My Favorite Teacher Movies

In honor or Teachers Appreciation Week, here is a post from seven years ago. It received wonderful suggestions in the comments section as there are so many good ones I did not mention. Please add yours below.

I was inspired to write this having seen a review of all the musical performers who went on “The Ed Sullivan Show” with a focus on performers from Great Britain. So, what does this have to do with teachers, you ask? In 1967, the singer Lulu came on the show to sing the title song from “To Sir, with love” a song that lives beyond its boundaries. The movie by the same name is one of my four favorite movies about teachers.

“To Sir, with love” was set in the 1960s in a working class area. Sidney Poitier played the role of “Sir” which was what the male teachers were called. After much angst of trying to teach these high school seniors, he realized that they were about to go into the real world, so he decided to teach them about life. I must confess I get chills writing this, as he taught them how to act toward each other; he taught them about race relations and human dignity; he taught them the beautiful things in the world and showed them opportunity. And, he taught them that the world was not going to give you anything, so you better work hard. If you have not seen the movie, I will not spoil the ending.

The next three were hard to pick from, but I went with “Dead Poet’s Society” perhaps Robin Williams’ best movie filmed in 1989. Williams’ character Mr. Keating returned to a prep school for boys that he had attended. The boys had been taught to conform and toe the line, but Keating taught them poetry and passion. He taught them about carpe diem. And, they called him “Oh Captain, my Captain.” The best moment in the movie is when he teaches Ethan Hawke’s character how to improvise a poem, since he was having so much trouble writing one. After he does so, Keating whispers in his ear, “don’t you ever forget this.”

“Stand and Deliver” with Edward James Olmos made in 1988 is a about a math teacher who decided to teach Calculus to Latin American high school students in an impoverished neighborhood. He is ridiculed and laughed at by the other math teachers and principal. He drafts kids who work over the summer on pre-calculus material, to be prepared for the even harder stuff in the fall. Lou Diamond Phillips plays one of his students and Andy Garcia plays a testing official with the Advanced Placement organization. These kids fight an uphill battle with Olmos’ coaching, teaching and coercing. And, just when they succeed, they get slapped down and have to do it again. It is an inspiring true story about what blood, sweat and tears mixed with some passion and intellect can do.

The final member of my quartet is “Mr. Holland’s Opus” made in 1995 with Richard Dreyfus as Mr. Holland, the music and band teacher. Take a lot of tissue to the couch if you watch this one. Mr. Holland worked on his opus for years, but found out later that his real opus was the kids he taught. Along the way, he had a challenge he needed to overcome and that was when his son was born deaf. But, his son being deaf was not the biggest obstacle, it was him finding the way to show his son his passion and bring him into his world and becoming more a part of his son’s. Being the father of band students over the years, with my oldest being in the marching and jazz bands, this show has extra meaning for me. Hats off to Jay Thomas as Holland’s friend and the school’s athletic coach. And, Bill H. Macy and Olympia Dukakis play important roles, although you will not care for Macy’s character at all.

I think movies about great teachers have a special place in our hearts. We all have been inspired by one or more teachers. And, just like these inspirational teachers, there are other excellent movies about teachers – “Finding Forrester” with Sean Connery, “Dangerous Minds,” with Michelle Pfeiffer, “Teachers” with Nick Nolte and JoBeth Williams, “The Great Debaters” with Denzel Washington and “Lean on Me” with Morgan Freeman to name a few. 

I would love to hear about your favorites. Did I miss one that I should have highlighted? Have you seen the above? What teacher did you have that made a difference in your life?

The Mighty Casey – a tribute to a great teacher

The following post was written about eight years ago in tribute to a college professor. As my mother was a teacher for years, I have a great affinity for all teachers, but especially the ones who go beyond the call. We should especially honor teachers who are risking their health by reopening their classrooms in these strange times.

Queen Latifah, whose mother was a teacher, is hosting a documentary show called “Teach.” The show highlights the passion, caring, capability and tenacity of several teachers at various grade levels. Peppered throughout the show, are small segments where actors and others come into view and highlight teachers that made a difference to them. It caused my wife and I to reflect on the teachers that meant so much to us. I had several in my K-12 years, but I wanted to highlight one from my college days, as I had his classes several times. I will call him The Mighty Casey, which is actually a nickname from another venue. More on that later.

Teachers come in all forms, shapes, and styles. Some are more demonstrative than others, while some are fairly studious even in front of a class. The Mighty Casey was actually more of the latter. He had a great sense of humor, yet did not use it as part of his teaching method. He was interesting beyond his subject matter skills (more on that later), but did not use those interests as props in his lectures. His gift was his magnificent ability to explain complex things for many to understand. And, if you did not get it, he was very generous with his time after classes to help you understand. He was quite genuine and approachable. This man, who could have had a large-size ego on exhibit due his reputation and authoring of books and papers, was not one to condescend and make you feel stupid.

We even drafted him to play on our basketball team at the college, which may have been the worst team ever. As one of our departing gifts at graduation, we framed a quizzical picture of him in a rag-tag basketball shirt. I reflect on that with an open question – how many students would give a picture of their favorite professor wearing a ill-fitting basketball shirt? But, that was part of who The Mighty Casey was and is. His love of sports was a reason behind the nickname he chose for a radio sports talk show he used to call into.

The DJ had a quiz format at the end of each radio show. Over a period of months which turned into years, when the questions were not answered by any listeners, our professor would call in and correctly answer the question. Instead of giving his real name, he chose the nickname “The Mighty Casey.” Many Americans know the reference to the Mighty Casey, from a baseball poem about a hero who strikes out to end the game called “Casey at the Bat” written in 1888 by Ernest Thayer. But, our professor rarely struck out. He became so proficient, he became the go-to guy on tough questions, not unlike his ability to explain complex topics to students. When the DJ needed to conclude the quiz part of the show when it ran long, the DJ would ask if “The Mighty Casey,”  “Casey” or even “Case” was listening. He usually was and would call in and answer the question correctly. And, it was not unusual for him to provide some deeper context to the events around a question.

Not using his name on the sports quiz show is a look into the character of this great teacher. He did not desire the acclaim for his name. He just loved to share what he knew so others could learn. I think that is the best way to think of him. His joy was helping people learn. He did not want people to only know the answer. He wanted people to be able to solve for the next answer using what he taught them. The Mighty Casey was a mentor and teacher to many. He made a huge difference to my career and life. His patience, understanding and love of learning and teaching are remembered well by many people.

Thank you – The Mighty Casey. You did not strike out when it mattered the most. All the best to you and your family. Readers, please feel free to share your favorites and why. I would love to hear your stories.