One of the great things about adulthood is that we don’t have to go to school anymore, and yet we keep returning by way of the movies. Why do we keep going back? To imagine what it would have been like to have good teachers rather than the sadists who tormented us in Algebra I and European History? To remember the moments when we really connected with a teacher and felt a wave of knowledge washing over us? Whatever the reason, we know as the lights dim that the best big-screen teachers will help their cinematic students learn plenty of small lessons and maybe some big life lessons too. How many of these memorable educators have you met?
10. Terry Corrigan (Class of 1984) Roddy McDowall, in his second-greatest screen performance (Cornelius the ape is still tops), plays a teacher so completely undone by the wild violence of his out-of-control high school that he ends up teaching class while waving a loaded pistol at his students. Better answer correctly! No doubt he is the favorite on-screen teacher of teachers.
9. Mr. Chips (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) Robert Donat won an Oscar as the much beloved British headmaster who looks back over his long life of teaching with as much fondness for his students as they have for him. Though British boarding schools aren’t known for being warm and fuzzy — Prince Charles never quite recovered from his experience -Mr. Chips makes them seem like paradise.
8. Miss Shields (A Christmas Story) She has to put up with the antics of Ralphie, Flick, Schwartz, and the rest, but she does so with great kindness, never being too harsh with her students as she confiscates their incredible collections of banned toys and assorted gags. And she’s more than willing to rescue Flick when his tongue gets stuck to the frozen flag pole. Nice lady.
7. Dave Jennings (Animal House) Don’t you wish all your English professors had been so hilariously zonked out? Donald Sutherland is a trip and a half. And take it from someone who knows: When he says that Milton is really really boring, he’s right!
6. Glenn Holland (Mr. Holland’s Opus) Richard Dreyfuss takes Mr. Holland through 30 years of band practice. Along the way, we get countless lessons in perseverance and self-esteem. There’s a lot of treacle here, but he still makes you want to pick up a tuba and give it a toot.
5. Mr. Hand (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) At first the cranky old SOB seems like the Social Studies teacher from hell (‘Why do you shamelessly waste my time like this?’), but when he goes the extra mile at the last minute to help hopeless stoner Spicoli pass his class, even showing up in Spicoli’s bedroom for a house call, you realize that he’s one righteous dude. Aloha!
4. Mark Thackeray (To Sir, With Love) They call him Mr. Tibbs! Oh, wait. Wrong movie. In this one, Sidney Poitier takes on a rowdy class of rough-and-tumble London Cockney kids and teaches them self-respect above all else. By the end, they love him so much they’re even writing songs to him. Hit it, Lulu!
3. John Keating (Dead Poets Society) Even if Robin Williams normally makes you break out in a rash, you won’t mind watching as he awakens the spirits of his uptight prep-school students. Art! Beauty! Shakespeare! O Captain, My Captain! The kids are thrilled (Ethan Hawke’s cheeks go positively rosy), but it’s all a bit much for the prune-faced administrators, so naturally he gets fired. He probably ended up at UC Santa Cruz.
2. Jaime Escalante (Stand and Deliver) Can you believe you’re actually watching a movie about math? Edward James Olmos portrays the real-life L.A. teacher who takes dead-end gang bangers and turns them into calculus geniuses. Hard to believe, but it’s true!
1. Georges Lopez (To Be and To Have) It’s a small miracle, but this documentary about elementary education in rural France will leave you emotionally devastated. An achingly beautiful film, it tracks a year of learning in a one-room schoolhouse lovingly tended by the soft-spoken and almost saint-like Lopez, whose patience and gentleness with his gaggle of young farmers’ kids is truly something to see. If you’re not weeping copious tears at the end of this one, you haven’t been paying attention. Go straight to detention!