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9 Great Takeaways from Teacher Movies

Inspiring teachers from the movies

These movies will speak to your teacher's heart.

Many teacher movies are based on the lives of real teachers, and they can be enlightening as well as entertaining. I was 12 years old when I saw To Sir, with Love for the first time. By the end of the movie, I was sobbing along with Mr. Thackeray and his students as Lulu sang the title song to him. I declared then and there that I wanted to be a teacher. Over the years, when a new teacher movie came out, I was in the audience, and I've picked up a few things about the profession with each viewing. Here are the best tips I've learned from watching.

Further Reading: 5 Classic Books That Offer Timeless Lessons

Connect to the Real World

With frameworks and standards, Mr. Thackeray's salad-making lesson would have to be reserved for homeroom and advisory classes, but teachers can and should adapt their curriculum to reflect real-world applications. For instance, students can learn geometry by figuring out how much carpet they need to renovate their home. I even use the play Fences to teach students about the dangers of credit cards, minimal payments, and accruing interest.

Recognize Potential and Level the Playing Field

In 1988, I went to see Stand and Deliver, and I admired Mr. Escalante's determination and drive. He knew that if he provided his students with the tools for success, they would succeed. Mr. Escalante recognized potential—a key component in teaching—and his after-school and Saturday sessions helped level the playing field for his economically disadvantaged students. "Math is the great equalizer," he tells his students in the film, and he is correct. Mr. Escalante also calls out the bias, prejudice, and discrimination that often surround students of color who succeed, and I've often had to do the same.

Grab Students' Attention

I was earning my degree in education when Dead Poet's Society opened in theaters, and while I knew the students I'd teach would be very different from Mr. Keating's wealthy and privileged young men, I was still inspired. I wanted to duplicate Mr. Keating's connection with his students, and I knew I'd be employing some of his unorthodox teaching methods (like jumping on a desk). This character helped me see that you have to get students' attention, and if you show them the power of words, you're enabling them to succeed. My favorite scene is when Mr. Keating brings his students into the school lobby to view the photographs of past students. His "carpe diem" speech is one I replicate with my own students.

Respect Student Voice

When Erin Gruwell from Freedom Writers gave her students journals, she showed them that she respected their voice and valued their stories. Teachers can learn a great deal from Ms. Gruwell, who also brought in guest speakers and helped students experience history in a real-world way.

Create Engaging and Effective Assignments

The summer before I got my first public school teaching job, I went to the movies with a colleague to see Dangerous Minds. The story line ended up being similar to my experience in the classroom that upcoming year. A majority of my students came from troubled backgrounds; many were low-skilled and needed a great deal of extra help. I remembered Ms. Johnson, and I worked to create strong bonds and relationships with my students by challenging them in the classroom and rewarding their successes. I even updated Ms. Johnson's Dylan-Dylan contest to a project I call Old School/New School: students are required to find a poem from the distant past and match the themes, imagery, symbolism, tone, and style with a modern-day poem.

Be Enthusiastic

Mr. Holland from Mr. Holland's Opus took a teaching job to make money until something better came along. Students recognized that lack of enthusiasm almost immediately. It wasn't until Mr. Holland tried to reach his students by playing the music of their generation and making things fun that he was able to bridge the teacher-student divide.

Maintain Proper Boundaries

There's obviously a great deal of Hollywood magic put into teacher movies. Ms. Johnson in Dangerous Minds, for example, certainly wouldn't have taken her entire class on a field trip to an amusement park without permission from the school. She would have lost her teaching credentials immediately if she didn't report a student whose life was being threatened, and she most definitely wouldn't have allowed that student to sleep at her home. I don't believe the real Ms. Johnson did those things, and I would encourage teachers to report dangerous situations immediately and always maintain strong boundaries in the classroom.

Focus on Culture Competency

Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers would have benefited from doing her homework when she took a teaching job in Long Beach, California. A little research on the community would have clued her in to the diverse student body and their unique characteristics, including their problems with gangs and violence. Becoming culturally proficient should be the goal for all teachers, and getting to know your demographic is essential.

Take Time for Yourself and Your Family

Teaching can be an all-consuming job, but you must learn to make time for yourself. This actually comes up in a lot of teacher movies. Mr. Holland almost loses his family because he doesn't pay much attention to what's going on with his wife and his son. Erin Gruwell's husband doesn't like playing second fiddle to her students. Teachers often have to learn to sometimes leave school at school.

Further Reading: The 3 Cs for Creating an Engaged and Positive Classroom Culture

As long as Hollywood keeps making teacher movies, I'll be watching. And if any directors are looking for their next star, could someone please tell them I'm ready for my close-up?