Whether we like it or not teachers will always be part of our lives and shapes us in one way or another. They are the one who educate us, enlighten us, punish us, becoming, over the years, some sort of second parents. During a person’s lifetime, many teachers and educators drift in and out but a selected few find their place in one’s mind never to be erased again.
This list tries to talk about those special teachers that we always speak fondly – those persons that we feel grateful to have met and receive their knowledge and wisdom. Of course, the film medium has not forgotten these people and dedicated quite a number of films to the subject. No list on this subject will ever be comprehensive enough but here are 28 great motion pictures that feature inspiring teachers.
ps: sports teachers and coaches are excluded because that is an entirely different animal and could be turned into a list all on itself.
1. Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Sam Wood, 1939)
“Goodbye, Mr. Chips” is a wonderful nostalgia story about the highs and the lows of being a teacher. The film begins in 1928 in the home of retired school teacher Mr. Chipping (Robert Donat). Being forced to remain inside his home, by a cold, Mr. Chipping often falls asleep and recollects his days as a young teacher; and so the real story of the films begins through the extensive use of flashbacks.
The audience now meets 25 year old Charles Edward Chipping, a Latin teacher who arrives to Brookfield Public School in 1870. Chipping is strict and severe teacher who inspires fear and who is disliked immediately by his co-workers (who constantly play practical jokes on him) and by his pupils. Chipping soon learns that there are other ways to fulfill his ambitions. This new approach pays off as his relationship with his pupils visibly improves.
Of course, with young age comes love and Mr. Chipping falls hard in love with Kathy Ellis (Greer Garson), a feisty English suffragette whom he meets on a hiking holiday. The two fall in love over the sound of Strauss’s “Blue Danube” which becomes the movie’s music leitmotif.
“Goodbye, Mr. Chips” is a wonderful melodrama about the career of a teacher who, like any other human being, is not perfect but who strives to make the world around him perfect by educating the young. The movie was remade into a musical in 1969 with Peter O’Toole as Charles Edward Chipping, but the original remains the film that inspired teachers and cinephiles alike.
2. Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955)
Stories about teachers, coming to inner-city schools to inspire the children and lead them to a better life, have been told and retold over the course of cinema history. “Blackboard Jungle” is among the first films to tell such a story and it does it baldly and very straightforward in detriment of a nostalgic, melodramatic view.
Richard Dadler (Glenn Ford) is the new teacher at North Manual High School, a violent, unruly inner-city facility. He is determined to do his job in spite of the warning received from his colleagues and the constant anti-social behavior of his pupils. Dadler is subjected to violent attacks (bot psychical and verbal), but manages to hold his ground and try his best to stimulate the students’ interest in education.
After seeing diplomacy fail with each day passes, Dadler challenges his troublesome students in a classroom showdown. Because of its powerful message and its extensive use of rock’n’roll (which was gaining popularity at the time) the film became a cult classic and inspired many films tackling the inner-city kids’ education subject to be more daring and to tell it like it is.
3. The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn, 1962)
It is very possible that the duet between Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in this film is the most powerful female duet ever put to screen. The two actresses give the performances of their lives and seem glues together in emotion and feel. The film provides a strong sense of friendship and as for the teaching aspects it is one of the first films that focus on the single student experience, as opposed to the teacher-classroom relationship.
Young Helen Keller (Patty Duke) has been blind and deaf since infancy due to a severe case of scarlet fever. Young Helen has never seen the sky, has never heard her mother’s voice, has never expressed any of her feelings to anyone. Unable to cope with all of this her parents ask for the help of Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft), a young teacher from a School for the Blind who comes to Helen’s aid.
Annie is not your usual teacher; she herself has recently regained her sight and tries to put her personal knowledge and experiences in to use so as she can help little Helen. She also makes extensive use of touch (the only sense the two women have in common) in order to break down Helen’s wall of silence and begin a, what seems to be, miraculous recovery.
4. To Sir, With Love (James Clavell, 1967)
James Clavell is mostly known in the art world as a writer. He is the author of best-sellers such as “Shogun”, “Tai-Pan” or “The Noble House”. Few people know he was also a screenwriter (one of the writers behind “The Great Escape”) and a director. His most well-known directed film is “To Sir, With Love”, a movie that brings the racial twist to the inner-city school genre.
“To Sir, With Love” aspires to be some sort of social-realism film that will bring down prejudice and race barriers. In reality, this film is full of hope and opts to combat prejudice through optimism and positive thinking. The problems that teacher Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier), unemployed engineer and self-confessed idealist, has in adapting are scarcely tackled.
Instead, a good portion of the film is dedicated to the warmth and the kindness of inner-city kids who want nothing more than a fair chance in life. The main criticism of the film is that it was not recognized for what it is: an idealistic picture of a utopic scenario that will bring down prejudice. Nevertheless, if you want a nice and cozy film that features a powerful teacher figure “To Sir, With Love” is definitely for you.
5. Up the Down Staircase (Robert Mulligan, 1967)
It’s hard enough to be a female teacher in an inner-city school, schools whose pupils usually come from broken homes, poor and violent backgrounds. But what happens when that city is New York and the teacher has no experience. The answer is in the very fine executed and acted little movie entitled “Up the Down Staircase”.
The film’s title is a direct reference to the staircases inside the public, overcrowded high school in which the action is set. Sylvia Barrett (Sandy Dennis), fresh out of graduate school, comes to this troubled high school with the best of intentions but soon faces the harsh realities of practicing her profession.
She is confused by the daily reports and the required strict regulations. She also has absolutely no idea on how to control her kids who are often undisciplined, disruptive and very hateful towards children of other races. Giving up seems like the best idea for Mrs. Barrett but the feisty English teacher is determined to make something out of her kids and out of herself. “Up the Down Staircase” is a very inspiring film that has unjustly become underrated over the years.
6. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Ronald Neame, 1969)
Perhaps it is no coincidence that “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” came out in 1969 (the year of Woodstock and the sexual revolution). Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) is not your usual teacher; she is headstrong, rebellious and has a romantic obsession for some of the world’s most cruel political leaders like Mussolini and Franco. She is a teacher in the junior-aged section of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh in the 1930’s.
The woman has the tendency to stray away from the hard knowledge of the school’s curriculum and emphasis her delusions on the romantic side of the war. Brodie devotes her time and energy to four girls in her class who are visibly her favorite pupils.
Jean Brodie may not be a perfect teacher but she is a great storyteller and so has a great impact of the girls’ minds and imagination. By communicating with the girls and teaching them about art, love and politics, she manages, in her mind, to stay young and ignore the years that keep adding up.
In parallel with her teachings, she has several affairs with male teachers – another desperate act of self-rejuvenation. Like the character of Jean Brodie, the film also intentionally avoids mundane subjects and joggles its landscape between art museums, theaters and cult concerts trying to capture the woman’s romantic views through its imagery. This film is one of the first and one of the best unconventional movies about teachers and teaching.
7. Conrack (Martin Ritt, 1974)
In the U.S.A., the coming of the 70’s meant the coming of the New American Cinema. The old Hollywood made way for bold and daring director such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola or Brian De Palma; the subject matters were more underground and the characters were shadier. Since teaching is considered a “safe” subject matter there were not a lot of films of the genre done in the America of the 70s’.
Of course, there were a few exceptions and “Conrack” is one of them. The story takes place in 1969 and follows young teacher Pat Conroy (Jon Voight) who is assigned to the isolated community of “Yamacraw Island”, just off the coast of South Carolina. “Yamacraw Island” is mostly inhabited by poor African-American families.
Conroy soon finds out that, because of their isolation, the inhabitants do not speak proper English but a dialect named Gullah. Because of this dialect, the people pronounce Pat’s last name “Conrack”.
From here on the film is tailored around the usual teacher vs. world plot as our hero tries to reconnect the people of “Yamacraw Island” with the rest of the world – through the proper use of language – but is faced with the resistance of the school’s principal and other conservative local. If you love movies about teachers and teaching than this is definitely worth checking out.
8. Teachers (Arthur Hiller, 1984)
If one was to guess the period that this movie was made in the answer will undoubtedly by the 1980’s. This film screams 80’s and its flamboyant, kitsch-art style. “Teachers” is a satirical dark-comedy about typical day to day situations going terribly wrong. As it is a film about schools and teachers, it’s only fitting that the film opens on a Monday morning.
The events occurred in this particular Monday morning are a fight between teachers, a student with a stab wound and an upcoming lawsuit. The principal of the school is very haggard and clueless and so the high school seems to be running itself. The audience soon makes a quittance with Alex Jurel (Nick Nolte), a Social Studies teacher who has the ability to identify with his students and whose ability to treat his job lightly has earned him a lot of popularity amongst his pupils.
The film has one major plot revolving around the lawsuit involving and illiterate graduate and a few subplots that subtly fit in, piece by piece, into the big picture. Jurel’s story – a life of teaching that has caught up with him and started to wear him down – is combined with the story of Lisa Hammond (JoBeth Williams), a former student who is now handling the lawsuit, as the two begin an infamous affair that only worsens things. IN the end, the film points out what many people forget: teachers are human too and they too can make mistakes.