And yes, there are the "inspired by true events" films like Freedom Writers, but even those, I feel, take far to many liberties with reality and are more nuanced marketing machines than actual depictions of the majority of teaching. Don't get me wrong, Freedom Writers is a great story, and I have no doubt Erin Gruwell made a lasting impact on her students, but she only taught for 4 years and then moved on. Yes, she is helping educate future teachers and working on her foundation, but lets be honest, how many of us teach for 4 years and then continue a career as a "teacher"? Not many. For many of us 4 years is just the beginning.
So, here is my list of the movies and teachers I feel are the most true to the profession. These are the roles I feel get at the core of what we do, most often through nuanced subtly most audiences probably don't even notice...
I have purposefully left out the movie titles but have linked the character names to the film's IMBD page. I often think the overall film synopsis or marketing distracts from the strength of the individual characters... Enjoy!
- John Keating - boundless inspiration & commitment to his students. A teacher who truly brought literature to life and opened the minds of students to possibilities & potential. It's one of the few characters that make me say "I want to be that guy, and be that good for my students." An amazing film.
- The entire staff of John F. Kennedy High School - watch the film. Nick Nolte in his prime. Richard Mulligan in an amazing pedagogical role. No, they are by no means exceptional educators, but I think it's one of the most honest portrayals of the spectrums of dedication, craft & commitment that can be found within a building. Is it a model of teaching to emulate? Not at all. Its just a very honest & satirical look at what teaching can be. If you haven't seen it, see it now!
- Mr. Hand. Think about it. Firm & unrelenting, yes. Dedicated & committed too. The scene in Spicoli's bedroom at the end isn't about ruining his prom, it's about Hand's commitment to even the most lost of students. Mr. Hand may not agree with Spicoli's methods but he recognizes his understanding. They shake and exchange "aloha" representing a final, mutual, respect between student & teacher (clip - slightly NSFW - a longer clip starts at 4:06 here).
- Mr. Shoop - a lot of times its not the assignment we want but the best teachers are the ones who make the most out of any assignment they get. Plan change, our "ideal classroom" isn't always they one we thought it would be. Mr. Shoop learned as much from his students as they did from him, and the greatest bonds & growth in the film are the kinds of things that make great teachers great, and can't be measured with "teacher effectiveness value added measure" calculation.
- Dewey Finn - yes, the premise is based on a fraud but the inspiration the character ends up bringing to an unlikely classroom can't be denied. Yes, it's fiction, but any teacher should look at it as inspiration for bringing some of themselves into their classroom and getting their students excited about a learning experience that might not initially be within anyone's comfort zone & finding talents in all students & helping them explore & develop them.
- In the "based on a true story" category I always defer to Jaime Escalante & Joe Clark...
That is where I am on the "teacher in cinema" debate (although to be honest I think that debate is only in my head).
Would love to hear thoughts & feedback on my list and any other films & characters that have inspired real life educators...