Illustration by Edpuzzle Staff
Watching Hollywood tackle teaching isn’t for the faint of heart. The teachers on the big screen usually fall into one of three categories: inspiring martyr, rulebreaking rebel or burned out deadbeat.
Every once in a while, though, they get it right, and one of those teachers in the movies might just remind you of why you got into education in the first place.
Check out our list to see the good, the bad and the ugly of teachers in the movies!
1. Dead Poets Society
Robin Williams’ portrayal of English teacher John Keating is one of the all-time greats. He’s got the passion of a bright-eyed first-year teacher even though he’s far from a newcomer. And who can forget the “O Captain! my Captain!” scene? A word of warning: this film may cause you to start randomly spouting poetry after watching!
Have you ever had a teacher like Professor Fletcher? If you have… we’re sorry. J.K. Simmons plays a music instructor at a school modeled after Juilliard who hurls cruelty and abuse at his students in an effort to coax greatness out of them. It’s an interesting debate on the ends justifying the means, and the movie is worth watching for the final scene alone… electric.
3. Freedom Writers
As far as teachers in the movies go, this one is actually based on a real teacher, Erin Gruwell. Played by Hillary Swank, this 9th-grade English teacher gets through to her at-risk students by having them write about their experiences in diaries. If it seems like everything works out too perfectly in the film, just remember it’s based on a true story!
4. Mr. Holland’s Opus
Touted by many as one of the greatest teaching movies of all time, you’ll find Mr. Holland’s Opus on just about every list of teachers in the movies. Beyond the fact that Richard Dreyfuss is a great actor, Mr. Holland’s journey from frustrated composer to music teacher is super relatable. He’s far from perfect, but ends up having a greater impact than he ever imagined.
5. Wonder Boys
If you’re a university professor or just have a soft spot for your college days, you’ll love Wonder Boys. It features the difficulties of balancing your personal life and teaching while trying to work on your masterpiece, plus the eccentricities of the characters in the world of academia. If you like the movie, make sure to check out the book it was based on by Michael Chabon.
6. October Sky
This one’s a middle school classic. It’s also based on a book that tells the true story of Homer Hickman, a boy with a passion for rocketry growing up in a West Virginia coal-mining town in the 1950s. Miss Riley (Laura Dern) is Homer’s teacher who encourages him to enter the National Science Awards competition. Perfect for watching with your students, this is a great movie to remind you how much your words of encouragement can mean to your kids!
7. Akeelah and the Bee
Laurence Fishburne is English professor, Dr. Larabee, spelling bee coach to Akeelah, a brilliant student with a difficult home life, in this inspiring movie centered around the Scripps National Spelling Bee. See how a mentor can revolutionize a student’s life – and then take that motivation back to your students!
8. School of Rock
While this movie is pretty formulaic (substitute teacher changes students’ lives through unconventional methods), it’s a lot of fun. Jack Black plays the substitute teacher who starts a class rock band and gets his students to let loose and unleash their creativity. If you’ve been putting off a dream project you’d love to do with your class, watch this (and wish you had an admin like Joan Cusack).
9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Although this movie centers around its teenage protagonists, we had to give a shout-out to Paul Rudd’s performance as Mr. Anderson. He’s exactly what an empathetic, emotionally tuned-in teacher should be: available but not too pushy, and always emotionally supportive of his students when they need help. If you can be a Mr. Anderson to just one of your students, call it a win.
10. Mona Lisa Smile
Even Julia Roberts tried her hand at playing a teacher (twice actually, counting Larry Crowne). In Mona Lisa Smile, she’s a boho art history professor who tries to instill feminist values in her female students who seem to be only interested in finding a husband. If you’ve ever had to go against the establishment in your teaching career, you’ll be able to relate.
11. Stand and Deliver
Who wasn’t shown this movie in class on the rolling TV cart when you were in school? If you’ve never seen it before, check out why Edward James Olmos is the OG of teachers in movies. It’s also a great one to watch with your math students, as Olmos plays a calculus teacher who inspires his high-risk students to love math.
This isn’t one you should ever show in the classroom, but it’s perfect for Netflixing with a bowl of popcorn on the weekend. Watch Matthew Broderick unravel as Mr. McAllister, a teacher caught in the crosshairs of a heated school election. Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick is movie gold (but hopefully you don’t have any Tracy Flicks in your classes).
We had to throw a kids’ movie into the mix, and you can’t do much better than Matilda, based on the classic Roald Dahl book. Beyond its telekinetic protagonist, Matilda, it’s got two of the most polar opposite teachers imaginable: the sweet and encouraging Miss Honey, and the terrifying principal known simply as The Trunchbull. You can watch this one with your elementary students – they’ll love it (and you will, too)!
14. The Kindergarten Teacher
Have you ever thought one of your students might be gifted? That’s the question Maggie Gyllenhaal's character, Miss Spinelli, takes to an extreme in this film. If you’re looking for a portrait of what not to do as a teacher, this is it.
15. The Great Debaters
When you’ve got Denzel Washington playing a teacher, you know it’s going to be good. The story behind this movie is just as inspiring as his performance. Washington plays a professor at the historically black Wiley College in 1935, where he starts up a debate team that goes on to compete at Harvard University (the University of Southern California in real life). If you can engage your class like Denzel, you’ve got some serious talent.
Teen pregnancy is an issue you may deal with at some point in your teaching career if you work at a high or even middle school. The plot of this film revolves around a teacher and her favorite student who both get pregnant at roughly the same time, as they share the experiences of the next nine months together. It’s unconventional and, well, unexpected.
17. Half Nelson
Ryan Gosling plays a troubled teacher in this indie movie… but we had you at Ryan Gosling, right? It’s a tough watch, and Gosling plays a drug addict who’s caught by his student he later becomes friends with. It’s a realistic portrayal of the difficulties of being a teacher, and well worth a watch.
18. Bad Teacher
Looking for a comedy about a substitute teacher with no filter who says and does whatever she wants? Check! Cameron Diaz is hilarious as she struggles her way through middle school and pursues fellow teacher Justin Timberlake… if you need a laugh, this is your movie.
19. Billy Madison
For a purely ridiculous and completely unrealistic take on school, Adam Sandler’s your man. Check out the parade of teachers who teach title character Billy Madison as he works his way from first grade through high school. It’s a comedy classic!
20. Dangerous Minds
Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” on the soundtrack, Michelle Pfeiffer in a leather jacket and a ‘90s inner-city school… Dangerous Minds is one of those movies every teacher has seen. Ex-marine Miss Johnson will inspire your inner teacher badass.
Did we miss any of your favorites? Give us a shout-out on Twitter and let us know!