Movies About Teaching

After watching the infrequently seen Blue Car last night and with the Julia Roberts vehicle, Mona Lisa Smile (MLS), coming soon to several hundred theaters near you, I’ve been thinking a lot about “classroom movies,” films that focus on the teaching profession in some way. I haven’t seen MLS, and likely won’t (Julia Roberts’ presence in the film negates any enthusiasm I’d have for seeing Maggie Gyllenhaal), but essentially MLS focuses on Roberts’ teacher coming to an all-girls school in the 1950s and encouraging her students to challenge social norms. Essentially, it’s Dead Poets Society with women (at least that would be the pitch; the relationship between the films is certainly more complicated). It’s cool that these films celebrate learning the humanities, and not just as an end, but as a means for questioning socially expected roles (marriage and family in the case of MLS), but quite honestly, I really don’t like these kinds of films, or how they characterize the classroom experience. I can’t quite pin down why. It could be the star personas of Robin Williams (who plays in another feel-good classroom film, Good Will Hunting) and Julia Roberts. It could be that the films limit how our profession is understood, or what becomes identified with good teaching (having your students stand on a desk or kick soccer balls while reciting Romantic poetry). I’m honestly not sure.

I do have some mixed feelings about Blue Car in that it seems to repeat (Oleanna, Educating Rita, Surviving Desire, the utterly pretentious Storytelling) another version of a limited range of narratives about teacher-student relationships, especially male teacher-female student relationships. To be fair, Blue Car is the only example I can recall where the film is told by a feamle writer-director, explicitly through the eyes of the student. I actually do like several of these films (especially Rita, which is actually a very complicated film), so hopefully I don’t sound too dismissive here. I know this abuse of power is an important topic, and I also know that films need some form of tension, but I am troubled by the limitations on how our profession is represented. So, I’ll turn the floor over to you, my readers.

Which films about teaching do you like? Which ones do you loathe? Why?

If I get some comments, I’ll tell you my favorites….

21 Comments »

  1. Clancy Said,

    December 18, 2003 @ 9:59 pm

    Okay, I’ll bite. I love, love, love the Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School. I don’t know if that fits the teaching movie genre though. :-)

    I can’t think of any teaching movies I’ve seen besides the ones you’ve named, but just to make a contribution, I didn’t see Finding Forrester. Antwone Fisher seems to be a variation on the teaching movie theme, and I wanted to see Higher Learning when it came out, but never did.

    Oh, and Rock’n’Roll High School is in my top two favorite movies of all time.

  2. Clancy Said,

    December 18, 2003 @ 10:00 pm

    Sorry–I originally posted this comment under the wrong blog post.

  3. chuck Said,

    December 18, 2003 @ 10:12 pm

    I was wondering–myabe this is a pet peeve unique to me. I *really* like Back to School. Sally Kellerman playing an English teacher reading “Ulysses” to her students…great stuff.

    I really do like “Educating Rita” and “Surviving Desire” and recommend them highly, but my favorite “classroom film” is “Wonder Boys,” which also seems to stretch the boundaries of what I called a “movie about teaching” even though it seems to portray some aspects of grad school pretty effectively…

    Now that I’m hearing the term again, I think “movies about teaching” may not have been the best term to describe what I’m talking about….Also realized pretty quickly how grumpy this post sounds now (which is strange because I really didn’t intend that).

    I got so many bad papers on “Higher Learning” that I’ll never be able to watch that film without seeing it through that lens, so I know I’d never be able to enjoy it…

  4. Clancy Said,

    December 20, 2003 @ 10:50 am

    How could I have forgotten Wonder Boys! I love that movie.

  5. Tecumseh Said,

    March 12, 2004 @ 12:25 am

    Well “Teachers” is an obvious one. What about the teaching scene in “Lone Star” where a Mexican American is trying to teach Texans some real history?

  6. amlit Said,

    April 23, 2004 @ 3:15 pm

    Here are several movies about teaching/education. Kindergarten Cop, School of Rock, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Pump Up the Volume, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Heathers, Dangerous Minds (my personal favorite), Stand and Deliver, Dead Poet’s Society, Election, Billy Madison, 10 Things I Hate About You, Agent Cody Banks, Get Over It, O, High School Confidential, Rushmore, The Perfect Score, Pleasantville, My Bodyguard, and Cruel Intentions (to a certain extent). These movies portray teaching at some point in the movie. Oh, yeah, and don’t forget Summer School. Now, how many of them are realistic and how many of them show teachers or education in a poor light? What has this done for education in general? These are questions I’m still trying to answer!

  7. chuck Said,

    April 23, 2004 @ 3:34 pm

    Great suggestions. I haven’t thought about this post in a long time. The “Dangerous Minds”/”Stand and Deliver” genre really bothers me–I think it defines teaching in some fairly limited ways. I actually like that “Summer School” makes fun of the whole “Inspirational Teacher” genre.

    If we expand the genre wide enough, I suppose one could include most the 1980s John Hughes cylce (Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, especially), and I *think* I originally made this list/posted this entry before “School of Rock” came out (and I liked it quite a bit simply as entertainment).

    Election’s an interesting case for the “Teacher as Sexual Predator” genre, especially to the extent that it also portrays teachers as essentially irrelevant and/or meddling at best.

    In general, most of the films either offer classrooms that are boring or irrelevant or the opposite, the teacher who consistently inspires, usually through highly theatrical and often teacher-centered techniques (“O Captain, my Captain,” for example).

  8. chuck Said,

    May 4, 2004 @ 12:39 pm

    Just a quick note to say that I came across Dana Polan’s “The Professors of History” in Vivian Sobchack, ed, _The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television, and the Modern Event_, Routledge, 1996, and it’s doing more or less what I’m talking about, although Polan focuses primarily on history professors.

  9. Xantharra Said,

    October 26, 2005 @ 8:57 am

    Teaching Movie List

    1930 – 1939

    1932 – The Penguin Pool Murder [Hildegarde Withers Series]
    1933 – Topaze
    1934 – Murder on the Blackboard [Hildegarde Withers Series]
    1935 – Murder on a Honeymoon [Hildegarde Withers Series]
    1935 – The Plot Thickens [Hildegarde Withers Series]
    1936 – These Three
    1936 – Murder on a Bridle Path [Hildegarde Withers Series]
    1937 – Forty Naughty Girls [Hildegarde Withers Series]
    1939 – Good-bye Mr. Chips

    1940 – 1949

    1940 – Anne of Windy Poplars
    1940 – Little Men
    1941 – Cheers for Miss Bishop
    1941 – Pimpelmel Smith
    1941 – Remember the Day
    1943 – Hitler’s Children
    1943 – This Land is Mine
    1945 – The Com is Green
    1948 – Apartment for Peggy

    1950 – 1959

    1953 – Bright Road
    1954 – Her Twelve Men
    1955 – The Blackboard Jungle
    1955 – Good Morning, Miss Dove
    1955 – The Private War of Major Benson
    1956 – Bigger Than Life
    1956 – Our Miss Brooks
    1956 – The Unguarded Moment
    1957 – Spring Reunion
    1958 – As Young as We Are
    1958 – Teachers Pet

    1960 – 1969

    1962 – The Children’s Hour
    1967 – To Sir, With Love
    1967 – Up the Down Staircase
    1968 – Rachel, Rachel
    1969 – Decline and Fall of a Bird Watcher
    1969 – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

    1970 – 1979

    1972 – Child’s Play
    1973 – Paper Chase
    1974 – Conrack
    1977 – Looking for Mr. Goodbar

    1980 – 1989

    1982 – Fast Times at Ridgemont High
    1984 – Teachers
    1985 – Heaven Help Us
    1986 – Hoosiers
    1986 – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
    1987 – Leader of the Band
    1987 – The Principal
    1987 – Stand and Deliver
    1987 – Summer School
    1989 – Dead Poets Society
    1989 – Lean on Me

    1990 – 1999

    1990 – Class of 1999
    1990 – The Freshman
    1992 – Sister Act
    1992 – Waterland
    1993 – The Man without a Face
    1994 – The Browning Version
    1995 – Lotus Eaters
    1996 – The Mirror Has Two Faces
    1996 – Carried Away
    1996 – Dangerous Minds
    1996 – Mr. Holland’s Opus
    1996 – The Substitute
    1997 – In and Out
    1997 – Good Will Hunting

    2000 – 2005

    2000 – Finding Forrester
    2002 – Spellbound
    2003 – Mona Lisa Smile
    2003 – School of Rock

    ~Thanks to the POD Listserv for this compilation~

  10. Jean'na Scoggins Said,

    October 26, 2005 @ 6:11 pm

    My personal favorites are Finding Forrester, Dangerous Minds, and Mona Lisa Smile. However, I open to seeing any movie that touches on the subject of teaching…inspiring students that is.

  11. Terri Said,

    August 3, 2006 @ 7:10 pm

    I’m trying to remember the name of a movie that contained the following scene:
    A college professor is lecturing on the first day of class and lists an overwhelming number of assignments/papers/etc. that will be required throughout the semester. One by one, a number of students begin sheepishly sliding out the side door. After the exodous appears to have stopped, the professor announces that all of the assignments previously described were actually not required. The professor simply used this tactic to “weed out” the non-serious students. This is driving me crazy! Does anyone recall having seen this?
    Thanks!

  12. Chuck Said,

    August 3, 2006 @ 7:34 pm

    That scene sounds familiar, but I’ll have to think about it becaue I can’t quite place it.

  13. Stephanie Said,

    October 15, 2006 @ 12:16 am

    One of my favorite movies about teaching is the Emperors Club. Kevin Kline did a wonderful job portraying a teacher who is not over the top, yet makes ancient history interesting and cares about the education of his students. It was one of the factors that made me consider history as a major.

  14. Teisha Said,

    January 3, 2007 @ 4:44 pm

    I would just like to say that I stumbled into this site and found it rather interesting. I nearly forgot about all the “educational” movies out there. Thanks so much for reminding me of some fun and heartfelt movies about teachers/teaching.

  15. Teisha Said,

    January 3, 2007 @ 4:45 pm

    oh..what about some of the funny ones like High School High..it’s a movie about teachers and teaching too :p

  16. Chuck Said,

    January 4, 2007 @ 5:12 pm

    I’d almsot forgotten about HSH. Don’t think I ever saw it, but I definitely apprecaite some of the comedies that mock all of the pretensions about teaching.

  17. Glenda Cosenza Said,

    February 15, 2007 @ 2:14 pm

    I once attended a workshop called Teaching Hollywood Style. The presenter, who was getting a PhD in Education, chose to use films that depict various teaching styles, as a way of getting undergraduate Methods class students to think critically about teaching and learning — as shown in the film clips. The clips he used were scenes from Dead Poets, Miracle Worker, My Fair Lady, Sound of Music, and another film whose title I’ve forgotten (this workshop took place about 12 years ago). It was a powerful presentation and I’ve used this concept many times in my career as a teacher educator (music, in my case). I agree that these films represent only selected aspects of the teaching art — but I can tell you they DO stimulate thought and discussion among these novice future teachers!

  18. Chuck Said,

    February 16, 2007 @ 7:16 pm

    That sounds like a useful activity. I guess my major beef with movies about teaching is that in many cases they set expectations that teachers should be entertainers or missionaries. And while I’m pretty entertaining sometimes, I’m no Robin Williams, and I’ve learned to acknowledge that I’m not nearly as heroic as Michelle Pfeiffer.

  19. mariasoy Said,

    May 14, 2007 @ 10:16 am

    I found this page while searching for other movies like the superb British production titled “The History Boys”. It’s a surprising, quirky, fast paced story, with endearing acting and very realistically portrayed young boys – although I must say that the early 80s included the BeeGees, disco, and so on, but none of that makes it into the movie. These kids are too busy really learning about history – and preparing for their future.

  20. Chuck Said,

    May 14, 2007 @ 10:34 am

    I still haven’t seen The History Boys. The trailer played up what sounded like a new wave or alternative music (New Order, maybe). I know it’s an adaptation of a play, so I’d be curious to know better how it was changed.

  21. Future Teacher Said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

    You forgot the best one! October Sky, based on the book The Rocket Boys. Its such a good movie that really shows how a teacher who believes in their students can really make a difference in their students’ lives.

    I also really liked Dangerous Minds.

    There’s another one… I can’t think of the name. Anyways the teacher (Antonio Banderas maybe?) helps the “detention” students gain self-respect by teaching them ballroom dancing.

    I love them all!

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