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?

Ain’t no sunshine when (he’s) gone

Bill Withers died a few days ago at the age of 81. If you don’t know who Withers is, you may know one or two of his songs. The one that is getting the most attention, and should is “Lean on me.” More on that later. The one that also should get attention is the soulful song of loss called “Ain’t no sunshine.”

The next lyric is “when she’s gone,” but we can use this title to remember Withers with the replacement word “he’s.” This song has been used in at least one movie to share the sense of loss. I also liked that Booker T. Jones produced it and Donald “Duck” Dunn played bass with Stephen Stills on guitar.* Here is the first stanza.

Ain’t no sunshine

“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone
It’s not warm when she’s away
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone
And she’s always gone too long anytime she goes away.”

“Lean on me” deserves attention. It keeps coming back in new strains and served as the title song to a movie in the late 1980s. In my view, given its words and simple heartfelt melody and delivery, it is one of the finest pop songs every written. It is not a surprise that it is an anthem for healthcare workers today. Here is the first stanza and chorus.

Lean on me

“Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on.”

A song that is a little out of character with the first two is “Use me up.” In short, he knows he is being used by a girlfriend, but he is enjoying his time too much to change her poor behavior toward him. Here is the first stanza.

Use me up

“My friends feel it’s their appointed duty
They keep trying to tell me all you want to do is use me
But my answer yeah to all that use me stuff
Is I want to spread the news that if it feels this good getting used
Oh you just keep on using me until you use me up
Until you use me up.”

The final song I want to highlight was released as duet with Grover Washington, Jr. about ten years later. It is called “Just the two of us.” Here is the chorus.

Just the two of us

“Just the two of us
We can make it if we try
Just the two of us
Just the two of us
Building castles in the sky
Just the two of us
You and I.”

If you only remembered the first two songs, that would still paint Withers in a good light. He had voice that resonated. His songs also had a good pacing, so that the words could shine through. He will be missed.

* Note: Booker T and the MGs were the studio band on many Memphis R&B recordings. Donald “Duck” Dunn was a member. Think the band behind John Belushi and Dan Akyroid in “The Blues Brothers.” Stephen Stills, of course, was with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Buffalo Springfield.

Note: Here is a link to Jill’s post on Bill Withers which includes some song links.

♫ Bill Withers — A Tribute ♫