election for class president. 

HIS LESSON: NOBODY LIKES A TEACHER'S PET-- It's not a pet peeve of all teachers (certainly not this writer), but nobody likes a "ball-hog," nobody likes a "brown-noser," and nobody likes a "teacher's pet."  Spread the wealth.  Let some of the other kids raise their hand.  Don't be a sore loser.  Act like you've been there, you snotty little...fu...err... angel...!

9.  Dewey Finn (Jack Black) in School of Rock-- #6's Thomas Haden Church and Tina Fey played the universally-loved cool teachers.  Some teachers think they're cool when no one else see it that way, most certainly including the class of students in front of them.  However, with a little passion for what you are teaching and believing in the students, you can be effective.  Dewey Finn, zero qualifications aside, certainly instilled passion.  Honorable mention in this category goes to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop.

HIS LESSON: GEORGE BERNARD SHAW IS FULL OF SUGAR-HONEY-ICED-TEA-- George Bernard Shaw's 1903 quote "He who can, does.  He who cannot, teaches" is often used to downplay and degrade the teaching profession as lesser professionals or women's work.  Try my job for a day.  I dare any of you.  What it really takes to be a teacher is a passion greater that the man who simply does.  Teachers do and then take the extra step to share what they've done with the youth of society in hopes of bettering our future.  Alex Rodriguez can keep his millions for doing, excuse me, playing a kid's game.

10.  Veronica Vaughn (Brigette Wilson-Sampras) in Billy Madision-- Van Halen was on to something with their song "Hot for Teacher."  Come on, gentleman (and maybe a few ladies).  Admit it.  We've all had that school crush.  How can I negatively question Ms. Vaughn's tutoring technique?  That is correct, not a chance!  Unless late Chris Farley shows up instead.  Then we can move on and put that old school teacher from A Christmas Story here at #10.  Honorable mention in this category goes to Ms. Davis in Varsity Blues.

HER LESSON:  MOTIVATION IS KEY TO PERFORMANCE AND LEARNING-- Whether you use bribery (excuse me again, "intrinsic" or "extrinsic" rewards), vocal praise, a sticker-chart, a grading scale, treats, or a private striptease, good teachers find what motivates their students to do their best, achieve, and succeed.  We all have that teacher that we can say "understood" and "really got" us.  Sometimes, Ms. Vaughn aside, it's the one's that push and motivate us the hardest that we remember and appreciate, even in a negative light.

HONORABLE MENTION #11.  Trevor Garfield (Samuel L. Jackson) in 187-- Though the movie is a work of completely gloriously and ridiculous fiction, it makes an honorable mention spot on this list because Samuel. L.'s substitute teacher is a genuine bad-ass and the movie scares the shit out of me as a teacher.  I wouldn't play Russian roulette with a squirt gun after this movie.

HIS LESSON:  SUBSTITUTE TEACHERS HAVE THE HARDEST TEACHING JOB OF ALL--  If you've ever had the privilege of walking into a school classroom since you were a kid and found a hard-working teacher with all of their disciplined ducks in a row and organized procedures for everything possible, they'll tell you it became that smooth through years of practice and repeated routine.  Imagine being called that morning to be in charge of that situation (or worse) for an entire day, with no plans, no background, and no safety net. Substitute teaching is the hardest teaching job their is, the ultimate improv, and the ultimate react-respond/think-on-your-feet experience you'll ever have in your life.

HONORARY CLASSIC #12.  TIE: Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) in Blackboard Jungle and Mark Thackerey (Sidney Poitier) in To Sir, With Love-- This last slot goes out to two recognizing two little-seen classics.  In Blackboad Jungle, Ford is an inner-city teacher dealing with the growing anti-social behavior of the 1950's, embodied by a rebellious young Sidney Poitier.  Twelve years later, the role was reversed and Poitier played the educator drastically changing the rules of a tough London High School. 

THEIR LESSON: CONFRONTING STUDENTS AS ADULTS-- In both films, the students become unruly because they are treated as children, when they should be given the example and expectation of how to be adults and contributing members of society.  Both teachers do so in necessary confrontations and breaking points.