September 21, 2008

Best fictional teachers

As a quickly-becoming grizzled veteran teacher, I've seen a lot of teacher movies. Some have been good, some pretty lame. Entertainment Weekly has a list of "24 Cherished TV/Movie Teachers," and here's my take on some of them (h/t to Matthew Tabor):

  • John Keating from "Dead Poets Society." Great movie, great example of a teacher. How do you reach kids? By relating to them, that's how. Keating was outrageous enough to keep his students' attention, and having succeeded in that regard, he could then instill in them inspiration, hard work and creativity.
  • Mr. Hand from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." How many of you have had a teacher like Mr. Hand? I really didn't have one like 'im 'till college, and the results were unintentionally hilarious. The tit-for-tat between Hand and Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) is gut-bustingly funny ("You DICK!") right down to Hand making Spicoli study at home with him instead of going to the dance.
  • Prof. Diane Turner from "Back to School." Actually, her professor boyfriend Phillip Barbay makes the movie (outside of Rodney Dangerfield's antics, that is) as the stuck-up, holier-than-thou business prof whom Thornton Mellon (Dangerfield) mocks mercilessly. Mellon ends up stealing away Turner (Sally Kellerman) because Barbay, in the words of Mellon, "doesn't know dick."
  • Jaime Escalante from "Stand and Deliver." The best thing about Escalante (played by Edward James Olmos) is that he's a real guy and his story is true. He gives up a well-paying job in industry to teach math at a tough school. He uses his Latino roots to inspire his [Latino] students to succeed, getting all of them to pass the Advanced Placement Calculus Test. When the test gurus think he and his students cheated, he has them take the test again, and they all ace it -- again.
  • Glenn Holland from "Mr. Holland's Opus." Richard Dreyfuss (Holland) is a terrific actor, and here he chronicles the life of a music teacher from green novice to 30+ year vet. Along the way he learns how to best "reach" kids, inspires love of music, falls for a student, and deals with his own deaf son. Perhaps the best part is witnessing the cultural changes that take place over the decades.
  • Louanne Johnson from "Dangerous Minds." Like the reviewer of this ET segment, I found Michelle Pheiffer's role just a tad preachy and unbelievable. Still, I'm sure there are teachers out there like her who sacrifice pretty much everything else in their life for their students, and to them I say "God bless you."

Most notable forgotten mention: Alex Jurel from "Teachers." Although this flick is 24 years old, it holds up perfectly. Nick Nolte's portrayal of Jurel is dead-on; he's a history teacher at an urban, ethnically mixed high school. The staff is a mix of all personality types, including the teacher we probably all had at least once, "Ditto" -- the "teacher" who just hands out a worksheet and then sits at his desk reading the newspaper. Jurel deals with reality as he faces it. When his room's heater isn't working one class period, he gets out his tools and tells his class to gather 'round for "a lesson on home heating repair." In order to reach a perpetually failing student (Ralph Macchio), he allows him to take photos for an assignment -- photos that reach that local media. And Jurel takes the heat for it in order to keep the kid's trust.

The film also deals credibly with how teachers' union issues can border on the ridiculous ("We're fighting for an extra three minutes of planning time!"), tenure (how bad and even criminal teachers are virtually impossible to fire), and best of all denotes how teachers have to have at least "one screw loose" to go into the profession as demonstrated by Richard Mulligan's character. He plays a mental patient who inadvertantly takes a phone call for a substitute teacher, and ends up subbing for several days. His inherent nuttiness endears him to his class, and before he's found out he has his students loving history with a passion never before imagined.

Posted by Hube at September 21, 2008 11:58 AM | 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.)

Glenn Ford in "The Blackboard Jungle." Great movie.

Posted by: Mike Matthews at September 21, 2008 01:14 PM

Umm...what about Mr. Kotter? His students loved him. They would even crawl into his apartment window. Remember how his wife Julie was so patient with them?

Posted by: Dominque at September 21, 2008 10:13 PM

A few other titles....

To Sir, with Love (one of Sidney P.'s best roles.)

Dangerous Minds

The Wildcats (Goldie Hawn coaching high school football)

Ben Kingsley as the chess teacher in Searching for Bobbie Fischer.

Probably more if I had time to think about it...

Posted by: Zendo Deb at September 21, 2008 10:24 PM


Gonna do a bit on the radio about this today. Will certainly be plugging your site!!!

Posted by: Mike Matthews at September 22, 2008 12:06 PM

Just as an aside, Dead Poet's Society is based on a woman teacher at the Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tennessee.

Posted by: Ann Garrison at September 22, 2008 02:13 PM

I'd have to say John Houseman's character in The Paper Chase, what was his name? Now there was a guy who suffered no fools (nor bullsh*t artists) in his classroom.

Posted by: G Rex at September 22, 2008 03:18 PM

Sam Pickering was the teacher--and yes he taught at Montgomery Bell--but he is a man--and he taught at many other places too. Just a gentle correction....

Posted by: drivethru at September 22, 2008 09:22 PM