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.

Remember who passed you the ball

Legendary college basketball coach Dean Smith preached to his players who scored to acknowledge the player that passed them the ball. Think about why that is important in a team game.

It can also apply to everyday life. So, at this holiday time, let’s acknowledge those who pass us the ball. Or, we could honor them by paying their kindness or help forward. Here are a few random thoughts.

Let’s start with teachers, who do not get paid near enough to do the many things they have to do. Parents should not expect perfection, but hope they have teachers who care and can reach the hearts and minds of their students. They deserve thanks.

Let’s move on to healthcare workers who tend to the basic need of patients whether it is at a hospital or long term care facility. They are not paid a King’s ransom to put up with people’s s**t, literarally and figuratively. Yes, we want our loved ones taken care of, but we should put what these folks do in perspective and offer them some appreciation.

Wait staff in restaurants are not on any highest paid lists. No question, we should want good service in a restaurant, as we are spending our hard earned monies. Being a waitress or waiter is hard work, especially when someone does not show-up and people have to cover for them. But, two golden things might help us all – that golden rule is one, while the other is honey. Treating service people with dignity and as a person, will improve your service.

I picked these examples as we seem to live in a world where people are more demanding and less kind to service providers. Of course, we should want good service, yet we could do ourselves and others a favor to understand the context. Acknowledge those passing the ball. It would be a nice birthday present to the guy who said that golden rule thing.

Everyone needs a Joe

Everyone needs a Joe in their life. You know the person. The one who is curious in learning and sincerely knowing what is going on in your life. The one who can talk with your kids as easily as he or she talks with you.

Joe’s are the kind of people who end up being teachers because of that desire to help others grow. The one who is the teacher that cares about the kids more than anything. Joe may dress and act in an eclectic manner, but is as down to earth as it comes. Joe would give you the shirt off his or her back if you needed it.

Joe is the kind of person who gets animated about upbringing, travels, or subject matter interests. A rapt storyteller is Joe which is a key part of the charming person. When Joe gets going, his or her voice can fill a room.

We had a Joe, but his body gave out on him after only 61 years. Too many car accidents left his body in pain and his big heart likely gave out on him after so much medication for too many years. He was my wife’s brother and left a lasting imprint on more than a few. He loved teaching science and married his soulmate after two earlier marriages went awry. His wife was also a teacher having just retired. It is a shame Joe won’t be with her in this physical world. He leaves three children who love hiking and the environment like their Dad.

Bless you Joe. Our Thanksgiving table will have a huge gap, just like our lives as we carry on without you. But, we will remember you forever.

Giving makes me feel like I’m living

The above title is a quote offered by Morrie Schwartz, the subject of Mitch Albom’s book “Tuesdays with Morrie.” The book continues to sell with over fifteen million copies sold in 45 countries. It describes Albom’s weekly visits with his favorite teacher and mentor named Morrie.

Albom shared today on CBS This Morning, he was not the only person to routinely visit his mentor. Others went with the goal of cheering up Morrie, but they would leave being comforted as Morrie would invariably ask them about their lives and challenges.

When Albom inquired about this of Morrie, he said “Giving makes me feel like I’m living.” What profound words coming from a teacher. To me, this echoes the term I have used called “psychic income.” Giving to others with your time, ear, support, donations, etc. provides you with a psychic income.

Yet, like with lessons in the book, Morrie’s phrasing of why he gives is much more profound. Albom notes this is the reason his book strikes a chord with so many.

Please honor our teachers, mothers and fathers by paying forward their giving to us. We will also benefit.

My mother the teacher

When one of the boys I was coaching in baseball found out my mother had been his teacher, he said immediately about the sweetest woman I know, “Your mother is mean.” I asked him why he would say that and he said my mother put his desk up front by her desk. Now, if you remember anything about teachers, you know when a teacher does this she is beyond her last straw. I also knew the boy was more animated than others in practice and would not listen very well. When I mentioned this later to my mother, she said, “He was a real pill.”

Teaching is a hard job. It can be very rewarding, but it also can be very thankless. My mother has always been a teacher, whether as a second grade teacher, as a substitute or as a bible study teacher. She would spend (and still does at age 83) hours preparing her lessons and, in the case of elementary school, grading papers. In her paying job, she probably worked ten to twelve hours days. Some might say, teachers get summer off, but they work a week after school is out and a few weeks before every one comes back. But, when you add up the hours, they can rival most year-round employment jobs.

However, because they are relatively low paid, especially in my state of North Carolina where we are 46th in teacher pay, many work summer jobs as well. Our state is trying to remedy the problem it created with frozen budgets and cutbacks on additional pay for masters degrees. Teachers have been voting with their feet leaving the state and the Moral Monday protests added a large voice to that of teachers to shame the legislators into doing something. They are still arguing over this as of this writing.

Yet, through this process, teachers have not been shown the respect they have earned. Of course, there are some poor teachers. But for the large part, my experience has been with very dedicated professionals. And, they also take the blame for things outside of their control. My mother would tell you that it does take a village to raise and educate a child. A good teacher cannot do the parent’s job. It needs to be a team effort between the teacher, parents, counselors and teacher assistants. Also, volunteers help, in a large way, especially if there is not enough teacher assistants to cover the classes.

But, you may have noticed I used the plural of parents. The dilemma these days is if you looked at the demographics of classrooms, the number of kids with divorced parents would not be insignificant. Further, the number of those kids with only one parent in their relationship would not be inconsequential, especially in high poverty schools. In the volunteer work I do for homeless families, there is a significant percentage of single parent families. Divorced or single parent families make it tougher on the kids.

A couple of years ago, I tutored two fifth graders in math. They were interesting and attentive little girls who asked for help in writing. This blew me away. Yet, one had ten people and three generations in her house and the other had seven people. Each had a heavy list of chores beyond the normal 5th grader, so school work was difficult to fit in. The nice part is a school counselor was working with the teachers and parents to help these girls keep up. Since English was their second language, word math problems gave them trouble, as did geometry, but that can give anyone nightmares. We worked through their issues and they passed.

Seeing my mother with my kids and my nieces and nephews, she has the patience of Job. She embodies what teachers are all about. They want to help people and take great pride when the children learn and can apply their learnings to something else. In Finland, teaching is one of their most honored professions. Their brightest aspire to these roles and are given the freedom to teach. They are paid well and Finland routinely ranks high in education achievement.

We should value people like my mother. They make such a huge difference in our kids’ lives. They did in my life, as well. So, big shout outs to Mr. Batten, Ms. Bowden, Ms. Regan, Ms. Shrout, Mr. Brickell and countless others. Thanks for teaching me. And, the biggest thanks go to Mom. You are my first and best teacher. I love you, Mom.

My Favorite Teacher Movies

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 – “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?