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In my other life when I’m not writing about Avatar: The Last Airbender or Christopher Nolan movies, I’m actually a teacher. What does that entail? Well, mostly long hours writing lesson plans that I usually just scrap when I see the students aren’t getting the material, and grading paper after paper after paper until my eyes bleed. So, yeah, fun, fun, fun. But really, it is fun, and incredibly rewarding. There have been several movies on teaching that a lot of people point to as inspirational, and some of those movies are on this list. But I’d also like to spotlight some of the more realistic movies like Mean Girls. And yes, I just said Mean Girls is realistic.
Because teaching is so much more than just standing in front of a classroom with your sleeves rolled up, giving lectures. Any teacher will tell you that there are many nuances to the profession, which is why I’ve compiled this list here today. If you’re a cinephile, then you’ve likely seen some of these movies (and if you’re a teacher, then you’ve likely seen all of these movies). But my intention here today is to talk about them from a teacher’s point of view. Are we understood? Good. Because there will be a test on it next week. Don’t worry. It will be open-book.
Mean Girls (2004)
This Lindsay Lohan movie—which also stars Rachel McAdams, as well as SNL royalty, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ana Gasteyer, and Tim Meadows—is about high school cliques and the negative impact they have on teenagers, and mostly girls. In a lot of ways, it’s like a funnier, less dark version of Heathers. With Mathletes!
Besides seeing all the cattiness and male posturing in the hallways of my own school, what I really love in this movie is when the students see Tina Fey’s teacher character, Ms. Norbury, outside of school, and they’re kind of confused. Many of my own students are usually blown away when they find out that I have a life outside of school. So, yeah. Mean Girls is pretty accurate in showing that teachers are real people with actual lives. Who knew?
Stand and Deliver (1988)
The quintessential teacher movie that I guarantee every teacher has seen, Stand and Deliver, starring Edward James Olmos and Lou Diamond Phillips, is about the real-life teacher, Jaime Escalante (played by Olmos) who worked his butt off to get normally underachieving students to pass an AP Calculus test. Inspiring stuff, indeed.
I actually work in what would be considered an “urban school.” And whenever I tell people this, they usually wince and say, “Wow, that must be really hard teaching kids like that,” which is really just thinly veiled racism, but whatever. What’s important though is that once you actually get to know these kids, you realize that they’re some sweetest, smartest, most inquisitive children you’ll ever meet. And if they’re angry or underperforming, there’s usually a reason that stems from something outside of the building. That’s why Stand and Deliver is the ultimate motivation film. It goes into that and so much more. I love this movie!
Freedom Writers (2007)
This Hilary Swank-starring vehicle is about a young teacher who gets her underachieving students to learn that school can be a Godsend, especially if you can write out your feelings.
One thing I can’t stand about school movies is that they usually show a teacher focusing on only a single classroom. But any teacher above the 5th grade level will tell you that we teach multiple classes with a wide variety of students. And while Freedom Writers gets that aspect wrong too, what I do like is that Swank’s character takes so much work home with her, which is to the detriment of her marriage with McDreamy, er, I mean, Patrick Dempsey, who plays her husband in the movie. I don’t think non-teachers understand just how much of our job we actually take home with us, but it’s a lot!
Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)
A relatively successful composer, played by Richard Dreyfuss, goes into teaching to be more of a family man to his wife and hearing-impaired son. But after a while, he starts to grow closer to his students and more distant with his own family, so he has to find a balance, which he does. But, oh, wouldn’t you know it? Due to budget cuts, music’s the first elective on the chopping block. Honestly, any teacher of the arts will likely tell you this movie is as real as it gets.
I originally went into teaching because I knew it would give me time to write. But after 13 years in the profession, I have to tell you. I love teaching! I love my students, and I love sharing my passion for writing with the kids. There are a lot of teachers out there like Mr. Holland, and like me, who went into the profession for what might seem like selfish reasons, but came out loving it all the same.
Won’t Back Down (2012)
Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez, and Oscar Isaac (Wow! Now that’s an all-star cast), Won’t Back Down is about proactive parents who are tired of the failing schools in their neighborhood and want to form a better school. And they do just that.
Won’t Back Down is actually a pretty touchy subject since it goes after the unions. And in a lot of ways, I feel like this movie is super unfair and one-sided. I’m personally pro-union myself, and I think the film villainizes the wrong people. That said, I can definitely view this movie from a parent’s perspective, since I’m a parent and I’ve also seen some of the parents of my students get very frustrated with the school system. But honestly, to make a real difference, parents do have to get involved. That’s when real change happens in a district. We, the teachers, have principals. But honestly, our true bosses are the families of the town. That’s who we really serve.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Starring the great Robin Williams (we still miss you!), as the cool teacher at an elite all-boys school, Dead Poets Society is pretty much also required viewing for every teacher in the profession. You see, Williams’s character, John Keating, inspires his students. He gets them to embrace poetry and also life itself. “Carpe diem!” is his battle cry. If we could only all live that way then I think we’d all probably be a lot happier.
Getting kids to embrace who they truly are inside is every teacher's dream. So many times, no matter how much encouragement we give, most students are too afraid to express themselves because they’re afraid they’ll get laughed at. But when a teacher does see that willingness to express themselves in their students, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s like they’re blossoming and coming into their own.
Kindergarten Cop (1990)
Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in this comedy about an undercover detective who happens to become a kindergarten teacher in order to arrest a murderous criminal.
Look, I teach Seventh Grade English. I don’t teach Kindergarten. But when Arnold is in that classroom for the very first time and the kids are going absolutely bonkers, that look on his face when he yells “Shuuuuut upppppp!”? That’s me. I mean, I don’t actually scream “shut up!” (they would scream it right back at me if I did). But after every assembly when the kids have to come back to the classroom, in my head, that’s me screaming “Shut up!” at the top of my lungs. Instead, I calmly say, “Let’s settle down, class, and get back to work.” But it usually doesn’t work. Not after an assembly, anyway.
The Substitute (1996)
Oh, man, this movie. The Substitute is about a Vietnam vet named Jonathan Shale (played by Tom Berenger) who substitutes in his girlfriend’s inner-city school after a possible gang member in the school breaks his girlfriend’s leg. Some of the kids start to mess with Jonathan Shale, a.k.a Mr. Smith, when he starts teaching, but he doesn’t take any crap. No, madam. No, sir. He doesn’t take any crap at all.
In reality, I’m just some dweeb. I don’t have combat skills, and none of my students has ever thrown a punch at me. But when a student talks back to me, in my mind, I’m not Mr. Knight anymore. I’m Jonathan Shale, Vietnam Vet and Warrior Chief. Sure, my only real options for handling disobedience are to talk (sternly) to the student in private or contact his or her parent. But they don’t have to know how close they got to making me snap into combat mode. I’ll tell you, it’s my restraint I get paid for. Not my teaching skills.
And that’s just a sampling of teacher movies that pretty much any teacher can relate to. Well, besides The Substitute. Unless they’re a sunglasses-wearing badass. Like me. I was also thinking about putting Dangerous Minds, Lean On Me, and maybe even The Ron Clark Story (I actually read Ron Clark’s book before every school year). But there’s a lot of overlap with those movies and the movies I already have on this list. Anyway, if you’re a teacher, and even if you’re not, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. How many of these movies have you seen, and are there any great ones that I missed? Let me know below!