03 September 2015

Thursday Movie Picks: Teachers

Being that I am a teacher, I find it hard to pinpoint strong teachers in movies. There just aren't many movies that get it exactly right, as far as the day-to-day grind goes. TV has done quite a bit better than the movies, if you ask me (more on that later).

Now, I'm sure there are some out there. I just don't think I've ever seen them. It's almost as if I avoid movies about teachers. I think it hits too close to home.

There are some movie teachers out there, though, that inspire in lofty ways that provide plenty of entertainment and emotional impact for the audience. It's those that I've gone with week.

So, this week on Wandering through the Shelves' Thursday Movie Picks, it's Teachers.

Here are my picks:

Robin Williams as Mr. Keating in
Dead Poets Society
Dir. Peter Weir, 1989

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, 'O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life? Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.' What will your verse be?"

I'd say it's possible to be as good an English poetry teacher as John Keating, if you're a teacher at an all-boys prep academy in 1950s New England. Then again, look where that got him. Quite simply, this is one of the most beautiful films of my lifetime. It means so so much to me. I saw it for the first time in the class of my favorite English teacher, the Keating-esque Mr. Oliver, during my sophomore year in high school. It changed me. Robin Williams is perfectly cast here and finds the right blend of humor and sincerity in a film that leans towards the lofty and idealistic a bit (I see that now that I've gotten older). Nevertheless, it is a film I cherish, featuring a performance that made Robin Williams a true dramatic actor. And, as a lover of English literature, it really doesn't get any better.

Laura Dern as Miss Riley in 
October Sky
Dir. Joe Johnston, 1999

"False hopes? Do you want me to sit quiet, let 'em breathe in coal dust the rest of their life? How 'bout I believe in the unlucky ones? Hmm? I have to, Mister Turner, I'd go out of my mind."

Like Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal), I grew up in coal mine country. The town right next to mine to the north, in fact, was once called Coal Creek, Tennessee, home of a bloody labor dispute known as the Coal Creek War. To the west of my hometown is the City of Oliver Springs, an old coal mining town, so quaintly intact as such that the producers of October Sky chose it as the main filming location. Yes. Jake Gyllenhaal was right next door at one point. And I didn't even know him at the time. The true inspiration to Hickam, though, as this film suggests was his science teacher, Miss Riley, a true educator in that she believed in her students. She believed and trusted that these young men with dreams of rockets and satellites and "the final frontier" had it in them. They didn't have to be coal miners. And she was right.

Dewey Finn a.k.a. Mr. Schneebly in
The School of Rock 
Dir. Richard Linklater, 2003

"Yes! But, you can't just say it, man. You've gotta feel it in your blood and guts! If you wanna rock, you gotta break the rules. You gotta get mad at the man! And right now, I'm the man. That's right, I'm the man, and who's got the guts to tell me off? Huh? Who's gonna tell me off?"

I thought this movie looked so stupid when it first came out. I totally blew it off. Then, I happened upon it randomly one day and was just blown away with how simply pleasing and funny it is. I also gained a bit of a higher appreciation for it when, as a first year teacher, my 8th graders likened me to Jack Black in his role as deadbeat rocker Dewey Finn posing as a substitute teacher at a private elementary school. My energy and looks (God Help Me!) prompted my students to create a Facebook page back then called "Mr. Powers look like Jack Black from School of Rock". So, anyway, I think this movie is funny and who doesn't love a sub who throws out the books and brings in the amps.

On Television 

Steven Gilborn as Mr. Collins in
The Wonder Years - Season 3

In a three-episode arc as Kevin Arnold's Algebra teacher, Steven Gilborn breathed life into a teacher character that we all know well. The hard, stern math whiz, who, at the end of the day, truly wants his students to learn. He takes a liking to Kevin, who struggles in 8th grade math. He takes him under his wing, tutors him, inspires him, and then, like that, is gone. Such a touching run of episodes of one of my all-time favorite shows.

Jim True-Frost as "Prez" in 
The Wire - Season 4

If you want to know the truth about the world we live in, I hope you watch creator David Simon's The Wire. It is without a doubt the most brutally true piece of cinema we have on inner-city crime, the drug trade, political corruption, failing schools, and cutthroat reporting. It took on each of these topics in its five season run. No season is more powerful than season 4, in which the writers took a deeper look into the children who become drug dealers and the teachers who TRY to teach them. After failing as a detective, Prez (a prominent character through the show's entire run) becomes a middle school teacher, forced to look straight in the face of the budding problems that will emerge as violence and drugs on the streets of Baltimore. To watch him fail and struggle and deal with the bureaucracy and ultimately succeed is just one of the many things this show gets perfectly right. I want to re-watch it now. 


  1. Oh my goodness! October Sky was a film I told myself I should watch about 10 years ago, and I've completely forgotten about it until now. Great picks :)
    - Allie

    1. Yes! Watch October Sky. Very close to home for me. Thanks.

  2. I've never watched The Wire but all your other picks are super. I'll start at the top I LOVE October Sky so much!! I've never been much of a Laura Dern fan but she really nails this part never overdoing the inspiration but standing out with her calm assurance. She's a high point in a movie filled with them, I watch it often. Aside from the terrific story and acting it has one of my favorite film scores.

    I thought the same thing about School of Rock when I went to see it in the theatre not being a Jack Black fan but it did turn out to be much better than expected. Williams is very good in Dead Poets although I'm indifferent to the movie. I was a off and on viewer of the Wonder Years and I think I missed this series of episodes but knowing that this was the sort of thing that the show specialized in I can only imagine they did it well.

    I also included something from TV, a TV movie back when the networks did event movies. Here's mine for the week plus an extra:

    Kindergarten Cop (1990)-New York cop Arnold Schwarzenegger, along with another agent (the fun Pamela Reed), on the trail of a drug dealer follows a lead to a small town in Oregon where it's believed the dealer's divorced wife is hiding out. When the other agent, who was supposed to masquerade as a kindergarten teacher, falls ill he steps in. Mix of kiddie comedy and violence isn't always wholly successful but there is a great deal to enjoy in this mostly sweet comedy.

    Teachers (1984)-Pitch black comedy/drama of a troubled school in the midst of a lawsuit from a student given a diploma despite the fact that he's illiterate and the teachers who try to maintain some semblance of order despite their frustrations. Good performances by a cast full of familiar faces and a loose unbridled one by Richard Mulligan as an educator who dresses up as the characters he teaches about.

    The Miracle Worker (1962)-Young teacher Annie Sullivan is sent by the Perkins institute to the home of the Kellers to try and help them with their blind and deaf daughter Helen, who through years of indulgence has become a wild child. Discovering a keen intellect trapped in the girl she sets out on the rough challenge to break through her defenses. Both Bancroft and Duke won Oscars for their great work in this.

    Honorable Mention-The Corn is Green (1979)-A strong willed teacher, slightly past middle age, inherits property in a small Welsh mining village where she determines to start a school to educate the workers. She meets resistance from the mine owner who doesn't see the value of her plan and discovers a lad with untapped possibilities and becomes his mentor. This one is slightly outside the perimeters since it's was a TV special but with Katharine Hepburn, in her best late career performance, as the star; George Cukor as director and production values good enough for a theatrical release I decided to include it since it's a favorite of mine.

    1. All your picks sound great, Joel. I grew up on Kindergarten Cop. Not perfect but totally watchable, endlessly quotable. I've heard of teachers but have never given it a try. The Miracle Worker I'm pretty sure I saw once in elementary school, maybe middle school. Been a long while anyway. That TV movie sounds great!

      The Wire is definitely worth watching. It is the most honest and sophisticated TV series I've ever seen. Just perfect. October Sky was always huge around where I'm from, since they shot it about 15 miles away from my hometown. It was such a big deal. I know several of the extras in the science fair scene, quite well actually. So funny. Anyway, it's a fantastic little movie. So uplifting and genuine in all the right ways, specifically with the way Dern's Miss Riley is drawn.

      Thanks for sharing with me, Joel.

  3. Prezbo! I love him. In the first season of the wire when he punched that kid, I thought I was going to hate him, but he turned out to be so useful and kind of tragic in a way.

    Great picks. All worthy teachers, even if I didn't care for Dead Poet Society as a whole.

    1. No doubt. You got it right about Prez. Love where they took that character. Thanks.

  4. I love Dead Poets Society, too. Great great pick. My only question on your TV picks is where's Mr. Feeney?

    1. Feeney was in consideration, for sure. I just don't have solid memories of a lot of that show. I watched it and loved it. Don't remember much. Mostly Topanga.

      Seize the day, Captain.

  5. I haven't seen most of your choices, but loved School of Rock. I also initially dismissed it, but it's one of my favorite music movies now. Great picks!

  6. The "Mr. Powers looks like Jack Black from School of Rock" Facebook page -- Ha ha! I love it.

    This is a wonderful post -- I love the way you made each of your three main picks so personal. I had a friend who fell in love with School of Rock. For her, it kind of symbolized her journey as a homeschooling mom -- throwing out the books and digging into their family's passions.

    1. Yeah. That definitely happened. Haha!

      Thanks so much. School of Rock certainly has an important message about embracing your talents. Really fun flick.

  7. OMG-Dead Poet's Society is on my top must see films. Yes I have not seen it yet. I have seen October Sky which i think is brilliant and quite profound. School of Rock is cute but there is something about Jack Black that just annoys me and I even find somewhat creepy. I like the inclusion of the TV teachers-Who remembers Room 222?

    1. Jack Black can certainly annoy. I am not a huge fan, either. Really found School of Rock to be just a lot of fun. I just looked up Room 222, and that sounds amazing! See Dead Poets Society. It's great.

    2. Oh Room 222!! They showed that briefly again about two years ago. It was very much of its time period in certain ways but a lot of the issues it looked at were timeless and it was considered very progressive when it was on. Being a teacher Kevin I think there would be much that you would enjoy in it. I had such a crush on Karen Valentine back then!! She played the young novice teacher who matured as the series went along. I know at the least the first season is on DVD.

    3. I am so gonna check it out. Thanks, Joel and Birgit, for the rec.

  8. I LOVE your picks! I definitely would have Mr Keating and Miss Riley on my teacher wish list!

  9. YES! School of Rock almost made it into my list but I'm saving it for another Thursday. Great Picks!

    -Katie at Ever So Ethnically Confused

  10. Dead Poet's Society is just so freaking beautiful. An All-Time Favorite for sure.

    I picked School of Rock this week, too! Far and away the best thing Jack Black has ever done, and I think Richard Linklater is to thank for that, bless him. The movie is so funny and the way Black plays off the kids is just great to watch. I don't think I'd want him as a teacher, even a sub, but I sure love watching him! LOVE that your kids created that Facebook page!

    If I could go with TV stuff, I'd pick Boston Public. One of the few shows my whole family watched together. Both of my parents worked in schools (Dad was a former high school teacher turned vice principal, Mom a school social worker) and they loved how truthful it felt on the teacher/administrator side of things, despite having the typical David E. Kelley over-the-top melodrama.

    And Giles on Buffy, of course. Because Buffy is just the best, and you just can't beat an ass-kicking librarian into the occult.

    1. It really is. I love it.

      School of Rock is easily one of Jack Black's best. Love the way he interacts with all those kid actors. So much fun.

      I never watched Boston Public. I really should watch it. Sounds great.

      I've never seen Buffy. Not once.

  11. Aw, I love all of these picks, good job. You really brought back some memories.

  12. Yes to all three movies! I would have picked that myself too.