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Which Movie Teachers Make the Grade?

Which Movie Teachers Make the Grade?

Articles - Acting

School’s officially back in session, and with it can be heard the collective groan of kids around the world. To coincide with the new school year, the latest teacher movie Won’t Back Down hits theaters this weekend. Inspired by the acclaimed 2010 documentary, Waiting for “Superman” and loosely based on true events, the film stars Viola Davis as a passionate, determined teacher who joins forces with an outspoken mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) to transform their children’s failing inner city school.

Davis’ inspiring character joins a long-standing tradition of movies centered around great educators. But along with the good, of course, comes the bad. One need not look any further than the raunchy 2011 comedy, Bad Teacher—in which Cameron Diaz’s title character participates in all sorts of debauchery, including drinking on the job, doing drugs and cursing at her students.

These two films represent opposite ends of the pedagogical spectrum, and got us thinking about cinema’s best and worst teachers. Give our list a look. Who knows, you might even learn something!

The Good

Mr. Chips (Robert Donat) in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
The archetypal inspirational teacher, Mr. Chips is the kind of educator we all wish we could have had as schoolchildren. Although initially headstrong and strict, Chips grows to love teaching his students and develops a rapport with them, eventually becoming a much-loved institution whose teachings are passed on to later generations by his initial pupils. The uplifting Goodbye, Mr. Chips inspired the many feel-good teacher movies that would follow in the years to come.

Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) in To Sir, with Love (1967)
An African-American engineer takes a teaching position at a tough, racially intolerant inner city school in London—good idea, right? While it takes some time for Thackeray to gain control of his undisciplined class and for him to understand their impoverished situations, once he does, he and his students form an unexpectedly strong bond. To Sir, with Love is a perfect example of the “idealistic teacher vs. rough, impoverished teenagers” subgenre, which experienced a boon in the 1980s and 1990s, with such films as Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me and Dangerous Minds (and inspired spoofs like High School High).

Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Cranky old Mr. Hand might not at first seem to care much about his students’ well-being, but as the film unfolds, it becomes clear he truly does—especially as it relates to one of his most troublesome students, Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn, in a star-making role). Sure, he won’t let you have a pizza delivered to his class, but he’ll make sure you get your schoolwork done—even if it means showing up at your house. Aloha, Mr. Hand!

John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society (1989)
This is a movie you can pretty much guarantee will be shown at some point during the school year in English classes across the country. Robin Williams (in one of his first dramatic roles) plays an idealistic, unconventional English teacher in the 1950s who accepts a job at an aristocratic boys prep school. Once there, he shakes up the conformity-driven lives of his students by inspiring them to cherish poetry (especially the work of Walt Whitman) and to use the phrase “carpe diem” (seize the day) as a life mantra. Keating proves to be yet another inspirational teacher on the list and for good reason. Depending on how cynical you are, you’ll either laugh or sob during the emotional “O Captain! My Captain!” scene.

The Bad

Diane Marshall (Angel Tompkins) in The Teacher (1974)
This deliciously cheesy exploitation movie may be fairly obscure, but it’s a must-see for B-movie junkies. Former Playboy Playmate Angel Tompkins stars as a sultry young schoolteacher who seduces a recent high school graduate (played by Jay North, a long way from playing “Dennis the Menace” on TV), while a deranged stalker (veteran character actor Anthony James) pursues her. This hilariously dated movie is a perfect time capsule of the 1970s, and a reminder that it’s probably best not to engage in an illicit affair with your teacher—especially if she’s being followed by an obsessed psychopath.

Dave Jennings (Donald Sutherland) in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)
In this classic college comedy, Professor Jennings stands out as one of the movie’s quirkiest characters. A pretentious, aging hippie, Jennings tries to turn his students on to drugs, and even goes so far as to have an affair one of his students (Karen Allen), which leads her boyfriend (Peter Riegert) to dump her. And let’s face it—any teacher who walks out of his house sans trousers needs to seriously consider whether he’s in the correct profession, right?

Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) in Wonder Boys (2000)
While Professor Tripp teaches a creative writing course at a Pittsburgh university and has a successful novel under his belt, he could probably use some help in his personal life. Over the course of Wonder Boys, not only does he impregnate the university chancellor’s wife (Frances McDormand), but he also shoots and kills the chancellor’s beloved dog and helps to get a troubled student, James (Tobey Maguire), high and in bed with his editor (Robert Downey, Jr.). If the movie wasn’t so funny and bittersweet, or lacked Michael Douglas’ charming performance as the hilariously overwhelmed professor at its core, the subject matter of Wonder Boys could make for one hell of a disturbing film.

Dewey Finn (Jack Black) in School of Rock (2003)
Okay, so Dewey might not be a bad teacher per se, but this wannabe rock star turns the class he’s a substitute for into a rock group, when, in fact, he should be teaching basic subjects, like math and English. He might make for a very entertaining, hilarious movie character, but as teachers who stick to the core curriculums go, he gets straight Fs.

There are plenty more teachers (both good and bad) that didn’t make the list. Have a favorite that’s not included? Let us know in the comments!

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