Every year, as the first day of school draws near, kids around the country are coming down with bellyaches, spontaneous coughing fits, and other phony ailments that’ll keep them out of the classroom. That’s because they equate school with boredom and piles of homework. But if movies are to be believed, some of life’s best moments happen within school walls. All it takes is one good teacher to change students’ minds—someone to challenge them to achieve greatness and ignite their dreams along the way.
These instructors may be hard to find in real life, as budget cuts chip away at teachers’ tools and livelihoods. But in Hollywood, such positive forces abound—in fact, they’re just a DVD away. For those of us who need a little encouragement in life, whether we’re going back to school or embarking on some other new journey, watching movies’ most inspirational teachers might be the perfect homework assignment.
John Keating, Dead Poets Society
Mr. Keating (or, as he’s also called, “O Captain! My Captain!”) is an unconventional tour de force in the stuffy prep school where he teaches. His English class arouses not only a love of poetry, but a zeal for life as well.
Moving Words: “Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all.”
Jaime Escalante, Stand and Deliver
This movie’s based on the real story of a math teacher in East Los Angeles who used unorthodox methods to get his high school students focused on their studies, instead of becoming caught up in a life of crime and gang violence.
Moving Words: “You’re going to work harder here than you’ve ever worked anywhere else. And the only thing I ask from you is ganas.”
Sister Mary Clarence, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit
In this sequel, Deloris, aka Sister Mary Clarence, is teaching music at a high school run by the very nuns she worked with before. Again, she works her musical magic and transforms a ragtag group of slackers into a champion choir.
Moving Words: “If you want to go somewhere, if you want to be somebody, you’d better wake up and pay attention!”
Mr. Hand, Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Viewers might first think that an uptight teacher like Mr. Hand is no match for the careless, pot-addled mind of Jeff Spicoli, a student who cares more about surfing and smoking than anything else. But then Mr. Hand surprises everyone by showing up at Spicoli’s home on the night of a big dance and teaching him a year’s worth of history in a single evening. Now that’s dedication.
Moving Words: “Man does not do anything that is not for his own good. It is for your own good that you attend my class.”
Mark Thackeray, To Sir, with Love
Both Thackeray and his students learn much through this movie: he learns that there’s a purpose for him beyond engineering, and they learn that there’s a life outside the rough world they’ve grown up in. He teaches them discipline and confidence; they teach him the power of change.
Moving Words: “I believe one should fight for what one believes.”
LouAnne Johnson, Dangerous Minds
A retired Marine–turned–temporary teacher and a group of troubled students battle it out in the classroom, but her innovative teaching methods (like giving each of them an A at the beginning and challenging them to maintain it) win them over in the end.
Moving Words: “You asked me once how I was gonna save your life. This is it. This moment.”
Glenn Holland, Mr. Holland’s Opus
What started as a teaching job to free up time for composing music and for his family became Mr. Holland’s life’s work. He taught music to high school students for thirty years, inspiring them to do bigger and better things.
Moving Words: “Playing music is supposed to be fun. It’s about heart, it’s about feelings, moving people, and something beautiful, and it’s not about notes on a page.”
Freddy Shoop, Summer School
With his goofy, laid-back personality and love of a good time, Mr. Shoop was the only person who could relate to the misfits and troublemakers in his summer-school class. Because of this, he was the only one who could teach them successfully—and he learned lessons about responsibility right along with them.
Moving Words: “I’ve been handing out assignments, and the kids turn them in and everything. It’s almost like school in there.”
Sharon Norbury, Mean Girls
Ms. Norbury tries tirelessly to impart wisdom to her students, particularly the impressionable Cady, and struggles against the popular Plastics’ negative rumors and evil influence. And at the film’s end, she has all of the girls, mean and nice alike, make peace with each other and with themselves.
Moving Words: “Cady, I hope you do join Mathletes. We start in a couple of weeks, and I would love to have you on the team, just, you know, so the team could meet a girl.”
Yoda, Star Wars
The best teachers aren’t always found in classrooms, and Yoda bestows wisdom upon burgeoning Jedis like no other. When a little green creature becomes Jedi Master of the entire galaxy, he earns a spot on any “most inspirational” list.
Moving Words: “Do or do not. There is no ‘try.’”
Though these are mostly fictional characters, I’d wager that teachers (both in school and out) who are just as motivational can be found in real life, too. Here’s hoping we all find ones in our own lives to help us discover the ganas, the music, and the Force within.