Teaching 101: As Taught By the Movies

For National Teacher Appreciation Day, we take a lesson from some of film's most iconic educators.


“Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.” –Woody Allen

I always had a bone to pick with that classic, admittedly hilarious, and altogether narrow assessment of education. Yes, Coach Crazy in his knee-high socks may have been a little past his prime, might have stunk of Brut, was maybe even a little fascist, but damn it, he was a teacher. He was trying to make you fix that Mountain Dew-poisoned body of yours in high school! That math teacher that you think totally hated you because he kept giving you B+s, thus screwing with your GPA? Well, he did hate you, and as a result, you had to learn how to play the game fast. Mr. Holland, he was a total wuss, but at least he made you learn about John Lennon, man. If not for Robin Williams, we wouldn’t have been yelled at when we stood on our desks, my Captain.

Teachers are wonderful, weird animals, all right. They may work in mysterious ways, but they impart such valuable wisdom. They teach, inspire, frustrate, and challenge you. My mom just retired after like 185 years of teaching, and I’m still turning in notes on my work every day. GET OFF MY BACK, MOM. I’M A WRITER AND A GROWN MAN NOW.

Sorry, Mom. Please don’t make me do lines of cursive.

Anyway, May 5th was National Teacher Appreciation Day, and in honor of those oddball teachers we’ve had along the way, we decided to look back at some of the best and most surprising teachers in the movies. So here’s your schedule, kids. No more pencils, no more books, sure, but there’s always time to look back at some of the best lessons from the most unique teachers.

–Blake Goble
Staff Writer

Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939)

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8 a.m.: Latin/Latin History

The Teacher: Mr. Chipping, Mr. Chips (Robert Donat)

Good morning, Mr. Chips. Thank you for letting us take Latin today, a class we know that’s kind of a blow-off language requirement when put up next to Spanish or French, but it’s all in good fun. Now watch out for some of the pranks these little punks are about to pull. Not me, no. It was Squiggy, and uh, Joey!

For real, though, Goodbye Mr. Chips is a charming rumination on one man’s life and career in education. A 1939 Best Picture nominee, and Best Actor winner, Chips embodied a certain doe-eyed optimism for going to school and learning. Even when life gets you down, and marriages are abruptly short, and the board wants you to retire, and those damn kids won’t stop tying your cap to the door WHO DID THAT?!, knowledge is power.

Told in flashbacks, Goodbye Mr. Chips is a story of life well-lived, full of lessons learned, all made possible by the joys of education. Mr. Chips ever so sentimentally leaves teaching at the end after what he finds to be a glorious career. When Chips is told it’s a pity he never had his own children, Chips assuredly replies that he’s had thousands.

Blackboard Jungle (1959)

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9 a.m.: Civics

The Teacher: Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford)

Vic Morrow looked like a 40-year-old freshman, but he had his balls and his greaser jacket to guide him when he pulled a knife on Rich Dadier.

But you picked the wrong ex-Army man to mess with, daddy-o!

Glenn Ford’s tough but fair teacher, Richard Dadier, was inspired by Evan Hunter’s original novel of the same name. Hunter was a South Bronx teacher, and Blackboard Jungle chronicled his constant battles and disappointments as he tried to get wily students to learn. Hunter felt like he could seldom succeed. Considered shocking when first released, Blackboard Jungle highlighted a tightrope performance from Ford as the embattled Dadier, not to mention a promising young performance from a kid named Sidney Poitier (look out for To Sir, With Love). Blackboard Jungle startled viewers, letting them know that all educations aren’t made equal, and some teachers have to tough it out and practically use jackhammers just to reach maybe one kid.

A quick shout-out to Blackboard Jungle’s soundtrack is in order. Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” plays over the credits. This is 14 years before American Graffiti, mind you, and movie soundtracks didn’t really utilize popular music yet. It was a distinct choice, an exciting, at the time scandalous morning announcement of the rock ‘n’ roll variety.

To Sir, With Love (1967)

To Sir, With Love Starring Sidney Poitier © Columbia Tri - Star

10 a.m.: Engineering

The Teacher: Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier)

Blimey! British secondary school students! Only a smooth, calm, and collected teacher will be able to handle hoodlums from the East End. Only a teacher unjaded or at least unaware of schools and how they work would be able to take on these rascals. Someone with a little naïvete, someone willing to go with the flow, someone not beaten yet.

And that man was Mark Thackeray, played beautifully by Sidney Poitier. In a performance worthy of the honor roll, Poitier is an ex-engineer living in London who took on a teaching gig and developed a contentious but rewarding relationship with his students. A surprise hit for Columbia Pictures in 1967, not to mention the harbinger of a number one hit single from Lulu (right?), To Sir, With Love looks silly and sentimental in hindsight, but Poitier’s charisma made Thackeray like a super teacher. He changed kids’ lives, turned crum-bums around, and you truly believe he had a lasting effect on these wasted youths. How often does a kid come home bemoaning what a bore their teacher is? Not so with Thackeray. He made teachers look like stars.

Stand and Deliver (1988)

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11 a.m.: Calculus

The Teacher: Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos)

Just a quick realization: The strongest teacher movies are almost all specifically about one person’s struggle to reach kids in an often urban setting, aren’t they? And they’re usually inspired by, if not based on, true stories.

And here’s another one.

(readers start shooting paper spitballs)

Stand and Deliver depicts the tough teachings of Bolivian teacher Jaime Escalante when he worked at Garfield High School in East L.A. in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Edward James Olmos gave an Oscar-nominated performance as Escalante, and he somehow made the extremely boring notion of taking an AP Calculus class, look, well, worthwhile. You can’t help but root for the guy willing to teach hard math in a hard place.

Kindergarten Cop (1990)

still-of-arnold-schwarzenegger-in-kindergarten-cop-(1990)-large-pictureNoon: Phys Ed. a.k.a. Discipline.

The Teacher: Det. John Kimball (Arnold Schwarzenegger)

Forget public school lunches; we need to get fit.

Remember those PSAs Arnie would do in the early to mid ‘90s? Those commercials before his action movies, where he’d espouse the wisdom of keeping fit, staying in shape, not being a girly man or whatever? Zazzle ‘90s neon colors, Arnold narrates, points at the camera, then, pop — a logo for the President’s Council on Fitness next to “Fitness Is Feeling Great.” It was corny, you know, but well-intentioned.

Anyways, they made a movie out of those ads, apparently. Yeah, it was called Kindergarten Cop, and Schwarzenegger got to preach his ideas about a pure race of Austrian super men built out of rippling pectorals and Aryan pureblood.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. Kindergarten Cop was a cutesy demystification of the Schwarzenegger tough-guy persona where, you guessed it, he shouted at kids with a whistle. The movie’s kind of an F, but it is health positive, and nothing beats watching Arnie go completely apeshit because six-year-olds are six-year-olds. It was a star vehicle of a cheap variety, but the sheer physical comedy of it all has helped the film keep a passing grade with audiences over the years. Now, we better get to marching before Drill Master Kimball gets back.

Dangerous Minds (1995)

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1 p.m.: Basic Economics

The Teacher: Louanne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer)

Okay, sit down, Coolio. You’ll get your turn.

Pfeiffer was another tough teacher in the hood and an ex-Marine to boot (she should have hung with Glenn Ford). But she taught kids the most important lesson of all: “Learning is the prize.” Sometimes, a teacher just needs to spell it out for kids, and Pfeiffer’s Johnson spoke in old-fashioned platitudes that still need to be said. You forget that when teachers are pulling out pop quizzes and hasty due dates.

Still, do you want to be quoted saying “children is our future” someday?

Thought not. Education is the finest capital a person can earn, and Pfeiffer was sincere in telegraphing that. So get to Miss Johnson’s class, now! And stock up on that sweet, sweet, knowledge that she talks about!

Did you know this was originally titled “My Posse Don’t Do Homework”? The title of the original novel Dangerous Minds was based on? Jerry Bruckheimer, for once in your life you did something good. Well, that and The Rock. And Beverly Hills Cop. Alright, now we’re just grade inflating.

High School High (1996)


2 p.m.: American Culture

The Teacher: Richard Clark (Jon Lovitz)

Yeah, this was a spoof of Dangerous Minds, but it brought the giggles to the hood. And it took Lovitz’s nebbish Clark out of his comfort zone as he made a bond, albeit a silly and sight-gag-heavy bond, with impoverished students. High School High was all about cultures clashing and immersing oneself in other places and people. Richard Clark pretends to try heroin, guys! He made it through his first year in South Central teaching at Marion Barry High (one of the meanest, funniest visual cues in a movie in the last 20 years has to be that statue holding a bong). He took D-average students and got some of them to graduate! Like, five of them! In short, Richard Clark, we salute your talents, your commitment, and your bare ass. You gave everything to those kids.

Extra Credit: Share the things you love with your students. Give them something to care about, to newly experience. That is, share with your students, unless it’s a limited pressing of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” and the DJ at your school’s dance is going to annihilate it by scratching the sucker into oblivion. I mean, it’s a funky fresh beat! But still, it’s the principle of the matter!

Election (1999)

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3 p.m.: Psychology for Beginners

The Teacher: Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick)

Deep down, some teachers just plain despise their students. It’s okay; you don’t have to love everyone, and they won’t all love you. Whether it’s long-harbored resentments or just pure annoyance for a little not-so-goodie two shoes that’s bringing you down, sometimes a teacher will respond the only way they can: by rigging a high school election so that rotten, obnoxious, little miss perfect Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon, never better) doesn’t get to be class body president. Jim McCallister was a pawn in Tracy’s game, and she got the best of him, but not without making us realize that teachers go through thousands of students in their careers. Surely, someone’s car got keyed at some point.

Alexander Payne’s dark and giddy Election taught us the value of realizing that deep down, some teachers are sad, insecure bastards, and seriously, that is okay. You see McCallister’s beat-up Geo? You ever see a public high school teacher’s salary? In Nebraska?! So you’d best know who’s not on your side sooner rather than later, or you might get a shake thrown at your car out of spite. McCallister’s greatest lesson was one of hate.

School of Rock (2003)

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4 p.m.: Music Appreciation

The Teacher: Dewey Finn (Jack Black)

Dewey Finn came barreling into Horace Green Preparatory School on a technicality. Well, an illegality, really. Finn was just living the dream, milking his past accomplishments, and trying to keep his band alive, but those jerkfaces kicked him out. They wanted a more mainstream sound, and Dewey was like a shirtless Joe Cocker eightball. So when Dewey’s forced to make rent by faking it as a substitute teacher in a snooty prep school, he takes on a number of gifted young kids and forms a secret rock band to compete in a Battle of the Bands. It’s totally post-Bad News Bears stuff, as Dewey pants and screams and professes to be hungover to small children.

Yet he gives them the gifts of art and music, not only via traditional lessons, but a sense of appreciation for music history. Give a child the gift of Led Zeppelin, and he will get the led out for the rest of his days. Teach them Ray Manzerak, and they will master the piano. It’s cunning, creative, and all about the music. Dewey Finn would give Melvins to Mr. Holland, then tear up Holland’s lame opus. Finn’s here to rock.

But most impressively, Dewey let his students know the most important lesson of all: Math is lame.

“What about math?”

“No. Not important.”

The Class (2008)

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After School: Literature

The Teacher: François Marin (François Bégaudeau)

French teacher and author François Bégaudeau’s Entre les murs was an acute reflection on a year in his life as a middle school teacher. Teaching is hard. So hard. What do you do when resources are so sparse and the kids’ interracial tensions reflect their environment? And to make teenagers give a damn about Anne Frank, and verbs, and like, doing homework? Nah, old man, they’re too busy Instagramming all over your desks. Bégaudeau captures the challenges and disappointments, but above all, the hard-won rewards that come from being a teacher. His semi-autographical book was adapted into the 2008 Palme D’or winner, The Class, and it’s perhaps the noblest, truest, and most naturalistic of these teacher films.

Bégaudeau, playing himself as François Marin, is grounded, real, not trying to change lives or burn it all down. He’s teaching, learning about these kids, and who they are as well as how they express themselves. Ever try to get a 13-year-old to talk to you in more than five-word sentences? Ever see a Bieber interview?! Bégaudeau teaches as hard as he can, and that’s something to respect in an often confusing modern education system.

Now would you please at least try to read the first couple of chapters of The Diary of Anne Frank, and not the morning it’s due?