Lessons From Educators on the Big Screen Part I

The factor that ultimately determines how successful a student will become academically is the teacher(s) that they are assigned to. In this piece, I will discuss several movies that have explored what great teaching is all about, including great teaching in underprivileged schools. As I begin this piece, I ponder an interesting idea: what if all teachers in the America were "required" to watch and thoroughly discuss the following movies? I will list them in chronological order: To Sir, with Love (1967); Up the Down Staircase (1967); Teachers (1984); Dead Poets Society (1989); Lean on Me (1989); Dangerous Minds (1995); Freedom Writers (2007). With one exception, all these movies deal with rebellious and underprivileged youth in urban schools and economically depressed family backgrounds.

What they all have in common are teachers who rise to the occasion and whose methods are unorthodox. They are all unconventional in their methods, but they are all -- or become -- dedicated and compassionate and completely concerned with the welfare their students -- as opposed to principals or fellow teachers or even school boards.

In To Sir, With Love, Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier), an engineer by trade, comes to teach a class in the East End of London, full of obnoxious and unruly and underprivileged white students. He wins them over once he abandons the posture of the "typical" teacher and begins to level with them. He teaches them that to have respect for others; they first have to learn to respect themselves. In the end, what was to be a temporary job, becomes his vocation. Everything we see in this movie is worthy of emulation by all teachers everywhere.

In Up the Down Staircase, a young idealistic woman, Sylvia Barrett (Sandy Dennis) starts teaching in another "problem" school in an urban setting, a rough neighborhood. At first she is naïve and her students laugh at her. But slowly she begins to think about what kind of "kids" her students are, and begins to see them not as enemies, but as young people who need her help to get out of the cycle they are in. Eventually she breaks through to them, not so much by breaking the rules, but by compassion and understanding. Once again, it's the quality of the teacher that makes the difference and her dedication to her profession (which, once more, becomes more like a vocation).

In Teachers we have yet another underprivileged school in a tough neighborhood. Here the hero (Alex Jurel) is played by Nick Nolte, but the most interesting and memorable feature of this movie involves another character (Herbert Gower) played by Richard Mulligan. When the mental institution tours the school, he detaches himself from the inmates and takes over a history class. His first act as authority figure in the classroom is to pick up the textbook, look at it, frown, and walk to the window and toss it out, to the surprise and delight of the entire class. By the time he is found out and taken back to the mental institution, he has managed to transform the whole idea of teaching history. As he is led by attendants from the mental institution through the crowded corridor of the school, the teacher played by Nick Nolte salutes him in an obvious sign of respect. Perhaps all good teachers should be a little crazy? Not a bad idea.

Dead Poets Society is the exception to the rule, but only in that here we are not in an inner-city school, but in a privileged private school for boys. John Keating (Robin Williams), an alumnus of Welton Academy in Vermont, comes back to his alma mater as an English teacher. His first act of business is to invoke the carpe diem theme and thereby to encourage his students to live in the present and to love poetry. His asking them to tear out the introductory pages from the textbook is another brilliant move. He calls that kind of "literary" claptrap "excrement."

Here is another brilliant teacher who breaks the rules, and that's really the secret of his success. In the end, he is betrayed -- both by the administration and one of his own students. He is made the scapegoat for the suicide of a student whose egomaniacal and rigid father drove him to it, but Keating's teaching ends up being blamed for it. The real tragedy of this story is that a clearly brilliant and unconventional teacher is booted out for all the wrong reasons. When after his departure things get back to "normal," things also get back to what is hollow and insipid.

Well, that's the end of Part I. In Part II, we will end the series by discussing and analyzing three additional movies. Feel free to comment and offer movie suggestions for part II.