Top 10 Movies for Teachers

Photo by Indri Rizal

If you are an education student looking for a pick-me-up, a teacher looking to learn something in your off hours or just looking for a good flick, these 10 movies about teaching will keep you riveted. Ranging from Hollywood dramas to inner-city documentaries, they all tell stories you aren’t likely to forget. These aren’t just melodramas about heroic teachers or documentaries about the failure of American schools, these are exceptional films inspired by the stories of extraordinary teachers and administrators in a less than perfect system. By the time you’re finished with these 10 films, you might just be so inspired you will want to become a teacher yourself.

1. Stand and Deliver
Ramon Menendez’s 1988 film tells the true story of East L.A. high school teacher Jaime Escalante, who struggled to channel his students’ attention away from the streets and into calculus. Edward James Olmos received an Oscar for best actor for his career-defining performance in the film, while Estelle Harris and Mark Phelan are riveting in supporting roles. Escalante’s story and teaching methods are a perfect illustration of why American students need more great teachers.

2. Mad Hot Ballroom
Marilyn Agrelo’s 2005 documentary about a ballroom dance competition for fifth grade public school students in New York City combines skillful film-making with children’s magnetism to remarkable effect. While teachers and education students will have little difficulty picking out the places in most movies on this list where the filmmakers took a little poetic license, this documentary is able to tell a stunningly moving story without a single actor.

3. The Dead Poets’ Society
Peter Weir’s 1989 period drama (set in 1959) was nominated for four academy awards, one of which Tom Schulman’s screenplay won. Robin Williams gives a virtuoso performance in one of his first serious roles, as an English teacher who engages his students by challenging educational orthodoxy. Schulman’s script drew heavily on his experiences as a teacher, and his success as a writer should be an inspiration to any teacher who feels that they have a story to tell.

4. Waiting for “Superman”
The most current and controversial entry on this list of movies about teachers, Davis Guggenheim’s 2010 documentary is unflinching examination of the challenges facing the U.S. public education system. The film offers Geoffrey Canada and his Harlem Children’s Zone as one model of a solution to those challenges, which have been successful in increasing the academic performance of students in a high-need area. While this movie about teaching makes an important contribution to the education reform debate, some critics have faulted it for failing to explore all aspects of the situation.

5. The Lottery
Madeleine Sackler’s 2010 documentary follows four children in Harlem and the Bronx who have been entered in a lottery to gain admission to charter schools, which offer a lucky few much better education than other public schools. By examining the perspective of unionized teachers, this movie about teachers offers an important counterpoint to Waiting for “Superman”.

6. Lean on Me
John G Avildsen’s 1989 film about real-life principal Joe Clark stars the electrifying Morgan Freeman in his first leading role. Freeman’s character is charged with turning around a failing public high school in danger of being shut down by the state of New Jersey, a feat which he accomplishes through controversial and arguably authoritarian methods. Though perhaps heavy-handed in its message, the movie serves as an important reminder that setting clear behavioral boundaries is a necessary part of creating a safe learning environment.

7. Blackboard Jungle
Richard Brooks’s film may be the originator of a genre casting teachers in high-need schools as heroes. Though the film’s portrayal of education in an urban environment may seem tame or dated by today’s standards, it made quite an impact in 1955.  Richard Dadier’s (Glenn Ford) effort to educate unruly students, including Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier) and Artie West (Vic Morrow), provoked teenagers to dance in the aisles. It also popularized Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”, one of the first rock n’ roll songs to achieve commercial success by reaching a white audience.

8. The Miracle Worker
Arthur Penn’s 1962 film about Helen Keller’s education is refreshing in that it wonderfully narrates a dramatic true story about a teacher changing a pupil’s life outside of the “heroic teacher in inner-city school” genre. Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, who also starred in the stage version of “The Miracle Worker,” were lauded by critics for the emotional power of their performances. While this is not a traditional classroom teacher story, the central messages are universal: Students will learn when educators challenge themselves to engage emotionally, and all young people can overcome even the most serious obstacles to achievement.

9. The Great Debaters
Denzel Washington directed and starred in this period drama about Melvin B. Tolson, a significant modernist poet, English professor and debate-team coach at a small college in Texas during the 1930s. The film highlights Tolson’s successful effort to turn the debate team into national contenders, while attempting to keep them out of his underground civil rights activism.

10. The First Year
Davis Guggenheim’s 2001 PBS documentary, which follows five teachers through the struggles and triumphs of their first year, should be required viewing for students of education. Without the drama or cinematic flair of Hollywood movies about teaching, the stories of these five teachers in L.A.’s challenging school system capture the viewer’s attention through their humanity. The film particularly explores how and why people choose to become teachers, and may leave you wondering how to become a teacher yourself.

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