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16 of the Best (and Worst) Famous Teachers in Movies

Famous Teachers in Movies

Education is a key factor to one’s growth and upbringing.  We spend a great deal of time learning and improving on our skills, whether you are a student or an adult.  During that time, we come in contact with a number of educators who dedicate their lives to building up their students’ confidence and abilities, while some educators just cannot connect with their students.  In Hollywood, we have seen many amazing (and not so amazing) teachers grace the scenes with unyielding motivation and determination to help their students learn.  

The education systems are difficult to navigate and students can sometimes make the journey even more complicated.  But dedicated educators care quite deeply for their students.  For some students, teachers are the only positive influence that they have in their lives.  Movies have always shown the various sides of education.  In the cinema, teachers have been portrayed in many different ways and many of those characters are based on true stories.  Here is a list of Hollywood’s best (and worst) teachers in movies.

Related: 20 of the Best Teacher Movies of All Time 

1) Robin Williams – Dead Poets Society – John Keating

“Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

John Keating’s the kind of teacher that we all should have and experience in our lives.  His unending passion for poetry sparked life into young men’s hearts and minds.  Keating taught more than just what was on the page.  He was a true inspiration for exploring the emotion of what was being read.  Pushing students to think beyond the pages and sit in quiet consideration of the adventure of life.  He taught young men about finding their passions and understanding that life is about experiences and discovery and love.  Robin Williams absolutely crushes this teaching role and makes you want to stand up on your desk and say, “Oh Captain, my Captain.”

2) Jack Black – School of Rock – Dewey Finn

“My name is Dewey Finn, and no, I’m not a licensed teacher, but I have been touched by your kids and I’m pretty sure I’ve touched them.”

Jack Black’s Dewey Finn in School of Rock is the music teacher we all would love to have.  Finn ends up falling into a classroom and ends up finding his own educational talents he never knew he had.  One of the best scenes in this movie is when he discovers the students’ inner musical potential and starts putting them to work right away on practicing.  Teachers can give students the confidence to do things that they never thought possible and Black’s role in this movie is only strengthened by his unyielding charisma and communication with the students.  Students need someone to believe in them and teachers often end up being that person for many young learners.

3) Ray Walston as Mr. Hand – Fast Times at Ridgemont High

“’Mr. Hand, will I pass this class?’ Gee, Mr. Spicoli, I don’t know! You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to leave your words right up here for all my classes to enjoy, giving you full credit of course, Mr. Spicoli. 

In a word: dick.  This was the kind of teacher that made students hate teaching: super sarcastic, does not connect with students, has very little flexibility, and openly embarrasses students in front of the class.  This was the kind of teacher that has been in the business for so long that he seems to forget that the students are human beings with needs.  I

In one scene, Spicoli, played by a super young Sean Penn, orders a pizza and has it delivered to class.  What does Mr. Hand do?  He berates Spicoli and gives his pizza away to the rest of the class. 

He also announces students’ grades to everyone in class.  Watching this movie, one might feel that there are so many “teachable moments” that Mr. Hand could take advantage of, but sadly, Mr. Hand feels that putting Spicoli down for being himself.  

4) Ben Stein – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – Mr. Lorensax

“Anyone?  Anyone?”

Going further on the “terrible teachers” department, we have Mr. Lorensax in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, played by Ben Stein.  Not only does Stein have a tedious and boring monotone voice, but his character has one of those people that asks questions just to answer them himself.  During the famous scenes he’s in, Mr. Lorensax seems unaware of the lifelessness in his students as he tries to teach Economics in high school. 

Although his scenes were short, everyone can identify with this kind of teacher who is just talking into space without any real connection to the students whatsoever.  There are many teachers that just go through the motions of teaching and don’t really inspire anyone with the subject matter.  The comedy comes from how remarkably bad at teaching Mr. Lorensax is.

5) J.K. Simmons – Whiplash – Dr. Terence Fletcher

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job.”

Have you seen the movie Whiplash?  It’s hard to determine if J.K. Simmons is a good teacher or a bad teacher in this film.  Simmons plays music teacher Dr. Terrance Fletcher at a prestigious school.  On one hand, Fletcher pushes his students to the absolute brink to help them realize their own potential. 

On the other hand, he verbally and emotionally abuses his students.  His philosophy is to push students beyond what is expected of them.  To him, this is key to making these students better musicians.  Lord help you if you mess with this man’s tempo.  At school’s like this, teachers expect the absolute best from their students and J.K. Simmons gives a masterful performance.

6) Edward James Olmos – Stand and Deliver – Jaime Escalante

“Tough guys don’t do math.  Tough guys fry chicken for a living.”

Edward James Olmos was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Stand and Deliver.  Olmos plays Jaime Escalante, a high school calculus teacher who goes above and beyond for his hard-knocked students.  This movie is based on true-life events about a California school about to be decertified due to bad scores. 

Olmos is the teacher that cares so much and works with parents to force his students into success, despite their disadvantages.  This movie does a great job in showing what lengths many teachers will go to in order to build confidence in their students.

7) Michelle Pfeiffer – Dangerous Minds – LouAnne Johnson

“Sometimes it takes a lot of wrong answers to get to the right one.”

One thing that always makes a good teacher is someone who knows how to adapt and change for the betterment of their students.  What Stand and Deliver was for the 80’s, Dangerous Minds was for the 90’s.  When Dangerous Minds came out, it shined a light on disadvantaged schools and the struggles they face. 

Pfeiffer did a fantastic job showing these schools through the eyes of white privilege, as retired U.S. Marine Louanne Johnson empathizes with her students and changes her approach in order to reach these young California students.  By the time Ms. Johnson fully integrates herself into the class, she sports the famous leather jacket to show her transformation into understanding. 

8) Richard Dreyfus – Mr. Holland’s Opus – Glenn Holland

“Playing music is supposed to be fun. It’s about heart, it’s about feelings, moving people, and something beautiful, and it’s not about notes on a page. I can teach you notes on a page, I can’t teach you that other stuff.” 

One of the great music teachers portrayed in Hollywood is none other than Glenn Holland in Mr. Holland’s Opus, played by Richard Dreyfus.  Much like Jack Black in School of Rock, Mr. Holland’s Opus tells of a composer who falls into the teaching profession.  This “temporary” position ends up being a decade long career as he falls in love with teaching music using unconventional ways.  This heartfelt movie shows what thinking outside the box can do for students and a single teacher’s belief in someone can change the course of their lives.

9) Patrick Stewart – X-Men – Professor Charles Xavier

“Just Because Someone Stumbles And Loses Their Way Doesn’t Mean They’re Lost Forever.”

Great teachers come in all sorts of forms, including mutants.  Professor Charles Xavier, played by the great Sir Patrick Stewart, was the heart and soul of the X-Men.  Professor X believed in each individual’s journey and how each of them were part of a larger family.  He was the kind of teacher that forgave you for your misdeeds and/or misfortunes and if you really stepped out of line, he would just possess your brain and refocus you himself.  Professor X had a unique way of reaching his students and helping them along their journey.  Being a good teacher and guide is helping people discover their true selves and believe in themselves and their…abilities.  

10) Morgan Freeman – Lean On Me – Joe Clark

“They said this school was dead. Like the cemetery it’s built on. But we call our Eastside teams ‘Ghosts,’ don’t we? And what are ghosts? Ghosts are spirits that rise from the dead. I want you to be my ghosts.”

While technically not a teacher, Morgan Freeman plays Principal Joe Clark in the movie Lean On Me.  This movie brilliantly portrays the administration side of teaching and how many schools in this country struggle.  His tyrannical policies are met with resistance at first, but soon are adopted and even respected by other staff members.  The greatest aspect of Principal Clark is that he puts the responsibility of success back onto the students.  The infamous scene where he expels 30% of the student body lays the groundwork for what he was trying to accomplish in the school.  He berates teachers and students alike until the school starts working to his satisfaction.  Principal Clark reminds us that being honest about a problem is the first step in solving that problem.

11) Arnold Schwarzenegger – Kindergarten Cop – John Kimble

“Stop whining!  You kids are soft.  You lack discipline.”

Put  Arnold Schwarzenegger in a room full of six year olds and you have Kindergarten Cop.  In this movie, Schwarzenegger plays Detective John Kimble who goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher and hilarity ensues.  With positive reinforcement, his police training as a model for structure in class and his experience as a father, he becomes a much admired and cherished figure to the students.  Teachers must find the balance between giving students freedom to express themselves, but under the right amount of discipline and structure.  Kimble does this quite well.  Although, I’m not sure teachers are allowed to punch abusive parents in the face in front of the school.  

12) Julia Roberts – Mona Lisa Smile – Katherine Ann Watson

“I thought that I was headed to a place that would turn out tomorrow’s leaders, not their wives.”

Julia Roberts dominates in Mona Lisa Smile as she takes on the role of Katherine Ann Watson, a modern woman teaching in the 1950’s.  While most of the female students in her class are just waiting for the right man to marry, Watson believes they are squandering their potential.  The students are obviously book-smart, but lack individuality.  Watson pushes back against the status quo at a women-only school where the students are torn between the repressive mores of the time and their longing for intellectual freedom.  Good teachers will try to inspire students to not only learn the school curriculum, but also make good decisions for themselves in the real world.  Roberts does an exceptional job shining a light on how women were looked at in the 1950’s and how a specific mindset can hold a person back from their true potential.

13) Glen Ford – Blackboard Jungle – Richard Dadier

“Yeah, I’ve been beaten up, but I’m not beaten. I’m not beaten, and I’m not quittin’.”

Another classic story of education comes from the film Blackboard Jungle, starring Glen Ford as Richard Dadier.  Dadier is a war veteran who begins a career as a teacher.  However, he soon finds out the difficulties that the profession brings.  Dadier, like many teachers, struggles with the dilemma of staying at this school of hooligans and low lifes or leave to teach at a “real” school.  Dadier, or “Daddy-O” as the students call him, faces off with racial and sexual tensions which wasn’t afraid to talk about the hot-button topics of the time.  This movie shows what many teachers deal with in the classroom and how far they will go to educate their students.

14) Sidney Poitier – To Sir With Love – Mark Thackeray

“I am sick of your foul language, your crude behavior and your sluttish manner. There are certain things a decent woman keeps private, and only a filthy slut would have done this and those who stood by and encouraged her are just as bad. I don’t care who’s responsible – you’re all to blame. Now, I am going to leave this room for five minutes by which time that disgusting object had better be removed and the windows opened to clear away the stench. If you must play these filthy games, do them in your homes, and not in my classroom!”

While Blackboard Jungle showed the disciplinary issue with students in the fifties, To Sir With Love, starring Sidney Poitier as Mark Thackeray, shows how the classroom changed in the 1960’s.  Thackeray commands respect not only to him, but to all the other students as well. Teachers set the tone of the classroom and produce a learning environment for all students.  Mr. Thackeray has no issue with telling students exactly what he thinks and what he expects from his students, especially when it comes to their behavior.  Thackeray treats his young students like adults and models proper behavior for them.  Poitier gives one of his best performances in London’s East End school, as his students try (and fail) to break his spirit, while he gets the students ready for the workforces they are soon to join.   

15) Embeth Davidtz – Matilda – Miss Honey

“You all remember how scary your first days of school were, so I’d like you to be extra nice to Matilda and make her feel welcome.”

A strong and independent woman with a complicated past, Miss Honey acts as the guiding light for Matilda, the main character of the story.  Because of Matilda’s lack of support in other ways, Miss Honey does everything in her power to encourage Matilda and push her to grow and learn.  She is the support system that allows Matilda to thrive and discover her secret power of telekinesis.  This is another example of a teacher that we all need in our lives, one that encourages us to be ourselves with a gentle voice and sunny disposition.  Despite the difficulties that Matilda experiences, she has Miss Honey to rely on for strength and support.

16) Robert Donat – Goodbye, Mr. Chips – Mr. Chips

“I thought I heard you saying it was a pity… pity I never had any children. But you’re wrong. I have. Thousands of them. Thousands of them… and all boys.”

Goodbye Mr. Chips is an older film about a former headmaster and teacher Mr. Chips, played by Robert Donat.  This film shows the effects that good teachers have on those around them.  Teachers have a profound impact on their students, which has lifelong effects on the decisions those students make throughout their lives.  Mr. Chips recalls some of those students and the difficult situations that were going on during that time, as well as looking back on the history of the school and the students that had passed through it.  

Written by Elijah Ben

Elijah Ben is a content writer, world traveler, musician, educator, and actor.  He has a master’s degree in educational psychology and has been a teacher for almost twenty years.  Elijah Ben dreams of stepping foot on every continent, continuing his education, completing his book, and recording a second album.

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