En español | Teachers have had it hard this past year. With schools shutting down because of the COVID pandemic, wrestling with how to connect with kids through remote learning, and then returning to the front lines while putting their own health at risk, they are more than ever our nation's unsung (and underpaid) heroes. In honor of National Teachers Day on May 4, let's take a moment (or a few hours) to celebrate the gifts of a great teacher in these heartwarming films.
Inspiring teacher: Paula Patton
More than any other profession, teachers have the power to transform lives for the better. And Lee Daniels’ heartbreaking (and ultimately heartwarming) inner-city drama makes that point with blunt force. Gabourey Sidibe plays Claireece “Precious” Jones, a 16-year-old girl who can neither read nor write and who suffers constant emotional abuse from her mother (Oscar winner Mo'Nique). But she is thrown a lifeline when she's transferred to an alternative school and comes under the wing of a sympathetic and saintly teacher (played with tender kindness by Paula Patton), who turns this girl who was once told she was a lost cause into someone who's hopeful for the first time in her life.
Akeelah and the Bee (2006)
Inspiring teacher: Laurence Fishburne
Rare is the underdog tale that inspires audiences without succumbing to sappiness. But this heart-tugging indie about an 11-year-old girl from South Central L.A. named Akeelah (a terrific Keke Palmer) pulls off that awkward balancing act with surprising grace. The setting is the annual National Spelling Bee, where pint-size super-achievers showcase their smarts for a prize that's more about self-esteem than money. Despite her impoverished background, Akeelah has what it takes to win according to her encouraging mentor (Laurence Fishburne), even if her own mother fears what losing will do to her spirit. Spoiler alert: She crushes it.
School of Rock (2003)
Inspiring teacher: Jack Black
The devilishly funny Jack Black soars as a rock ‘n’ roll Mr. Chips in director Richard Linklater's delirious grade-school comedy about an oafish, heavy metal-loving teacher who cons his way into a substitute-teaching gig at a stuffy private school and proceeds to help his class of buttoned-up kids let loose and embrace the sonic power of Led Zeppelin et al. Guitar solos are shredded, drum solos are unleashed, and a new sense of confidence is discovered, thanks to his belief in them as he enters the students in a local battle of the bands. Despite all of the film's silly laughs (and there's a lot of them), there's a stirring message here about letting your freak flag fly and soaking up life lessons from the unlikeliest places, such as in the collected works of Black Sabbath.
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Dangerous Minds (1995)
Inspiring teacher: Michelle Pfeiffer
Pfeiffer bushwhacks her way through thickets of clichés to deliver a blistering performance that's as ferocious as it is genuinely moving. She plays a former Marine who lands a job teaching bright but underachieving teenagers in an urban pilot program. At first, the bored kids walk all over her like a white-savior doormat. But then, she knuckles down and taps into her inner semper fi spirit and finds unorthodox ways to connect with them, like by putting aside textbooks and finding the educational lessons buried within song lyrics. Fueled by a great soundtrack and Pfeiffer's tough against-type turn, Dangerous Minds became a surprise box-office hit upon its release. And watching it again now, it's easy to see why.
Mr. Holland's Opus (1995)
Inspiring teacher: Richard Dreyfuss
You may want to fetch a box of tissues before hitting “play” on this three-hankie drama about a devoted music teacher (Richard Dreyfuss) who, over the course of his 30-year career, learns as much from his revolving door of students as they do from him. Essentially a twist on It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Holland's Opus shows us what a difference one dedicated instructor can make to generations of kids and a community. Arriving in theaters 20 years after Jaws made him a movie star, Dreyfuss’ performance is note-perfect, mixing joy, a few regrets and the satisfaction of an otherwise invisible man who's making a difference. If you make it to the end credits without sobbing, well, you're made of stronger stuff than me.
Stand and Deliver (1988)
Inspiring teacher: Edward James Olmos
Based on a true story, director Ramon Menendez's galvanizing sleeper about Jaime Escalante — a middle-aged science whiz who gave up a lucrative job in electronics to teach math at an East L.A. barrio school — is so inspiring that it feels made up. But sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Edward James Olmos bristles with thousand-watt electricity as Escalante, turning a group of Latino students into academic all-stars with his oddball motivational techniques. The kids’ turnaround is so unlikely, in fact, that the SAT board accuses his students of cheating when they excel on their tests. Stand and Deliver is a stirring tale about the triumph of the underdog, redemption and proving doubters wrong. It's also a small miracle of a movie.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Inspiring teacher: Robin Williams
Director Peter Weir's best-picture nominee is pretty much the gold standard of inspirational teacher movies. Robin Williams (also nominated) stars as John Keating, a prep-school English teacher who sets his students’ minds ablaze with his unconventional teaching methods and his infectious passion for literature. The students may mostly come from well-off families, but they have no shortage of pressures and problems. And Williams’ Keating melts their icy resistance by not only teaching them the great works, but also by firing their imaginations and teaching them a far more important lesson about bucking conformity in the straitjacket environment of the late 1950s (when the movie is set). As good as Williams was in Good Will Hunting, this is the movie he should have won his Oscar for.
Lean on Me (1989)
Inspiring teacher: Morgan Freeman
Around the time that this stirring classroom drama was released, there was a spate of redemptive movies about hard-knocks students being set straight by dedicated, tough-love educators. But for our money, Lean on Me is the valedictorian of the class, thanks to the brilliant performance of Morgan Freeman as Joe Clark — a maverick ex-teacher who is brought in by a New Jersey school superintendent to be the new take-no-guff principal in the worst school in the state. Before Clark can whip the struggling school into shape and boost its test scores, he has to rid it of gangs and drugs. And since this is Freeman we're talking about, well, you can guess whether or not he succeeds. Lean on Me resists the sort of schmaltz that can sink a film like this by avoiding the trap of making Freeman likable. He's not, but the man gets results. There should be more like him.
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Educating Rita (1983)
Inspiring teacher: Michael Caine
Julie Walters gives a master class as a Liverpool hairstylist who returns to university in her attempt to find herself in this big-screen adaptation of the role she originated on the British stage. Smartly cast against her is Michael Caine as a tweedy professor who's trying to drown out his recent divorce with booze. These two actors have a rare alchemy together, as Caine helps Walters’ Rita discover her potential, and she reminds him why he fell in love with teaching in the first place. Educating Rita is a quietly powerful little movie about a woman finding her voice and independence and a teacher who dries out long enough to see what a difference an educator can make in even the smallest of lives.
The Paper Chase (1973)
Inspiring teacher: John Houseman
No one would ever call John Houseman's intimidating legal scholar, Professor Kingsfield, “touchy-feely.” But he is inspiring in his own gruff, sadistic way, showing his class of frazzled Harvard Law School students (including Timothy Bottoms) that the fear he strikes in them forces them to step up their game so as not to incur his wrath. The Paper Chase keenly portrays the pressure-cooker atmosphere that future lawyers face at the nation's top training grounds. But it's the jowly, icy Houseman with his plummy accent, natty bow ties and death-ray stare that steals the show, challenging his students and pushing them further than even they thought they could go.
To Sir, With Love (1967)
Inspiring teacher: Sidney Poitier
Think of this one as a Cockney version of 1955's Blackboard Jungle (also with Sidney Poitier), with Poitier as an idealistic teacher determined to get through to a class of lower-income students in London's East End. To modern eyes, the film probably tries too hard to tap into the period's groovy, Swingin’ ‘60s vibe (there are a lot of miniskirts and go-go boots to go along with Lulu's dreamy theme song), but Poitier summons the kind of physical and moral authority that only he was capable of at this time. It's remarkable to think that the same year this film was released, Poitier also starred in the best picture-winning In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
Inspiring teacher: Robert Donat
Old-fashioned, but in all the best ways, this classic from the greatest year in Hollywood history (Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, etc.) is a rousing testament to the impact a great teacher can make not just on one student, but on generations of them. A brilliant Oscar-winning Robert Donat plays the title character — an aging classics teacher and former headmaster who looks back on his life in the classroom and the romance that helped him become a kinder, better educator to the kids whose lives he helped shape. A black-and-white gem that has aged like a fine wine.
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.