Films on Teachers

TEACHER DOCUMENTARIES

American Teacher

Documentary 2011 NR 81 minutes. Profiling four extraordinary teachers from diverse parts of the country, this documentary feature examines the struggles of an underpaid profession. Educators weigh in on how the American school system might be radically transformed.

Paul Goodman Changed My Life

Documentary 2011 NR 1hr 29m. This documentary explores the little-known life of best-selling author Paul Goodman, “the most influential man you’ve never heard of.” He may not be widely recognized by name, but his book Growing Up Absurd became the bible of the New Left.

Whatever It Takes

Documentary 2009 NR 53 minutes. Documentary filmmaker Christopher C.C. Wong journeys into the heart of New York City to chronicle the groundbreaking methods educators at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics are using to inspire and teach at-risk youth. As first-year principal Edward Tom lays down the law, students such as freshman Sharifea Baskerville find their first opportunities to reach for a life not circumscribed by the violence and poverty of the streets.

Howard Zinn
You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train

Documentary 2004 NR 78 minutes. Matt Damon narrates this documentary chronicling Howard Zinn’s commitment to social change through archival materials, commentary from Zinn and interviews with contemporaries Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, Tom Hayden and Alice Walker, among others. See Full Review

To Be and To Have
(Être et avoir)

Documentary 2002 UR 104 minutes. The once-acclaimed French school system is under siege, with overcrowding making it impossible for children to receive the education they deserve. But there’s one place that’s trying to buck the tide. This documentary by Nicolas Philibert visits a one-room schoolhouse in rural Saint-Étienne-sur-Usson, where Georges Lopez teaches his 13 students, ranging in age between 3 and 10, the old-fashioned way … with effort, attention and encouragement.

The First Year

Documentary 2001 NR 80 minutes.This fascinating documentary chronicles the emotional turmoil of five Los Angeles schoolteachers charged with educating inner-city youth, making it clear that the teachers helping these disadvantaged children are real heroes. The First Year, originally aired on PBS stations throughout the country, is helmed by Davis Guggenheim (director of An Inconvenient Truth) and narrated by Elisabeth Shue. Also included is the Guggenheim-directed short “Teach.”

Teacher, Teacher

Documentary Frontline 1990. Frontline explores the hopes and frustrations of public school teachers in one mid-western town as they face the threat of funding cutbacks, the criticism of parents, and a growing number of troubled children from troubled homes.

Teached

Documentary Directed by Kelly Amis, a former corps member of Teach for America, Teached examines the “achievement gap” encountered by urban, minority youth. “What motivated [Amis] was a fervent belief that film could reach new audiences beyond the policy elite—and with emotional storytelling that would be much more powerful than anything written on the printed page.”

TEACHER DOCUDRAMAS

The Ron Clark Story

Docudrama 2006 NR 90 minutes. Idealistic young teacher Ron Clark (Matthew Perry, in an Emmy-nominated role) is full of hope as he leaves the familiarity of his hometown for New York City’s provocative and volatile inner-city public school system. Clark’s fearless devotion and fresh approach to learning is his key to unlocking the chains of ignorance that bind his students. Randa Haines directs this Emmy-nominated biographical drama based on the inspiring true life of the innovative educator.

Knights of the South Bronx

Docudrama 2005 PG 90 minutes. Ted Danson stars as Richard Mason, who turns to teaching after getting the ax for blowing the whistle on his corporate employer. Assigned to a class of fourth graders at a tough urban school, Mason finds himself struggling to connect with his cynical students — until he hits on the idea of teaching them the game of chess. Kate Vernon plays Mason’s wife in this inspiring made-for-TV drama based on a true story.

October Sky

Docudrama 1999 PG 108 minutes. As the Soviet satellite Sputnik streaks across the heavens in October 1957, it’s a source of inspiration for 17-year-old Homer Hickam. Drafting a few friends to help, Homer crafts a rocket to compete for a science fair scholarship.

Dangerous Minds

Docudrama 1995 R 94 minutes. In this blackboard-jungle drama based on a true story, Michelle Pfeiffer stars as LouAnne Johnson, a Marine turned teacher who squares off against a classroom of impudent, inner-city teens, whose bullying tactics nearly drive her out the first day. But Johnson radically changes her lesson plan to include bribery and browbeating (despite objections from the school’s prissy principal) in an effort to teach the class that learning is its own reward.

Lean on Me

Docudrama 1989 PG-13 109 minutes. When tough-talking principal Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman) takes over decaying Eastside High School, he’s faced with graffiti-covered walls and students wearing gang colors. But he’s determined to do anything in his power to turn the school around. He begins by expelling drug dealers and padlocking the doors to keep the riffraff out. But he also demands maximum effort from the students and staff inside in this uplifting drama based on a true story.

Stand and Deliver

Docudrama 1988 PG 99 minutes. Fans of inspirational dramas about the life-changing power of education will be touched by this moving, mostly true story of famed East L.A. math teacher Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos), who finds himself in a classroom of rebellious remedial students. Escalante stuns fellow faculty members with his plans to teach the kids AP calculus. But no one expects the mostly Hispanic teens (including Lou Diamond Phillips) to overcome the odds.

The Marva Collins Story

Docudrama 1981 NR 102 minutes. Cicely Tyson stars in this truth-based story about a dedicated schoolteacher who transcends the limitations of a broken public school system by using her own money to open a prep school catering to the underserved youths of the inner city. Originally aired as a “Hallmark Hall of Fame” special, this inspirational biopic, narrated by Emmy Award-winning Edward Asner, also stars Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman and Roderick Wimberly.

The Miracle Worker

Docudrama 1962 NR 106 minutes. A bout with scarlet fever has rendered Helen Keller (Patty Duke) blind, deaf and mute. When her parents can no longer cope with the feral girl’s tantrums, they call in inexperienced but innovative teacher Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft). Though Helen perceives sign language as a finger game, Annie’s unflagging tutelage ultimately awakens in her charge the concept of words. Bancroft (Best Actress) and Duke (Supporting Actress) won Oscars for their work.  See Full Review

TEACHER DRAMAS

Bad Teacher

Satire 2011 UR 92 minutes. Cameron Diaz stars as Elizabeth Halsey, a scheming and coarse-tongued middle school teacher who gets dumped by her wealthy boyfriend and rebounds by sinking her claws into a handsome substitute teacher (Justin Timberlake).

Chalk

Satire 2006 PG-13 84 minutes. Three rookie teachers and one unenthusiastic assistant principal face a rambunctious student body, a cantankerous set of colleagues, embarrassing rumors, equipment malfunctions and various absurdities at Harrison High, a typically provocative and volatile (although fictional) public school in Austin, Texas. The documentary-style comedy won several awards, including Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble Cast at the 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival.  This film duped me thinking it was a documentary well into half of the movie. Yes, “Morgan Spurlock Presents” indeed, but the delivery and format have ‘Chalk’ doing for education what ‘The Office’ does for the workplace. Three teachers and one administrator are the main participants in a pseudo year of educators.  ‘Chalk’ delivers the foibles and frustrations of teachers in an often funny way.

Mr. Holland’s Opus

Drama 1995 PG 143 minutes. In 1965, passionate musician Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) takes a day job as a high school music teacher, convinced it’s just a small obstacle on the road to his true calling: writing a historic opus. As the decades roll by with the composition unwritten but generations of students inspired through his teaching, Holland must redefine his life’s purpose. Dreyfuss earned an Oscar nomination for his outstanding work in this emotional drama.

Dead Poets Society

Drama 1989 PG 129 minutes. Oscar nominee Robin Williams stars as John Keating, an unconventional teacher who inspires students through poetry. When the school fires him, his devastated students rally behind him, mindful of the ways he has changed their lives.

Teachers

Satire 1984 R 107 minutes. Threatened by the bad publicity of a class action lawsuit, the administration at JFK High School is looking to weed out any teachers who are critical of the school’s policies, most notably student favorite Alex Jurel (Nick Nolte). Fighting to save his job, Jurel disregards the school board’s wishes and continues his mission to help the “problem” students whom the school seems all too willing to ignore. JoBeth Williams and Judd Hirsch also star. This is another in a long list of Teacher movies that is a favorite movie genre of mine. In the story, JFK High School is being sued by the parents of a student who was allowed to graduate without even knowing how to read. The school officials and the teacher’s union is putting pressure on the teachers who will have to give testimony, to lie about what they know to be the truth. The School is worried that adverse publicity will prevent a Bond referendum from being passed that would provide more money for the school. One of the teachers they are concerned about is Alex Jurel (Nick Nolte), a teacher who seems to care about the students. The family that brought the suit is represented by Lisa Hammond (JoBeth Williams), who, as a student, attended JFK and was also a student of Alex’s. In what I feel is an attempt to make the story more watcher friendly there are a number of characters who go beyond believability. One is Mr Gower (Richard Mulligan), a mental patient who, through some unusual circumstances, becomes a substitute History teacher. Another is a teacher nicknamed Ditto (Royal Dano) who, through the extensive use of mimeographed material, manages to avoid any interaction with his students. The possibility of him being based in reality is, I think, not completely unlikely. But, students graduating while barely literate has been documented in numerous cases. So has teachers who care about their students, as anyone reading this can, I am sure, attest to. I know that I can because I do not think that you ever forget your good teachers.

Up the Down Staircase

Drama 1967 NR 124 minutes. Sandy Dennis stars as Sylvia Barrett, a green but idealistic young teacher who takes a job at a tough inner-city high school. Troubled by the apathy of both her students and fellow teachers, Barrett revels in her few successes. But her naïveté may prove a fatal flaw, despite her good intentions. Eileen Heckart, Jean Stapleton and Patrick Bedford co-star in director Robert Mulligan’s adaptation of Bel Kaufman’s novel.

Blackboard Jungle

Drama 1955 NR 101 minutes. Inner-city high school teacher Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) struggles to maintain his idealism in this gritty drama set in the 1950s. The students drink, smoke, steal and cause mayhem, and two of Dadier’s delinquents (Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow) duke it out to be crowned leader of their classroom turf. This film was the first major motion picture with a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, which includes “Rock Around the Clock.” Anne Francis costars.

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