It's a strange thing, as a teacher, to have time on your hands, but it so happened that during a recent free period, I had nothing to grade, plan or print. So I reached for the huge stack of educational articles I have been meaning to wade through all year. At the top of the pile was the annual AATF review, including articles in both French and English. I flipped through it at random and became engrossed in a piece about a recent Quebecois film, Monsieur Lazhar, about an Algerian emigre who fills in as a substitute teacher. Although the article concerned the use of formal and informal address between teachers, colleagues and students, I found myself so interested in the characters that I sat down that night and watched it.
Later, as credits rolled up the screen and tears rolled down my face, I thought about how many dozens of movies I had seen about teachers. Some have been good and some very, very bad. Just for fun, I made a list.
Good: these movies are not only realistic in their depictions of classroom struggles, but they are also inspiring and uplifting -- even when they're tragic.
- Butterfly: Although the politics of the era in which it's set (the Spanish Civil War) heavily influence this movie, it remains for me a story about the profound wonder that makes education so beautiful and necessary.
- Dead Poets Society: I still remember sitting in shocked silence with my best friend in high school after having watched this movie. It had such an effect on us, especially because of our interest in the arts. Robin Williams manages a completely, disarmingly honest portrayal.
- Monsieur Lazhar: As a fairly strict teacher myself, I appreciated Lazhar's high expectations of his students (he has them practice dictation from Balzac on the very first day; they're in the third grade.) Of course, they come to appreciate his desire to see greatness in them, just as he comes to appreciate their forthright affection.
- The School of Rock: This may seem an odd choice, but Jack Black is completely convincing as an awful substitute teacher whose students end up teaching him how to educate them. It's also a fantastic, if unrealistic, advertisement for project-based learning!
- The Wave: Based on a novella I read in grade school, this German film examines the sobering possibility that a new Nazi Party is just one ideologue away. The teacher who starts the experiment, although he fails in many ways, gives his students an invaluable lesson in the sinister power of solidarity.
- To Be and To Have: In a tiny town in rural France, a one-room schoolhouse is about to shut down. Modern amenities notwithstanding, I could have been watching a dramatization of Little House on the Prairie. It was inspiring to watch education unfold the old-fashioned way.
Bad: don't waste your time here; these are the same tired Chicken Soup for the Soul cliches you've already heard too often.
- Akeelah and the Bee: The main character was really adorable, and Laurence Fishburne cannot turn in a bad performance, but it was just too trite to enjoy.
- Children of a Lesser God: I had such high hopes for this film about a hearing teacher at a school for the Deaf, but again, I felt it was trite, especially the affair between the professor and student. (Sorry for the spoiler. No, not really. Now you don't have to watch it.)
- Freedom Writers: I am making it a personal goal to warn lovers of this movie and / or book that it's NOT ALL TRUE. Students in her class did keep journals, but they edited them as a group, placing emphasis on powerful writing rather than truth. I will never understand what makes people desire to blend fact and fiction. Also, Hillary Swank just comes off as insincere: um, what happened to that husband she moved to LA with?!
- Mr. Holland's Opus: Could Richard Dreyfus ever be a teacher? No. The end.
- To Sir, With Love: My cousin and I watched this with our moms when we were young. I actually liked it right up until the end when one of the characters sings an ORIGINAL SONG by the same title as the movie. I'm feeling sick just remembering that awful moment.
- Good Will Hunting: Robin Williams is a caricature of himself in this movie. Not to mention, the distillation of an entire profession into one simple, repeated question that magically causes an emotional breakthrough?! (I think this is a real improvement.)
Unqualified: although these are not movies about teachers in the classroom, they are compelling enough that you should watch them anyway!
- Lean on Me: There are plenty of cliches here, too, but Morgan Freeman has enough memorable lines to redeem it, and I'm partial to the true-to-life story that's close to my church home. Bonus: the faculty meeting that ends with the kind of verbal dressing-down most teachers dream of delivering.
- Waiting for Superman: The only movie that ever inspired two blog posts, it is more about the educational system than education itself -- but still, everyone should watch it, because if you think you're not a part of that system in some way, you're dead wrong.
- Spellbound: This movie is actually a complex character study cleverly disguised as a documentary. The only downside is the knowledge that, out of eight charming children, only one will win the National Spelling Bee -- and truly, you are rooting for them all.
- The King's Speech: Out on a technicality, because an SLP is not the same as a classroom teacher, the recent Best Picture is one of the few winners that actually deserved that honor. Geoffrey Rush is transcendent, and Colin Firth is maybe even more attractive with a speech impediment than as his normal brooding self.
- The Life of David Gale: A bold political statement about capital punishment, this sleeper is only tangentially about a wrongfully-accused college professor. Kevin Spacey doing his in-your-face Kevin Spacey thing, and Kate Winslet being the luminous, visceral presence she always is, makes the film riveting to the last moment.
- Rushmore: I am sorry I waited so long to see this movie about a bizarre love triangle between two teachers and a student. I thought I wouldn't like it. I was so wrong; in fact, it opened the floodgates to a long, torrid affair with Wes Anderson's work. Bill Murray is inimitable. Jason Schwartzman redefines precocious. Be ye not so foolish: watch it now!