The 10 Best Films About Teaching

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As evident from her filmography and the occasional interview, Cameron Diaz is not afraid to get raunchy. Today, she continues that tradition with the premiere of Bad Teacher, a comedy that casts her as a foul-mouthed, gold-digging teacher. Now that the reviews are in, it’s clear that critics haven’t been charmed by the film’s attempts at subversiveness — with lazy writing and an unlikable central character, the consensus is that the puerile comedy is mediocre, at best. Since Bad Teacher seems to be a bust, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite films about education, for those of us who wouldn’t mind seeing a portrayal of teaching that doesn’t involve a “sexy” car wash scene. No, Dangerous Minds is nowhere to be found (sorry, Coolio).

Dead Poets Society (1989)

Dead Poets Society may be the ultimate teaching film. While it occasionally falters in its attempts at grandiose sentimentality and is a bit heavy-handed, it’s ultimately a heat-warming love letter to passionate, charismatic teachers. Robin Williams’ John Keating is the teacher everyone wishes they had –unconventional, inspirational, and incredibly empathetic, he transforms his students through their daily lessons, imploring them to “suck the marrow out of life.”

To Sir, with Love (1967)

We acknowledge that To Sir, with Love lays the schmaltz on thick, yet we can’t help but be charmed by the film’s warmth and sincerity. Sidney Poitier gives a moving performance as Mr. Thackeray, a former engineer who begins his teaching career in a depressed area of London. He quickly realizes that his real challenge is teaching his students how to survive rather than instilling them with a knowledge of arithmetic or geology. While the rookie teacher/rebellious class dynamic has become a trope of teacher films (Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, etc.), To Sir, with Love has enough compassion and class to move beyond the plot’s predictability.

Mr Holland’s Opus (1995)

We’ll admit that when we first saw Mr. Holland’s Opus, we were left with a lump in our throat. The story of a reluctant high-school music teacher who belatedly discovers the impact he has made on his students, the film manages to offset cliché with touching drama. What we appreciate most about Mr. Holland’s Opus is that, in between heart-warming scenes of inspired students and eloquent pep talks, it concedes to the dreary realities of teaching — the long hours, the uncooperative faculty, and the budget cuts.

Half Nelson (2006)

While the crusading-teacher narrative is the standard for most films about education, it’s hardly the only story to be told. In fact, 2006’s Half Nelson, featuring powerful performances by Ryan Gosling and newcomer Shareeka Epps, blazed through all the conventions to create a story that was authentic and gripping. Gosling’s Dan Dunne calls Robin Williams’ charismatic Mr. Keating to mind — both try to energize their students and make their syllabi come to life. Yet, unlike Keating, Dunn has a mean, self-destructive streak… and a crack addiction. Half Nelson meaningfully engages with issues of class and race and contains one of the most powerful portrayals of friendship on film — plus, it’s scored entirely by Broken Social Scene.

Wonder Boys (2000)

The film adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys thankfully maintains the novel’s wit and melancholy. Centering around a small Pittsburgh college professor, Grady Tripp, and his comically long weekend, the story manages to celebrate intelligence without pretension, comes to emotional climaxes without feeling hollow — and actually convinces us (if only for a brief moment) that Katie Holmes has acting chops. The film features Michael Douglas’s best performance since Wall Street, as a pot-smoking intellectual who is both endearing and effortlessly funny. What really won us over was Wonder Boys‘s final scenes, which sum up the tale in a way that is both poignant and believable.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Consider this our public plea for the creative reunion of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Good Will Hunting, the pair’s writing debut, is a feel-good hit that, while following a traditional arc, manages to weave in bright moments of quirk with the help of master director Gus Van Sant. While it is Stellan Skarsgard’s Professor Lambeau who discovers Will Hunting’s genius, Robin Williams’s psychologist, Sean Maguire, gets our vote for best teacher; their sessions provide the film’s most enjoyable moments.

Rushmore (1998)

Some may argue that Rushmore is more of a coming-of-age tale than a film about teaching, but we say that first-grade teacher Rosemary Cross is ultimately the crux of the film. Also, the feud between the young and arrogant Max Fischer and Rushmore Academy headmaster Dr. Guggenheim produces some choice dialogue (“If that means I have to stay on for a post-graduate year, so be it”). In its quieter moments, Wes Anderson’s comedy honestly portrays the miscellaneous trials teachers encounter throughout their careers — over-eager requests for extra credit, dismissive students, and yes, even the sporadic fervent crush.

Chalk (2006)

We’re suckers for a good mockumentary, so it didn’t take long for Chalk to win us over. Reminiscent of Christopher Guest’s work, the film explores the challenges and frustrations four teachers encounter over the course of a school year. Chalk could be described as The Office of education — much of its humor derives from moments that are equally as squirm-inducing and heartbreaking as they are funny. Director Mike Akel’s film is an anomaly in the teacher genre, lacking both an optimistic ending and a comforting emotional arc.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

We’ll concede that Fast Times at Ridgemont High isn’t really about teaching, but it is responsible for giving film one of its most iconic teachers — Mr. Hand. Centering around the sex-packed lives of four teens, the movie’s most enjoyable story line involves daft stoner Spicoli, famously played by Sean Penn, and his prickly history teacher. While Spicoli and Mr. Hand feud for much of the film, one house-call and late-night tutoring session reveals that Hand may not be as uptight as he seems. Aloha, indeed.

Class of 1984 (1982)

Class of 1984 is a cult action-thriller about young punk miscreants who terrorize their inner city school. With both a theme song by Alice Cooper and a scene in which an overwhelmed teacher conducts class with a loaded gun, what’s not to like?