As the school year begins, I’ll be returning again to my favorite educational films–some inspiring, some hilarious. Here are the characters and performances I consider award worthy.
THE TEACHERS: 5 BEST CHARACTERS
5. Mr. Shoop in Summer School (1987)
Gym teacher Mr. Shoop (Mark Harmon) plans to vacation in Hawaii with his girlfriend for the summer, but when the English teacher wins the lottery and immediately quits, Shoop’s forced to teach remedial English. He is the most likable of the teachers I’ve chosen, easygoing and even tempered, good natured even when tried. Ultimately, his slacker ways convert into effort in the classroom, and because he relates to and has no illusions about his students’ disinterest, he’s able to reach them. Most importantly, he has rational expectations of them, and celebrates progress rather than any specific target, as any good teacher should (and would be able to, would the system allow it). Plus, the film is hilarious, and Harmon is so attractive in it.
4. Elizabeth Halsey in Bad Teacher (2011)
Cameron Diaz doesn’t always reach her comic potential, but when she does, as with Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) in Bad Teacher, she’s something to watch. The montage of her avoidance of crying students and celebrating teachers makes me laugh every time, as does her unabashedly sexy school car wash and cruel honesty in speaking with her class and grading their work. She is a terrible teacher, but her narcissism and bluntness make her a very, very funny one.
3. Teachers in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) & Peanuts
If pressed, I’d prefer Peanuts‘ gibberish teacher to Ben Stein’s gloriously boring one, but the two are closely tied. Obviously, both types are accurate portrayals of how instructors come across to students. I love how Stein has given upon class participation, simply saying, “anyone, anyone?” then answering himself. But Peanuts’ teacher may get the edge because I have this same reaction ANY time I encounter something I don’t understand. My car is being fixed, I’m listening to explanations of the U.S. debt, and I hear that waa-waa-waa of Peanuts’ comically confusing instructor.
2. Prez in The Wire (2006)
Season 4 of The Wire features the Baltimore school system, with former cop Roland Pryzbylewski, known as Prez (Jim True-Frost), teaching the students from neighborhoods he formerly policed. As a result, he knows what his students are up against, though he isn’t prepared for the challenge of teaching them. I’ve never seen a more accurate depiction of teaching in a difficult district. Prez’s use of gambling odds as an example to finally reach some of his students in the episode “Unto Others” is remarkably telling about their priorities–and squandered potential. We can only wish that those who had more influence in the system were as wise and compassionate as Prez.
1. Sir in To Sir, with Love (1967)
Sir’s (Sidney Poitier) school district in England is characterized as very challenging, even if it looks less so to us in 2015. We see him constantly thwarted, and frequently angry. His race becomes one more thing students have against him. His decision to throw out the lesson plan and begin anew is what any good teacher would do if it were allowed–the problem, of course, is that you only want good teachers doing so.
What I love about Sir is that he’s a reluctant instructor, only there because he can’t get a job in his field, and slowly, these rebellious kids win him over. He is a very flawed character, even socially awkward, and thus very real. Poitier deserved an Oscar for the performance. The theme song makes me tear up every time. And the film has such a lovely, perfect, subtle ending. The movie is inspiring without ever losing track of reality (as most teacher-centric films do).
THE STUDENTS: TOP 5 PORTRAYALS
5. Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Spicoli (Sean Penn), the ultimate surfer dude. I don’t think this character requires any explanation (most would expect to see him as #1). While there is a shadow of this stoner in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), it’s in her earlier film, Fast Times, that she captured an iconic form of the type, mainly due to Cameron Crowe’s script. Spicoli’s (Sean Penn’s) battles with his teacher, Mr. Hand (who deserves an honorable mention in the list above), are perfect.
Bagel tucked in jeans, shirtless, Spicoli makes us laugh before he says a word. Penn gives him an awkward gait; a spacey expression; long, wordless pauses; and an inability to detect sarcasm. As a result, he is as lovable as he is annoying. Penn turned the surfer dude into comedy gold, and actors have been imitating him ever since.
4. The Frustrated/Bored of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off & Peanuts
There’s really no need to pinpoint an individual in the mass of disinterested students who are ignoring Ben Stein’s flat delivery of “Bueller?” as he calls the roll. The Peanuts characters’ confusion at their instructors’ seeming gibberish are similarly funny, though Charlie Brown’s panic is particularly funny. What’s unavoidably true is just how typical both the boredom and confusion are in any classroom, though hopefully with occasional relief! Beautifully rendered in both cases through the facial expressions of the students as the teacher drones on.
3. The Intellectuals of Better Off Dead (1985)
Most films portray the majority of students as inattentive and uninterested. This film subverts our expectations, with a class enthralled by comically difficult subject matter. They’re so enthusiastic that they groan when they have to leave the classroom, comforted only when their math teacher reassures them: “I’ll see you all tomorrow. Just remember to memorize pages 39 to 110 for tomorrow’s lesson.” It’s so obviously a teacher’s dream of what students would be like after watching too many inspiring education films that it always cracks me up. Lane (John Cusack), in contrast with his peers’ binders of work, takes out one sheet of paper with “Do homework” stuck together with gum. In this case, the slacker is the unpopular one. It’s a mistake not to watch the whole film, but at least catch this scene.
2. The Kids of The Wire, Season 4
I find it hard to write about the students in this season, as they’re far too real: Dukie (Jermaine Crawford), Randy (Maestro Harrell), Namond (Julito McCullum) and Michael (Tristan Wilds) struggle with the lure of selling drugs on the corner in Baltimore, with authority figures often encouraging or passively accepting their abandonment of education.
It’s the most vivid and compelling portrayal I’ve ever seen of the weight so many students bear with them when they enter the classroom. The Wire, unlike 90 percent of cinematic portrayals of teaching, sees that the wider culture and systemic problems of the educational system are far greater forces than one teacher with a great idea (which Prez does have) can combat. Haunting.
1. Chainsaw & Dave of Summer School
All the students in Mr. Shoop’s (Harmon’s) class are distinctive. Their plan–to exchange bribes for trying in school–is diabolical and hilarious in itself. And with characters like these–the awful driver Mr. Shoop has to train, the kid who spent the summer in the bathroom, etc.–who can stop laughing? The most memorable students are obviously Dave (Gary Riley) and Chainsaw (Dean Cameron), the wannabee special-effects guys. Who comes up with such unique characters for a silly film like this one? The tension breaker of and “I don’t know anything” dream of Chainsaw’s before the big test are my favorite depictions of academic stress in any film, book, or story. (I should, though, give an honorable mention to John Travolta’s Barbarino in Welcome Back, Kotter.) Inspired by Chainsaw, I used to suggest to friends a university-wide tension breaker when I was an undergrad.
As the school year begins, I’ll be returning to these favorites to combat moments of frustration and refresh my love for teaching. I hope some of you will do the same.