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Ten Films in Which Teachers Take Center Stage

Bookwitty By Bookwitty Published on September 28, 2016
This article was updated on October 1, 2016

For many, the highlight of their elementary education is the teacher who influenced and inspired them, or shaped their path in their developing years. In these films, which range from 1989 to 2008, teachers inspire students or a whole class, often encountering pushback from the students and persevering with passion and dedication. In honor of World Teachers’ Day, we’ve compiled a list of ten films in which teachers take center stage.

1. Lean on Me (1989)

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Based on a true story, this movie recounts the story of a high school in New Jersey that has deteriorated to the lowest ranking school in the state. Joe Clark (Morgan Freedman) is hired to take over and he’s willing to do anything to reform the school. An inspiring tale about the importance of administration in education and how one motivated principal turns a school around.

2. Dead Poets Society (1989)

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A new English teacher, John Keating (Robin Williams), begins teaching at Welton Academy, an all-boys preparatory school known for its high standards and the pressure it imparts on its students. Keating uses untraditional methods to get his students to think outside of the box. With his support, the students find inspiration in literature and encouragement to pursue their passions.

3. Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

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Originally released in the UK with the title Innocent Moves, the film is based on the prodigy chess player Josh Waitzkin. When a family discovers that their son, Josh Waitzkin, is a gifted chess player, they hire teacher Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley) to mentor him. Bruce is influenced by the legendary Bobby Fischer, a chess player famous for aggressive tactics, and tries to impart the same techniques with Josh. Josh is also influenced by Vinnie, a chess player he meets in Washington Square Park, who has a more lenient teaching style. Torn between the philosophies of his two mentors, Josh eventually rejects Bruce’s harsh model in place of his own philosophy and wins the competition.

4. Mr Holland's Opus (1995)

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This film tells the story of Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss), a professional composer who, after taking a job as a high school music teacher, is inspired and challenged by his students in ways he never thought possible. Dreyfuss went on to win an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Holland in this crowdpleaser, showing us that the learning process between a teacher and a student is very much a two-way street.

5. Dangerous Minds (1995)

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LouAnne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer), a former US Marine, finds herself a teacher in a special program in an inner-city high school. After her first day proves to be a disaster, she wants to give up on teaching entirely. Yet she eventually leaves behind formalities and connects with the students using her background as a former Marine.

6. Good Will Hunting (1997)

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Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) but he’s also the smartest person at the school. He keeps his genius IQ to himself until one day professor Gerald Lambeau discovers his talents. When Will gets arrested for a minor misdemeanor, Professor Lambeau negotiates to prevent him from going to jail, provided he studies and attends therapy. A portrayal of a collaboration between a brilliant student and a teacher who  wants to him to succeed, and ultimately, his relationship with another teacher, the therapist.

7. School of Rock (2003)

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After getting kicked out of his band and in desperate need of a job, guitarist Dewey Finn (Jack Black) takes up a substitute teaching position at a preparatory school. When he overhears the students in a group music lesson, he’s inspired to work with the class to form a band of their own — all without the knowledge of the administration. Finn gathers the classroom to form a rock band, eventually convincing the school to bend some of the rules for them.

8. Freedom Writers (2007)

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A young and motivated teacher Erin (Hilary Swank) from California starts teaching at a racially divided school, only to discover that she’s ill-equipped to relate to the students' experiences. Although the administration has essentially given up on these students, Erin eventually gets through to them by encouraging them to write in journals. The film is based on a true story and the anthology The Freedom Writer’s Diary.

9. The Great Debaters (2007)

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Based on a true story from 1935-era Texas, The Great Debaters is about a teacher’s perseverance to inspire students to form a debate team. Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) teaches at the predominately black Wiley College, and surprises the school when he spearheads a debate team. With sharp teaching and mentorship he’s able to form a group that eventually goes on to be the first black debate team and make national news.

10. The Class / Entre Les Murs (2008)

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The movie is loosely based on the novel Entre Les Murs (Between the Walls) by François Bégaudeau and his experience teaching middle school language and literature for a year in an inner-city school in Paris. In the film, teacher Mr. Marin struggles to relate to his students and earn their respect. After hearing them out on their discontent with the curriculum, Mr. Marin revamps his approach, eventually getting through to them by making the education relatable and having them write self-portraits. The film won the Palme d’Or prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.

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