January 05, 2007

Best Teacher Movies

Sorry, but I just have to wince every time I see a spot for the new Hilary Swank film "Freedom Writers." If this isn't just a sappy remake of Michelle Pheiffer's "Dangerous Minds" for all intents and purposes, I'll eat my hat. Certainly, teachers that are dramatized by Swank, Phieffer and others are nothing short of miracle workers. And, their stories can be uplifting. But one thing that annoys me is the seeming Hollywood mantra of a "Great White Hope" that is "needed" for these tough, inner-city classrooms. Remember how Pheiffer was virtually terrified in her first few days in the classroom. But hey -- she is determined to "reach these kids" by, among other things, "understanding" where the kids come from. Swank is obviously keen on doing likewise. Matthew Perry in "The Ron Clark Story" is another. Meryl Streep in "Music of the Heart" is yet another.

If you know me by my past writings, I'm certainly not one to endorse the multiculti philosophy that kids will learn "better" if they are taught by teachers who "look like them." And surely, middle-class whitebreadish teachers like Pheiffer, Swank et. al. will have to make necessary adjustments to whatever teaching methods they learned in order to be successful with high-need urban students. But this isn't my point. The point is that Hollywood seems to believe that these stories are "inspirational" in part because these middle-class whitebreadish teachers "gave their all" to help these destitute pupils -- they sacrificed and were devoted beyond measure -- when they could've taken a cushy suburban teaching job that would have been much easier. They're "Great White Hopes" as I said before.

But what about the stories of teachers who DO "look like their students" who have been there since day one doing their utmost to get through to these kids? How many of you have seen (or even heard of) the excellent film starring Samuel L. Jackson titled "187"? Jackson plays a teacher who was nearly killed, yet he moves to California and gives teaching a go again (at yet another "tough" HS). It's gritty, dark and realistic, and being that the number "187" stands for murder under the California penal code, you know it's gonna be a macabre flick.

More commonly known is "Lean On Me" starring Morgan Freeman as no-nonsense principal Joe Clark (Freeman) who turns an inner-city school around primarily by means of "old school"-style discipline and punishment. This obviously pisses off the typically "touchy-feelie" educrats and the bureaucrats who then conspire against Clark.

"Stand and Deliver" stars Edward James Olmos as Bolivian math teacher Jaime Escalante. He teaches at a primarily Latino populated school and uses this to his advantage in motivating his students to excel at the subject -- going all the way to calculus. One of the things he notes is how the native civilizations of the Americas (particularly the Maya) were geniuses at mathematics -- "You have math in your blood!" he tells his class. In such a setting, it is difficult to imagine a Michelle Pheiffer or Hilary Swank making such a rapport.

Lastly, one of my favorite all-time movies about teachers is called just that -- "Teachers." Nick Nolte and Judd Hirsch star in the over 20-year old film that really holds up well today. I agree with what a commenter had to say at the IMDB:

While the story takes some liberties with realism this is actually a very good film. As a 25 year teacher I can honestly say that what may have appeared outrageous in 1984 is pretty close to reality today.

Frustrated teachers, out of the loop administrators, a total lack of discipline, students bringing a smörgåsbord of baggage to class and a stubborn school board that puts the money above the needs of the students.
What I like about "Teachers" is that it portrays professionals that truly place the needs of the students first even if their methods are unconventional. Give me one teacher like Nick Nolte's character instead of 10 Dittos. Forget the mantra "looks good, is good" and admit mistakes. The community responds best to the truth.

Students in any school situation respond to the sincerity of their teachers. Put the young people first and don't be afraid to walk around in their shoes once in a while.

No, the film doesn't deal with (mainly) one particular ethnic group, but a fairly well-mixed group such as the district in which I teach. Nolte's character is initially shown to be a slacker (he has to be called by the school secretary to even get out of bed and come to work), but he later demonstrates that he's probably the best teacher in the school. He has a terrific connection with his students, and in one of my favorite scenes he forgoes a day's lesson plan because the heater in his room is broken. "So," he tells the class, "Today we're going to enter the world of heater repair" and the students all gather around to watch him fix the heater. Talk about your "teachable moment"! He goes above and beyond to reach a kid (played by Karate Kid Ralph Macchio) who everyone else has given up on, and willingly takes an administrative hit for it (by allowing him to use school equipment to take embarrassing photos around school that get out to the local media).

Nolte also faces a situation I actually encountered in real life very early in my teaching career. While attending a conference with Macchio's character's mom, the mom is completely disinterested in what's happening to her son. Nolte asks, "Mrs. Pilikian, don't you care about your son's education?" To which she responds, "Isn't that YOUR job, Mr. Jurel?" (In my real life situation, I heard a parent chastise an administrator for even bothering to contact her about her son's constant misbehavior. "YOU'RE the educator," she said. "YOU'RE the professional. This is YOUR problem." Isn't that nice?)

The best symbolism is Richard Mulligan's character -- a mental patient -- who unintentionally serves as a substitute teacher. Before he's discovered, he ends up being one of the most beloved teachers in the whole building -- his off-the-wall antics have endeared his kids to him (just check out he and his class re-enacting Washington's crossing of the Delaware!) ... the obvious message being that you really have to be [a little bit] crazy to teach, and being so actually helps you relate to the kids better.

Posted by Hube at January 5, 2007 07:07 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

Hube- Had to respond to your long post cause no one else had yet and both of my parents were public school teachers.

Was Mulligan the husband on Soap? or that other evening soap opera for which I can't remember the title?

Happy New Year to you.

Posted by: AJ Lynch at January 5, 2007 09:38 PM

AJ: Yep, Mulligan was the guy from "Soap."

Happy New Year to you, too.

Posted by: Hube at January 6, 2007 09:09 AM


Killer post. Simply had to link to it. Teachers was a great, great film. One of my favorites. And yes, that was Mulligan on Soap.

Posted by: greg at January 6, 2007 09:17 AM

Thanks, Greg! Appreciate it, buddy! :-)

Posted by: Hube at January 6, 2007 09:19 AM

Interesting thing about Stand and Deliver and Lean on Me - they don't go about saving all the kids. In Lean on Me, he kicks out all the hoodlums and losers, leaving only those who actually want to learn.

And Jaime Escalante from Stand and Deliver - well, if you read about the real life story, he recruited the best and brightest kids from several different math classes.

Sometimes these movies make it seem like the right teacher can inspire even the most reluctant of students, but in nearly every case, the teachers just got rid of the students that weren't being inspired. Apparently, the moral is that many children must be left behind.

Posted by: Ivan Wolfe at January 6, 2007 11:39 PM

Ivan: A local blogger has responded to your comments.

Posted by: Hube at January 7, 2007 10:44 AM

Thanks for pointing that out, although I wasn't really making a larger point about education - just about how unegalitarian many of these suppossedly egalitarian flicks really are.

Posted by: Ivan Wolfe at January 7, 2007 04:25 PM

You forgot The Principal, with Jim Belushi as the guy who smashes up his ex-wife's car with a baseball bat and is sent to run an inner-city school as punishment.

Posted by: G Rex at January 8, 2007 09:40 AM

Right on, Hub. I was just getting ready to blog on this very topic. but, I will link to yours instead.

Keep it up!
Miss Profe

Posted by: Miss Profe at January 10, 2007 04:47 PM

I liked Teachers (especially the "Ditto" story), but I thought it was uneven.

I've been teaching in NYC for 22 years, though, and I really have to say it caught a lot of the feel of the schools. While it may have looked outrageous then, I've seen that and more.

Posted by: NYC Educator at January 10, 2007 06:38 PM

I hate these movies too because the teachers that the saviors are based on, in most cases, are out of teaching in a few years. Sure, if you intend to replace your teaching staff every two or three years then maybe these give it their all, overly emotionally connected to the kids stories are inspiring. But if the point to improve education for more kids, then we may need some distance runners, rather than sprinters.

I need to rewatch Teachers, but I remember liking it.

Posted by: NDC at January 10, 2007 08:01 PM

Wonderful post. I've often thought that what we need is a reality show based on our schools.....the real schools....not someone's idea of school.

We'll never have it, and you know why? They can't handle the truth.

Posted by: elementaryhistoryteacher at January 10, 2007 10:40 PM

Nick Nolte-- excellent! All the public ever gets about teachers on TV nowadays is "Boston Public"-- which I loathed.

Posted by: Ms. Cornelius at January 11, 2007 06:05 PM

I remember an episode of Boston Public, my first and last, where a teacher walks in, shoots a gun in the classroom, and is given a sound talking-to by the administration.

As tough as it may be to get rid of teachers, that guy would be out of any school I've ever seen in a New York minute.

Posted by: NYC Educator at January 11, 2007 07:40 PM

Loved your roundup of movies! Even before I became a teacher, I was a sucker for books about teachers...from Pat Conroy's The Water is Wide to The Angel Inside Went Sour by Esther Rothman. I like to call this genre "the educational romance".

Posted by: Jen at January 11, 2007 11:48 PM

Thank you!
For teacher movies- don't forget To Sir With Love. Old, but moving- but Sir does leave teaching in 1 year.
The real Heros in teaching are the ones who stick it out for a whole career and still care by the time the retire. That is the real challenge.

Posted by: aleakamh at January 13, 2007 11:40 PM

Thanks for checking out my blog, and sorry about the "anonymous" tag. I thought I looked for a name, and overlooked the obvious "posted by" at the end of your post.

It was still good stuff...

Posted by: Jen at January 14, 2007 05:48 PM