Translation | This last year has been particularly trying for educators. In light of the COVID pandemic and the challenges they face in resuming their work, they are more than ever our nation’s unsung (and underpaid) heroes. Take a look at these touching clips in honor of National Teachers Day on May 4, which falls on the fourth Thursday of May each year.
1. Precious (2009)
Teachers have the power to change people’s lives more than any other profession. To put it bluntly, Lee Daniels’ poignant (and at the same time heartwarming) inner-city drama does just that. As 16-year-old Claireece “Precious” Jones, Gabourey Sidibe portrays a young woman who is unable to read or write due to the emotional abuse she receives from her mother (Oscar winner Mo’Nique). When she is transferred to an alternative school and comes under the wing of a loving and compassionate teacher (played with tenderness by Paula Patton), this child who was previously told she was a lost cause is transformed into a hopeful person for the first time in her life.
2. Akeelah and the Bee (2006)
It’s uncommon for a story about the underdog to be both inspirational and devoid of sentimentality. With unexpected ease, Akeelah (Keke Palmer), an 11-year-old girl from South Central L.A., pulls off that tricky balancing act. Small-scale geniuses show off their abilities in the annual National Spelling Bee in hopes of winning something more symbolic than monetary. Despite her humble upbringing, Akeelah’s coach (Laurence Fishburne) believes she has what it takes to win, despite her mother’s concerns about what losing will do to her soul. Warning: There will be a spoiler at the end.
3. School of Rock (2003)
In Richard Linklater’s hilarious grade-school comedy, Jack Black saunters as a rock ‘n’ roll Mr. Chips, an oafish, heavy metal-loving substitute teacher at a staid private school, where he helps his class of buttoned-up kids loosen up and embrace the musical power of Led Zeppelin and others. As he enters the kids in a local battle of the bands, guitar solos are shredded, drum solos are unleashed, and a new sense of confidence is discovered thanks to his believe in them. While the film is full of slapstick humor (and there are a lot of it), it also conveys an important message about embracing your weird identity and learning valuable lessons from the strangest sources, like the whole works of Black Sabbath.
4. Dangerous Minds (1995)
It’s no exaggeration to say that Pfeiffer is a fiery and heartfelt performer, but she’s also a master of clichés. As a former Marine, she is hired by an urban pilot program to instruct intelligent but underachieving teens. She’s treated like a white-savior doormat at first by the restless youngsters. Her inner semper fi spirit helps her overcome the obstacles she faces and discover unconventional methods to connect with students, such as by setting aside textbooks and searching for educational teachings in song lyrics. Dangerous Minds was an unexpected hit at the movie office when it was released because to a fantastic soundtrack and Pfeiffer’s strong against-type performance. And after re-watching it, it’s clear why.
5. Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)
This three-hankie drama about a dedicated 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 may require you to fetch a box of tissues before pressing “play.” It’s a Wonderful Life in reverse, Mr. Holland’s Opus shows us how one dedicated teacher can have a lasting impact on generations of children and a community. Dreyfuss’ performance is note-perfect, mingling joy, a few regrets, and the satisfaction of an otherwise invisible man who is making a difference, arriving in theaters 20 years after Jaws made him a movie star. You’re a better person than I am if you don’t shed a tear at the end of the movie.
There are a variety of places you can catch Mr. Holland’s Opus these days. You may catch it on any of these services or on YouTube.
6. Stand and Deliver (1988)
Even though it’s based on a true tale, director Ramon Menendez’s stirring sleeper about Jaime Escalante, a middle-aged science genius who quit his well-paying electronics career to teach math in an East Los Angeles neighborhood school, inspires us so much that it feels fiction. However, the truth can be stranger than fiction from time to time. It takes a thousand-watt performance from Edward James Olmos to play Escalante, the eccentric professor who transforms his Latino students into academic rock stars. That his students are accused of cheating by the SAT board is so outlandish that it’s hard to believe. In Stand and Deliver, the underdog is redeemed and the naysayers are proven wrong in this inspiring story of triumph. Also, it’s a little miracle of a film.
“Stand and Deliver” is available on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now and other streaming services.
7. Dead Poets Society (1989)
The best-picture nominee from director Peter Weir is regarded as the gold standard among inspirational education films. John Keating, a prep-school English teacher who inspires his students with his unusual teaching methods and infectious enthusiasm for literature, is played by Robin Williams (also nominated). Affluent backgrounds aside, the pupils face a variety of challenges at school. It is via this combination of educating the great works of art and instilling a far more crucial lesson about defying authority in the stifling setting of the late 1950s that Williams’ Keating is able to melt their ice-cold opposition (when the movie is set). Good Will Hunting is an excellent film, but he should have earned an Academy Award for playing Williams here.
8. Lean on Me (1989)
There was a flurry of films about dedicated teachers who use harsh love to correct troubled children about the time this heartwarming tale was released in the classroom. With Morgan Freeman’s performance as ex-teacher Joe Clark, Lean on Meis our class valedictorian thanks to the film’s outstanding portrayal of the school’s new take-no-guff principal, a maverick former teacher. Before Clark can get the school back on track and raise test scores, he has to clean house and get rid of the bad kids. Of course, given that we’re talking about Freeman, it’s safe to assume that he’ll be successful. By avoiding the trap of making Freeman likeable, Lean on Meres overcomes the kind of schmaltz that could have doomed this film. Even though he’s not, the man gets things done. More people like him are needed.
9. Educating Rita (1983)
Julie Walters shines as a Liverpool hairstylist who returns to university in an attempt to find herself in this big-screen adaption of the role she first played on the British stage in this film. Michael Caine plays a tweedy professor who is trying to get over his recent divorce by drinking heavily. Together, Caine and Walters’ Rita achieve a rare alchemy as he helps her realize her full potential while also reminding him of why he fell in love with teaching to begin with. An educator’s impact can be seen in even the tiniest of lives, as demonstrated by the story of Rita and her journey to find her voice and freedom in Educating Rita.
10. The Paper Chase (1973)
Professor Kingsfield, John Houseman’s imposing law professor, would never be described as “touchy-feely.” Timothy Bottoms and the rest of the Harvard Law School students he taught were frightened by his stern demeanor, but he was also motivating in his own harsh, sadistic way. At America’s premier legal schools, students are subjected to a pressure-cooker environment that the Paper Chasekeenly depicts. Houseman with his plummy accent and death-ray look challenges his students and pushes them further than they believed they could go. He’s a jowly yet icy character.
11. To Sir, With Love (1967)
This film is a Cockney version of Blackboard Jungle (1955), with Sidney Poitier as an idealistic teacher who is desperate to reach a class of low-income kids in London’s East End. Lulu is a lovely theme tune, and the picture tries too hard to capture the Swingin’ Sixties mood, but Poitier brings to life the kind of physical and moral authority that only he could at this time in his career. Poitier actually starred in two other best picture-winning films in the same year as this one, and it’s astounding to think about it.