When it comes to Hollywood depictions, few professions are highlighted as frequently as that of educator. More than a decade ago, EducationWorld ranked the top 10, so here’s a fresh look at the best movies about education. In our ranking we considered not just cinematic excellence, but also educational value and whether the viewer could walk away feeling positive about schools.
#10 Summer School (1987) - Most people remember this as a silly teen flick starring a pre-“NCIS” Mark Harmon. But “Summer School” takes a look at several important issues teachers face every year. What do you do when a student has a crush on you? What are some interesting ways to get kids genuinely involved in lessons? How can you help a student who has a serious learning problem? These are all covered, albeit in a cheesy 1980s way, in “Summer School.” The end of the movie raises a point seldom heard in today’s test-scores-are-everything culture: Harmon’s Mr. Shoop is granted tenure not because his students all passed, but because they all made significant improvements under his tutelage.
#9 Waiting for Superman (2010) - While this documentary from the same people that brought us “An Inconvenient Truth” paints a less-than-appealing picture of the American public school system, it makes our list because it highlights some truly exceptional work being done in our nation’s schools. Prominently featured are Geoffrey Canada’s work with the Harlem Children’s Zone and Michelle Rhee’s efforts as the Washington, D.C. chancellor of public schools. Love it or hate it, “Waiting for Superman” gets the conversation started and offers some ideas that are being proven successful.
#8 Good Bye Mr. Chips (1939) - This film may best be remembered for the fact that its lead, Robert Donat, beat Clark Gable for the Academy Award for Best Actor, despite the former’s work in “Gone With the Wind.” Educators have long-heralded this picture’s depiction of a life dedicated to teaching. Many young teachers can sympathize with Mr. Chipping as he ponders whether he should continue with the profession. Older teachers may find themselves cheering for him as he argues against an imposed early retirement. Dated? Yes. A bit campy? Yes. An all-time great? Definitely.
#7 Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) - Notorious for all the wrong reasons, “Fast Times” is a gritty look at the American high school experience through the thin veil of comedy. Everyone remembers Sean Penn’s “Spicoli” character and his comedic battles with Mr. Hand. But how many recall that by the end of the film, Mr. Hand gets through to him and Spicoli passes? Yes, Phoebe Cates takes her top off in one of the most famous and imitated scenes in film history, but her character’s younger friend Stacy’s issues with an unplanned pregnancy shine a light on a persistent teenage problem. For every teacher who wonders to himself, “What are these kids thinking?” “Fast Times” will show you.
#6 School Ties (1992) - Set in 1950s New England, “School Ties” tells the story of a Jewish football star who quickly becomes the target of racism at his posh prep school. With school climate a current hot topic, “School Ties” remains relevant. The central conflict in the film involves students’ attempt to discover who cheated on a recent test. Tensions run high when it comes down to fingering Brendan Fraser’s Jewish character or Matt Damon’s WASP character. Religious and ethnic differences have been at the center of conflicts for thousands of years, and “School Ties” reminds us how they impact teens in a school setting.
#5 Boyz n the Hood (1991) - For most high schoolers, getting into college is a hugely stressful part of their lives. If you were a teen in south central L.A. in the late 1980s and early 1990s, you also had to worry about drive-bys, drug dealers and racist cops. John Singleton broke new ground when he wrote and directed “Boys n the Hood.” It was the first time Hollywood took a real look at what life was like for kids in that situation. You really are hoping that Ricky Baker overcomes all of the built-in obstacles in his life and lands the football scholarship to USC. Tre Styles’ frustration after another shooting in his neighborhood is palpable as he breaks down in front of his girlfriend. Forget “Dangerous Minds” and “Freedom Writers,” “Boyz n the Hood” is the standard-bearer for inner-city school films.
#4 The Breakfast Club (1985) - Arguably the best of John Hughes’ films, “The Breakfast Club” takes us through a Saturday detention at Shermer High School in suburban Chicago. The film shows us that despite all the posturing and self-fulfilling stereotypes in which teens engage, underneath they really are individuals capable of accepting others who aren’t like them. “The Breakfast Club” goes on the shelf in the teachers’ lounge next to “Fast Times” under a label that reads, “Watch when you feel out of touch with your students.”
#3 Stand and Deliver (1988) - Admittedly, true stories get preferential treatment on this list, and “Stand and Deliver” is the perfect example. It is not the most entertaining movie, nor does it boast a truly great cast. But “Stand and Deliver” is one of the best movies because of Edward James Olmos’ portrayal of actual East L.A. math teacher Jamie Escalante. Any hack with a pen can get Michelle Pfeiffer to turn a bunch of inner-city youth into Rhodes Scholars, but Escalante did it for real, and Olmos all but channeled him in the film. For a guaranteed “yes,” ask a teacher if she chuckled the first time she saw the “apple scene.”
#2 Hoosiers (1986) - A basketball movie for sure, “Hoosiers” is also a look at rural American education. When Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale tells a reporter before a big game that, “My boys only know farming, basketball and school, probably in that order,” he isn’t embellishing. There is so much to love about this film—the underdog story, the redemption of Dennis Hopper’s “Shooter” character, the themes of teamwork and family all rolled into a big slice of Americana. And it actually happened. “Hoosiers” is an inspirational story that can be adapted to any situation. Try telling your students before a big test, “If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don't care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game. In my book, we're gonna be winners.”
#1 Lean on Me (1989) - Teachers across America were cheering in their seats as Morgan Freeman’s Joe Clark dressed down a group of parents for not doing all they could to ensure their children’s success. “Sit down with your kids and make them study at night,” Clark says. “Give our children some pride! Tell them to get their priorities straight!”
Principals must have envied Clark’s brashness the first time they saw him chide his staff for accepting the status quo. “So forget about the way it used to be,” Clark bellows. “This is not a damn democracy! We are in a state of emergency, and my word is law! There's only one boss around here, and that's me.”
For all his shouting and posturing, Clark also shows that he truly cares for his students. We see this when he encourages a female student to be a lawyer and when he challenges Thomas Sams to turn his life around.
“Lean on Me” gets the top spot on our list because it leaves you believing that even the most challenging schools can shine. They don’t need so-called “good educators,” just more Mr. Clarks.
Check out EducationWorld’s teacher-movie picks from over a decade ago:
Top Ten Picks for Great Teacher Flicks