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Lessons From Educators on the Big Screen: Part I

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The factor that ultimately determines how successful students will become academically is the teacher(s) that they are assigned to. The qualities of good teachers are varied; some are effective using kindness, while others set a high bar for their students and never waver. Each teacher will have to find his or her way through the everyday practice of being in a classroom, and no two teachers will educate in the same way. Like all aspects of our lives, including love and relationships, Americans grow up watching teachers on the big screen. Movies that celebrate strong teachers inspire the next generation, particularly when it comes to underpriviledged schools.

As I began to research this series, I pondered an interesting idea: what if all teachers in America were "required" to watch and thoroughly discuss the movies on my list? With one exception, all these movies deal with rebellious and underprivileged youth in urban schools and economically depressed family backgrounds.

What these movies have in common are teachers who rise to the occasion and whose methods are unorthodox. They are all unconventional in their methods, but they are all - or become - dedicated and compassionate and completely concerned with the welfare their students - as opposed to principals, fellow teachers or even school boards.

In To Sir, with Love (1967): Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier), an engineer by trade, comes to teach a class in the East End of London, full of obnoxious and unruly and underprivileged white students. He wins them over once he abandons the posture of the "typical" teacher and begins to level with them. He teaches them that to have respect for others, they first have to learn to respect themselves. In the end, what was to be a temporary job becomes his vocation. Everything we see in this movie is worthy of emulation by all teachers everywhere.

Up the Down Staircase (1967): In this classic, a young idealistic woman, Sylvia Barrett (Sandy Dennis) starts teaching in a "problem" school in an urban setting -- a really rough neighborhood. At first she is naïve and her students laugh at her. But slowly she begins to think about what kind of "kids" her students are, and begins to see them not as enemies, but as young people who need her help to get out of the cycle they are in. Eventually she breaks through to them, not so much by breaking the rules, but through compassion and understanding. Once again, it's the quality of the teacher that makes the difference and her dedication to her profession (which, once more, becomes permanent).

Teachers (1984): This is another one where we have yet another underprivileged school in a tough neighborhood. Here, the hero is Alex Jurel (played by Nick Nolte), but the most interesting and memorable feature of this movie involves another character (Herbert Gower) played by Richard Mulligan. When a mental institution tours the school, Herbert detaches himself from the inmates and takes over a history class. His first act as authority figure in the classroom is to pick up the textbook, look at it, frown, and walk to the window and toss it out, to the surprise and delight of the entire class. By the time he is found out and taken back to the mental institution, he has managed to transform the whole idea of teaching history. As he is led by attendants from the mental institution through the crowded corridor of the school, the teacher played by Nick Nolte salutes him in an obvious sign of respect. Perhaps all good teachers should be a little crazy? Not a bad idea.

Dead Poets Society (1989): This is the exception to the underpriviledged rule. Here we are not in an inner-city school, but in a privileged private school for boys. John Keating (Robin Williams), an alumnus of Welton Academy in Vermont, comes back to his alma mater as an English teacher. His first act of business is to invoke the carpe diem theme and thereby to encourage his students to live in the present and to love poetry. His asking them to tear out the introductory pages from the textbook is another brilliant move. He calls that kind of "literary" claptrap "excrement."

This is another brilliant teacher who breaks the rules, and that's really the secret of his success. In the end, he is betrayed - both by the administration and one of his own students. He is made the scapegoat for the suicide of a student whose egomaniacal and rigid father drove him to it, but Keating's teaching ends up being blamed for it. The real tragedy of this story is that a clearly brilliant and unconventional teacher is booted out for all the wrong reasons. When after his departure things get back to "normal," things also return to being hollow and insipid.

In all of these movies, the teachers begin as outsiders to their students, and end up becoming peers (and in some cases, an outsider to other teachers and administrators). The teachers take their eyes off the curriculum to look at what their students really need to learn, even if that means tearing pages out of textbooks, or throwing them out the window.

In the next post, I will take a look at a few more movies that feature teachers and their inspiring tales in the classroom. What would you add to my list?

Dr. Matthew Lynch is the author of the newly released textbook, The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching. To order it via Amazon, please click on the following link.

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