The last Sunday Best List focused on the best movies about the high school experience from the student perspective. This week we will be looking at it from the other side of the classroom: the teacher.
- Remember the Titans.Sports take up an important part of the lives of many high schoolers. For many of them it defines their social circles, their focus, and the way they look at life. Denzel Washington's Herman Boone is tough on his players both on and off the field. He understands that building up self-esteem is not his job. When his assistant coach builds up a player that Boone tore down, Boone warns him that by not letting that teen experience failure that he is being crippled for life. Sometimes teachers know that failure is the best teacher.
9. Mean Girls
There are a lot of problems with Ms. Norbury (Tina Fey), but at least she tries to directly address the cattiness problem rampant among high school girls in a way I have never seen done in any other movie. She tries to show that this path is self destructive and pointless.
8. Summer School
One of the things that impresses me about this movie is that it allows you to see how badly the teacher played by Marc Harmon does his job. He goes on a slow evolution from self-centeredness to devotion. But his dedication does not suddenly give him magical teaching powers. He succeeds as often as he fails, but he learns to accept the victory.
7. The Karate Kid
While Miyagi is not a teacher in a high school, he is teaching a high school student. And his teaching method is top notch. I love the way that the movie captures the frustration between teacher and student, especially when students cannot understand why they need educating. I've noticed that when students don't like an activity, they ask “What's the point of this?” But even if an explanation is given, they still will not understand. They have to be shown. So much of what happens in high school is learning not only facts, but skills and habits that will help you in life. Learning how to speak properly, write properly, dress properly, be respectful, etc. are things that will help in later professional life. Miyagi demonstrates that with his “wax on, wax off” style of teacher that builds up the muscles of habit to strengthen the person to the task at hand.
6. Waiting For Superman
While the focus of this documentary was primarily on grade schools, it did point out a few issues regarding high school education, the most important of which was that competition between schools will result in getting the best quality teachers.
5. Mr. Holland's Opus
The movie is a bit overly sentimental, but I think that it touches on the secret wish that all teachers have to make a difference. We have students for a little while and then they move on. And rarely do we see where life takes them. As the years pass, you begin to wonder what kind of impact you've had and if you've made any real positive difference. Mr. Holland's Opus is a reminder that helping out one soul is better than all the fame and fortune in the world.
4. Dead Poets Society
The goal of a great teacher is not just to get students to know more but the think more. Robin William's John Keating uses all of tools of entertainment at his disposal to do just this. I have heard some critiques that this movie reduces teaching to simple performance. And to be sure there are some teachers who only entertain without educating. But I've always maintained that keeping a class' attention is half the battle. If I can keep my students from falling asleep, I've done something right. Jokes, impressions, games, etc are all a means to an end. And Dead Poets Society shows what happens, for good or for ill, when teens start becoming men and thinking for themselves.
3. Lean On Me
Morgan Freeman's performance is outstanding as “Crazy” Joe Clark, the embattled principal of East Side High. He embodies the fatherly qualities of stern disciplinarian and tireless protector. He makes several mistakes along the way, but he is undeterred in making sure his students have a chance to succeed. This movie gets that safety and discipline are a pre-requisite in the classroom if any learning is going to happen. A student once asked me why I am so strict with things like the dress code or tardiness. My honest answer is that the more discipline there is in class, the easier it will be for the students to learn. As I pointed out earlier, many don't see this, but I do. Lean on Me shows taking discipline out of the schools will destroy them. Bringing it back is an act of love.
2. The Emperor's Club
“What's the good of what you're teaching?” is a question posed to Kevin Kline's Mr. Hundert, the teacher of Classics in The Emperor's Club. The question is trying to glean what are the pragmatic benefits of studying the ancient Greeks and Romans. And while Hundert has a good practical answer, he points to the larger reason: it shapes a child's character. Teaching is not just about facts and figures. It is about helping mold the personality of someone. So much of our personalities solidify during the years of high school and college. A great teacher can influence that. The movie also reminds us that a teacher is not defined by a single success or a solitary failure, but by a whole lifetime of work.
1. Stand and Deliver
This utterly unsentimental movie is my favorite movie on teaching. Edward James Olmos gives one of his best performances as Jaime Escalante, a teacher who decides to hold calculus classes in an underprivileged urban school. Like Joe Clark, Escalante is tough. He says, “There will be no free rides, no excuses. You already have two strikes against you: your name and your complexion. Because of those two strikes, there are some people in this world who will assume that you know less than you do. Math is the great equalizer... When you go for a job, the person giving you that job will not want to hear your problems; ergo, neither do I. You're going to work harder here than you've ever worked anywhere else. And the only thing I ask from you is 'ganas.' 'Desire.'”
But toughness is not enough to be a good teacher. Escalante gives all of his time and talent to his students. At a faculty meeting, despite his crowded schedule, he says “I can do more.” A teacher needs to be present to his students to help them. And it costs Escalante much but he never complains. He knows that by raising the bar high, the students will meet and surpass his expectations. He understands that teaching is an act of faith. You have to believe that your students can excel And you have to believe that you can teach them to do it.