By Teachers, For Teachers
So what are the best films featuring a school setting? There are so many to choose from, but let’s consider what films might leave us the most inspired, the most educated, and the most entertained. This is primarily a list of movies that include a heavy focus on school – the students, the teachers, the learning – and presents them in a positive way. Movies that have school in it, but present school primarily as an antagonist, like “Dazed and Confused,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (sorry), didn’t make the cut.
School sports films don’t get much better than “Hoosiers,” your classic let’s-play-sports-and-become-stronger-people-as-a-result story. Based on a true story, “Hoosiers” follows the reluctant coach and a long-shot high school basketball team that attempts to make it to their league’s championship. This film takes us out of the classroom and reminds us what an impact an inspirational coach can have on players who, without their coach’s inspirational influence, may not have achieved a fraction of what they did.
Freedom Writers (2007)
Also based on a true story, a teacher purposely gets hired in a rough urban school and does her darnedest to provide a stable, uplifting environment for students who may not experience one anywhere else. Although the white-teacher-as-savior-for-minority-kids trope feels a little well-worn by 2007, the film illustrates for a modern audience the impact any teacher can have when they care enough to think outside the box and improve the human soul as well as the mind.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
While this story makes school something of an antagonist – especially considering the main adult is a hilariously over-the-top disciplinarian – it demonstrates something else unexpected about school life: That public schools bring together a diversity of students who can learn from one another’s perspectives and experiences. Although the film is firmly set in a mid-1980s Saturday detention, the stereotypes represent a wide range of students who, as the story unfolds, reveals there is much more students can offer to and learn from one another.
Dead Poet’s Society (1989)
If you haven’t watched “Dead Poet’s Society” before, stop what you’re doing and go rent it right now. You won’t regret it. Robin Williams plays Mr. Keating, your quintessential English teacher who uses poetry … yes, poetry of all things … to show students how to believe in themselves as individuals. Keating contrasts so much of the stereotypical teacher – like the headmaster we see at the end of this film – in that he doesn’t just run through curriculum and smile favorably at his students. He genuinely believes in the power of his content and the importance of his individual students. Your teaching will never be the same after seeing Mr. Keating in action.
School of Rock (2003)
When Jack Black’s misdirected, rock’n’roll-lovin’ character accidentally finds himself in the role of substitute teacher, he sees this as an opportunity to manipulate his students into competing at a battle of the bands competition. Fortunately, his narcissistic focus on getting his students to compete turns into a lesson about school for everyone involves. He breaks down traditional school elements – such as sticker rewards, grades, and tests – and instead brings a diverse class together around a collaborative, real-life project.
Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)
Band geeks beware! This ‘90s classic examines the legacy a teacher can leave over a lifetime of dedication to his career. A would-be composer takes a job as a band director to provide a steady income for his family, thinking initially that he would have plenty of time to write his music on the side. It doesn’t take long for Mr. Holland (played by Richard Dreyfuss, who was nominated for an academy award for the role) to realize that a truly effective teacher is one who finds ways to connect with, inspire, and share passion with his students. While he doesn’t end up having much time to compose music, we steadily realize that his own magnum opus is the impact he has on a generation of music students.
Kindergarten Cop (1990)
Yes, this is a movie featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger as an undercover cop. But the charm in this movie that the no-nonsense, gun-toting officer experiences something completely unexpected: Life as a kindergarten teacher. This brawny police officer who tough-talks villains comes home and completely collapses on his bed after one day as a teacher. If anything, this film helps to illustrate how hard of a job our elementary teachers perform day in and day out, as the role takes both a physical and emotional toll to effectively accomplish.
Back to School (1986)
This Rodney Dangerfield classic lacks the gravitas of many other films on this list, as a super-rich retail magnate decides to enroll in college when his son expresses some doubts about the experience. Having already acquired a great deal of real-world success, Dangerfield’s character brings an interesting take to post-secondary education by calling his professors into question and offering a uniquely adult perspective on the college experience.
Stand and Deliver (1988)
A teacher impacts impoverished, gangbanger students through … calculus? That’s right. This based-on-a-true-story film tells us about Jaime Escalante, a Los Angeles math teacher who shows students that with hard work and belief in oneself, great things are possible. We see how students can unfortunately embrace views about themselves from society, such as how low-income Hispanic students shouldn’t know calculus, and how an effective teachers can help change that paradigm.
Lean on Me (1989)
Morgan Freeman’s character, based on real-life New Jersey principal Joe Clark, shows us how a school leader can transform the culture of a school. With his non-nonsense attack on everything holding students back – from crime, to apathy, to poverty, to teacher expectations, and so on – this principal makes a daring attempt to help his students rise up above their circumstances. While this film focuses particularly on the principal, it also shows how an entire school’s culture shared by all of its stakeholders can offer new opportunities for students they didn’t know existed.
When I made this list, I didn’t realize how many of my favorite films about school were made in the 1980s. The ‘80s were a decade that focused on catering to younger audiences, but there is so much that these films offer to adults. The issues raised in the ‘80s establish the tropes we’ll see for the whole next generation of movies about education: “The Breakfast Club” looks at teen identity, “Lean on Me” and “Stand and Deliver” examine societal influences impacting youth in education, and “Dead Poet’s Society” shows us the intersection between curriculum and passion.
So much of what comes after these films feels like a less-inspiring rehashing of the same themes. “Dangerous Minds” and “Freedom Writers” imitate “Stand and Deliver”’s one-teacher-impacts-students main idea. “Hoosiers” sets the stage for follow-ups like “Remember the Titans” and “Friday Night Lights.” There are some universal ideas the ‘80s touch upon in the modernizing American identity that echo through the subsequent decades.
But I also notice something else about this list of films. As powerful as these films are, they tend to focus on one adult and the role that adult plays in influencing their particular set of students. “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “Dead Poet’s Society,” “Freedom Writers,” “Hoosiers,” “School of Rock,” and “Stand and Deliver” all feature one adult protagonist who fights against “The System” and wins. The teachers in each of these films work against, not alongside, the elements in place in their school, pointing out along the way everything that’s wrong with education. The message in these stories is essentially, “A teacher must work alone, against the will of his or her employer, to make a difference.”
While individual teachers may be inspired to give their best to their students, this core message does little to illustrate what I believe as really necessary: A Group of devoted educators rallied behind a culture of success working together to impact their entire school. When can I watch a film like that? I’d love to be Mr. Holland or Mr. Keating in my classroom, but the subtext of both films is that these teachers are doing something that the school ultimately disapproves of.
Perhaps this context for stories points out something lurking in our modern American subconscious. Perhaps these stories suggest we ultimately distrust “The System” and those who defend it. The system of education is cold, impersonal, and inapplicable to your typical struggling student. The role of the teacher, then, is not to subscribe to this system but to inject that personal, passionate element into learning we fear is lacking.
Ultimately, there are so many quality films that feature students, schools, teachers, and learning that it’s difficult to narrow down into a Top 10 list. Maybe the best question to ask is, “What kind of movie about school would you be most interested in seeing?”
So what would you add to or take off of this list? Describe your ideal movie about school in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano taught English for twelve years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.