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Reflections on films about teaching




A video presentation of this material is available here.




There have been, of course, any number of films about teaching and we can understand their continued popularity and success - education, after all, is an area of life which affects us all. We all have memories and tales of our school years and we nearly all have memories of those who were charged with our education - good, bad, amusing, sad and occasionally inspiring. Over the years the film industry has clearly tried to tap into this vein of common experience, usually emphasising the last of these qualities.


Films about teaching (and learning) tend to follow a familiar and similar pattern. An inexperienced teacher has a hard time to begin with, but learns from his/her mistakes to become approachable, effective and successful, while pupils initially reject lessons offered to them, learn to see things differently and eventually change for the better.


This approach has frequently been criticised as being somewhat idealised and sanitised, but I think this general criticism is by and large unfair. Of course much depends on how well the film is made - script, direction and performances, but consider the purpose of these films, which is to offer hope and inspiration despite difficult circumstances, and then consider the alternative, offering hopelessness, pointlessness and perhaps even despair. Provided the film offers a reasonable degree of realism and the characters are properly fleshed out and believable, it is perfectly fitting and proper to show these characters moving in a positive direction, a direction which offers guidance, hope and inspiration to us all, whether as pupils or teachers.


I have chosen a handful of my favourite teaching films to discuss. This is certainly not a comprehensive list, but I hope that the points made may be applicable to other productions.



Mr Holland's Opus (1995, dir. Stephen Herek, with Richard Dreyfuss)



Actually, this first "teaching" film is probably a bit of a cheat as although it focuses on a teacher, its storyline could equally apply to any number of occupations in which the "little man" makes a major contribution to the lives of others while he himself feels somewhat overtaken by life, to the point where on the whole he considers himself a failure.


This is a remarkably honest and truthful film in which the main character (Glenn Holland) is not, at first, driven by an overwhelming desire to teach. It is merely a job which is supposed to allow him the time to pursue his true ambition - composition. However, as he reflects on how best to reach and influence his pupils, he becomes increasingly involved in their development and their very lives. Success as a teacher comes with focusing on and caring for his pupils and their progress, putting aside his personal ambitions. With time he appears to accept that, while this may not have been his dream, this is his fate or best option. Life has overtaken him - while he has been busy seeing to the detail, somehow he has missed the bigger picture, and because this is not the life he would have chosen, he fails to see the impact and success he has had, taking entirely for granted the care and influence he has exercised in his professional life, while nurturing a sense of failure with regard to his ambitions as a composer.


Rather symbolically he turns his back on the artist's life and his youthful ambitions when he rejects the advances and proposition of Rowena, an up and coming young singer who is heading for New York and perhaps stardom. He appears to have come to terms with his place in life, his sense of duty and his responsibilities.


Glenn doesn't have an easy relationship with his deaf and dumb son Cole, but here, just as in his professional life, he surrenders to responsibility and the underlying love and caring lead him to unselfish acts.


This is a warm and very engaging film which uses the familiar domain of school and teaching as its context, but this is used to paint a much broader picture of life, love, responsibility, how to get the best from people, and perhaps most importantly how to assess success and failure.



Take the lead (2006, dir. Liz Friedlander, with Antonio Banderas)



"Take the Lead" is an interesting, entertaining and unusual teaching film. Pierre Dulaine, a professional ballroom dancing teacher, becomes involved with a school in a rough area of New York, and in particular with a group of so-called low achievers or problem kids - he is put in charge of the detention group and announces he is going to teach them ballroom dancing.


Naturally he meets with official disapproval and reluctance on the part of his students, but he perseveres and at least in part because of the added incentive of a large cash prize in a competition he persuades his students to work hard and develop their skills until they are able give more privileged and experienced kids a run for their money.


In many ways the film follows the outline given at the start of this page, but it is humorous, emotionally engaging, and the characters are well enough drawn to avoid disappointment at feelings of "deja vu".


So, what does the film say about teaching and learning? It seems to me that the key message of the film is respect - for others, but perhaps more importantly for oneself. In the film the kids gain a sense of worth through success and achievement, though not necessarily attainment. Dance teaches them to respect others and show consideration. It also allows them to see and experience discipline, and even more importantly to recognise the value of self discipline and determination in the face of adversity, enabling them to respect themselves for what they have achieved.


Success or failure in the competition becomes irrelevant by the end - what matters is the journey they have made to arrive at the stage where they feel they are able to compete on an equal footing.


Teachers are encouraged to invest themselves, their time, emotions and energy in the success of their pupils, while students are also encouraged to broaden their horizons and aspire to something beyond their apparent limitations. They see what is possible with hard work and determination, and this ethic can surely be applied to many different spheres of life.


Oh, and the film contains some exciting dance sequences as well!


This is a worthy and inspiring addition to the series of films about teaching - it is engaging if a little obvious and manipulative in places, and is inspired by true events in the life of Pierre Dulaine. Its message is quite clear, appeals to young people, and would form an excellent basis for discussion of career (or any other) aspirations.



To Sir with love (1967, dir. James Clavell, with Sidney Poitier), To Sir with love 2 (1996, dir. Peter Bogdanovich, with Sidney Poitier)



The famous original was released in 1967 and met with tremendous success. Nowadays it appears somewhat dated, not just in terms of fashion, decor and speech, but more essentially in terms of the deprivation (though I dare say that could be disputed), classroom materials, techniques and the attitude of the students. Clearly things have changed considerably since the film was made, yet once you look beyond these cosmetic points and concentrate on the "meat" of the piece, in fact we see it remains quite relevant to today and indeed the whole basis of modern educational philosophy.


Once again the film promotes investment of time, energy and emotion into teaching and learning as well as something we tend to take for granted - mutual respect. This was one of the first films to suggest that pupils should be treated as young adults who should be spoken to, reasoned with and treated as equals. Expectations (academic and social) should be set high and standards maintained, allowing students to gain a sense of value, worth and self respect when they meet and maintain these standards.


The sequel (made for TV in 1996) delivered more or less the same messages but updated to 1990s Chicago. Again, it is a little simplistic in terms of the changes in the students, but it delivers its message and is genuine and engaging, and Sidney Poitier is always worth watching.



Les Choristes (2004, dir. Christophe Barratier, with Gerard Jugnot)



"Les Choristes" is touching, charming, funny, poignant and thought-provoking. Above all, however, it is very French. Character driven and intrinsically human, this is the story of a new supervisor, Clement Mathieu, who arrives at Fond de l'Etang boarding school for underprivileged boys and immediately comes into conflict with the disciplinarian ethos of the Headmaster, Monsieur Rachin.


When we entrust the education of our youngsters to teachers, we make assumptions about teachers' motivation, qualifications and character. "Les Choristes" challenges all three of these assumptions and presents an at times harrowing picture of the post-war education system in France. Granted, this school has its particular problems in that we are dealing with extremes - orphaned boys, or boys whose parents don't have the means to support them (financially and/or socially), but this only serves to accentuate the clash between the two styles of education drawn in the film - strict and autocratic discipline contrasted with a more sensitive, caring and human approach.


The Headmaster, Monsieur Rachin, is a particularly unsympathetic character, cold and rigid in his application of rules. He would not be out of place in a factory operated by machines, with fully functioning pupils the end product.


This is in direct contrast with Clement Mathieu, a lowly supervisor who nonetheless presents a far more attractive and human approach to the problems of educating and dealing with potentially difficult children.


Rachin's methods and approach recall the Ancien Regime, while Mathieu's methods are in keeping with the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. Mathieu appears to embody the watchwords "in loco parentis" (in place of parents), the bywords of the Scottish teaching profession, in that he shows a caring attitude and tries to nurture the boys, rather than simply process them. Rachin shows scant regard for his charges and clearly sees his role as one of management rather than nurturing or development.


The film could easily have fallen into a more sombre tone, given the context and much of the content, but Barratier and his actors manage to maintain a positive tone, largely by not dwelling on the more unpleasant events, but also, and perhaps more importantly, through the injection of humour and Mathieu's offer of hope in the form of positive action and a sense of progress.


The music of the film adds considerably to the tone and enhances pathos. At times deceptively simple, yet tinged with sadness and youthful spirit, the music of the film enables us to share even more keenly the emotions and reactions of the characters.


What is the key to Mathieu's success with the boys? Clearly they learn to appreciate music and sing beautifully, but more importantly they learn respect - for others and for themselves through the efforts they make and the success they gain as a result of these efforts. They learn to treat one another with consideration. Music may be the medium, but the objective and end result is humanity.


The film clearly suggests that one man can make a difference. Mathieu touches these boys' lives. Quite apart from the introduction of music (which is sufficient grounds for success!), he also introduces humanity and respect.


Like the vast majority of decent human beings, his deeds remain unsung and he will never achieve the fame and recognition he may desire, yet he has touched and changed lives in a most fundamental way - he is someone to look up to, someone to turn to, someone tangible whose "heroics" are achievable by us all. It is sad, perhaps even tragic, that he considers himself a failure, and indeed this may call in to question the standards by which society judges its heroes.


He does, of course, have one significant failure - Mondain. However, even Mondain appears to suggest that he recognises Mathieu's potential positive influence as he nods toward him as he is taken away by the police. Perhaps it is simply too late for Mondain - he is unable or unwilling to change, but perhaps also, if he had met someone like Mathieu some years before ... .


It should be pointed out that Mathieu does not suffer too much at the hands of the boys. In this respect the film could fairly be accused of being a little simplistic, but acceptably so. The boys undoubtedly respond too quickly and easily to Mathieu's style, but we should remember that this is a hymn to humanity. This is a representation, a work of art if you will. It makes its points clearly and persuasively, if manipulatively, with steady progression of the storyline and in character development.


The performances throughout are excellent - Rachin (as played by Francois Berleand) lacks any possibility or element of sympathy (to have incorporated such elements might have led towards tragedy), and instead we are invited to see and laugh at his weaknesses. In this way the film remains entertaining while making serious points.


Mathieu (Gerard Jugnot) is a lovely character and is beautifully played by Jugnot so that we have maximum sympathy for this underdog at odds with his time and society who becomes an unlikely hero. He has everyman appeal, and seems to suggest that any man can be a hero by being human.


The direction by Christophe Barratier is brisk and emotionally engaging - we feel real sympathy for these characters and come to care about their fates, though it would have been nice to hear and see how Le Querrec, Boniface, Corbin and the others had fared in life, as well as Morhange and Pepinot. However, such criticism is trifling in the face of such a touchingly told and affecting tale of humanity.



Dead Poets Society (1989 dir. Peter Weir, with Robin Williams)



"Dead Poets Society" gives us the story of an inspirational teacher who encourages and enables his charges to see things differently, to tap their potential and seize opportunities presented by life, only to come directly into conflict with more conservative forces (educational and parental).


The film underlines the potential conflict between idealism and realism, or hope and practicality. There is much pressure to succeed and conform (parental, academic and social) and this may conflict directly with self fulfilment. Keating (Williams) fervently exhorts his pupils to be all they can be and follow their own instincts, but this is in opposition to those who, out of good intentions and with the pupils' best interests at heart, insist they follow a safe and well-tested path considered "successful" by society.


A teacher, then, is seen as someone who can help bring out the best or the potential of a young person, or can be seen as one who helps train them for a place in society.


Keating wants his charges to see things differently, with their own eyes and their own perspective, but this can ultimately lead to tragic conflict with others.




                                                                "Dangerous Minds", 1995, directed by John N Smith, starring Michelle Pfeiffer



Based loosely on a true story, "Dangerous Minds" fits perfectly the mould of cinematic teaching films. New recruit LouAnne Johnston (ex Marine and teacher who continues to practise today, while also writing and speaking about teaching) is given a hard time by her class (we see only one class), but eventually she finds a way to communicate with her charges and mutual respect is developed. We are shown various difficult situations, including the pain, joy, satisfaction and frustration of the job as LouAnne becomes embroiled emotionally in the growth and education of her students. We also share her frustration and anger at the petty imposition of rules and policies in the face of more serious, even life-threatening situations.



Once again, it boils down to humanity and treating one another with respect. Enjoyable and very worthwhile, if a little contrived, the film engages viewers' emotions and encourages youngsters to aspire to something beyond their immediate circumstances.





"Freedom Writers", Richard LaGravenese's 2007 film starring Hilary Swank.



This is based on the true story of Erin Gruwell's pedagogical battle with both her pupils and the educational powers that be to help her class gain mutual respect and learn the value of tolerance.


A newly qualified English teacher, Erin desperately seeks ways to stimulate and engage her class of so-called "difficult" and disaffected pupils. Alternating with Erin's attempts at teaching, we are also shown her pupils' lives, riddled with violence, bullying, racism and intolerance.



Outraged at an example of racist bullying in her classroom, Erin finds a way for her pupils to communicate with her without losing face. With reference to common elements of racism and bullying, Erin's class researches the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany between the wars. Her class quickly discovers that they have more in common to unite them than they have to divide them. They learn not just to tolerate and accept one another, but to respect and value one another.


At the same time, these pupils face the cynical prejudices of tired and weary teachers who fail them largely because they refuse to listen to them and are too proud of their own positions to see a way forward with them.



Although it is undeniably affecting, I think the film might have been stronger had more sympathy and understanding been shown to Erin's detractors, making the film more complex and human. The gulf in approach between the two is perhaps oversimplified, though this serves a dramatic purpose and certainly emphasises the message of the importance of relevance, communication and respect.




"The Principal", Christopher Cain's 1987 film starring James Belushi and Louis Gossett Jr.



Let's be honest - "The Principal" shouldn't work. It is obvious, manipulative, cliche ridden, extreme and yet romanticised. It is also utterly compelling, engaging, funny, touching and realistically human! I really like this film, yet I can see many reasons why I shouldn't!


This is the story of Rick Latimer, a teacher put in charge of Brandel High because no-one else will go near it. Its students (and staff) are, to say the least, disaffected and there is a major problem with criminal activity of many types, and precious little education or respect.



Naturally, Rick has a rough time, but he eventually builds the students' respect as well as their self respect, enabling them (and himself) to stand up and be counted.


A genuine guilty pleasure, and one I will happily repeat time after time!




"Lean on me" (1989), dir. John G Avildsen, starring Morgan Freeman



For just about the first time in watching a "teaching film", I had truly ambivalent feelings about the teacher at the centre of the film. Based on a true story (and I have to assume that this is a reasonably faithful version of events), I cannot say I agreed with or would support all the stances taken by Principal Joe Clark at Eastside High.


As a film, it is very effective, engaging and well acted. I would recommend it as good viewing material, but I am less sure of the relevance it may have for other members of the teaching profession.


Joe Clark is given the unenviable job of turning around a failing inner-city school, and he has just one school session to do so. Mr Clark is determined, dedicated, devoted, driven, strong and highly principled. Yet he is also rude, arrogant, self-centred and tyrannical. Perhaps these qualities are what it took to turn his school around, but he shows remarkable disrespect for his staff (some of whom may well have deserved such treatment, but surely not all) who will, after all, be the tools by which he will achieve his objective.



We also gain some insight into the "political" aspect of running a school - the pressures from the authorities above, and pressure from the parents below. You have to take your hat off to this man who managed to dramatically improve his school's statistics and his pupils' chances in life - this was not an easy job, though it appears that Joe Clark did little to carry people with him, but instead forced his ways on others. Schools are about teamwork with strong leadership and support. Mr Clark certainly has my admiration for his (along with his staff and pupils') achievement. He had courage and conviction, but I would find it very difficult to work with such an attitude at the top of the school. If pupils require a sense of security and confidence to truly grow, that is equally true of the teaching staff.


This film gives a "warts and all" view of the principal, and it should be admired as such, though it does leave the viewer wondering just what he/she is supposed to take from the story.




"Good Will Hunting" and "Finding Forrester" pursue a vaguely similar theme, with a mentor helping to draw out the best from their "student", leading to personal involvement, investment of time and emotion, and of course personal growth for both parties.


My thanks for taking the time to read this page - I hope you found it of some interest.



Stuart Fernie


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