Over the years, the film industry has shown us a number of memorable teachers, some whose classrooms we wished we could walk into every day and some who terrified us to our very core. While the profession may be noble, the cinema does seem to love showing us the light and dark sides of teaching while reminding us how important the teachers in our lives truly are.
In films like Teachers, To Sir with Love, and Up the Down Staircase, we have seen some of the most inspirational stories related to the hard work our teachers do for us every day, and it reminds us of how much we would be missing in our lives without their significant influence. Sometimes, though, we see our worst teachers mirrored on the silver screen, either played for laughs or chills, and the reach of an educator may be made even clearer by these films.
Considering this, we at ScreenRant decided to put together a list of the Best and Worst Teachers in Film (along with one bonus best/worst teacher). Remember, just because it’s summer doesn’t mean you can’t learn something.
The character chosen must be a teacher. This means no principals, no coaches, and no mentors. We could do a whole separate list for best and worst coaches in film and mentors as well. However, this doesn’t mean that we weren’t disappointed about having to leave Pai Mei and Obi-Wan off the list.
5. BEST – DEWEY FINN IN SCHOOL OF ROCK
Despite coming to class hungover, lying to children, parents, and principals, and generally being a hot mess, Dewey (Jack Black) is one of those teachers we all wish we’d had. For one, he cares deeply about the material he teaches and will literally jump up and down or sing at the top of his lungs to get his students involved. He also takes different approaches to help the kids who don’t fit into the regular mold, encouraging them to be themselves. But the best part about Dewey is that he makes his students feel good about themselves, and we could all use a teacher like that.
Sure, he isn’t actually supposed to be teaching Rock 101 or giving lectures on The Man to a group of elementary schoolers. But Dewey’s enthusiasm and passion can help you overlook even the most intense of his flaws. And who wouldn’t want to have the homework assignment of listening to Rush or Yes in order to create better musical fusion the next day in class? Rock on. In addition, School of Rock opened at number one at the box office while Black went on to be nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance and win an MTV Movie Award.
4. BEST – ANNIE SULLIVAN IN THE MIRACLE WORKER
“Sooner or later, we all give up, don’t we?” says James Keller, Helen Keller’s half brother. “Maybe you all do,” says Anne Sullivan, “but it’s my idea of the original sin… Giving up!” It is for this reason that Miss Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) is able to finally teach Helen how to communicate after years of violent outbursts, tantrums, and isolation.
In The Miracle Worker, Sullivan’s teaching method is not exactly one we would all clamor to receive. In truth, she is just as stubborn as her pupil. But her fierceness and determination is admirable as she refuses to give up on Keller and, eventually, opens up the entire world for her through her ability to communicate with others. Bancroft won an Oscar for portraying Anne Sullivan, who was based on the actual teacher of Helen Keller, and Patty Duke, who portrayed Keller in the 1962 film, actually went on to play the part of Anne Sullivan in a 1979 TV movie. Bancroft’s portrayal, though, and the film itself taught us that someone doesn’t always have to be sympathetic in order to be exactly what we need.
3. BEST – JOHN KEATING IN DEAD POETS SOCIETY
In a stuffy boarding school that upholds tradition and conformity above all else, John Keating (Robin Williams) aims to teach his students that life is about much more than pleasing their parents and being sensible. It’s incredible to hear a teacher pronounce that “poetry, beauty, romance, and love” are the “things we stay alive for,” and his ability to use humor in the classroom only strengthens his message that life isn’t worth living unless you’re enjoying it.
Dead Poets Society did receive mostly positive reviews, but some critics believed Robin Williams put too much of his stand-up act into the character. However, the late actor did receive an Oscar nomination for the film, and his portrayal still makes audiences smile and cry, up to the very end.
2. BEST – GLENN HOLLAND IN MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS
In Mr. Holland’s Opus, Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) takes a teaching job at a high school in order to give himself more time to work on composing music of his own. However, he winds up staying in the position and is finally forced into early retirement once his dreams of a music career have basically ended. He believes himself to be a failure––until his students return to play one last piece.
Glenn Holland is the kind of teacher who touches so many lives without realizing it and who finally is able to through the kindness and love of his students. Though he has is own dreams and difficulties, he never hesitates to help a student achieve their goals, and he is finally rewarded for this in the end. Dreyfuss was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Holland, and the film introduced audiences to a character most of them already knew: a teacher who gave his students his absolute best.
1. BEST – INDIANA JONES IN RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
Ask someone of any age or gender which movie teacher they wish could have been their instructor in real life, and 9 times out of ten, their answer will be Indiana Jones. Though he might be a little distracted at times (and understandably so), Harrison Ford’s legendary adventurer/professor is probably the teacher we all wish we were, above anything else.
Still, Professor Indiana Jones is cool, commanding, and has intimate knowledge of his material while also being eye candy for everyone in the room. And judging by the number of apples on his desk, you know he grades fairly. Now if only we could get him to schedule a field trip for his next adventure…
Raiders of the Lost Ark was the highest grossing film of 1981 and was also praised by both audiences and critics. Ford of course appeared in three more films about the hero/professor, but if Internet rumors are to be believed, Chris Pratt could possibly be donning the hat and whip someday soon. Basically, any teacher who spends his weekends recovering ancient artifacts and fist fighting Nazis has our vote.
5. WORST – THE TEACHER IN PINK FLOYD THE WALL
By mocking a young boy for writing poetry in class, the Teacher (Alex McAvoy) in the film based on the band’s highly successful 1972 album is basically the antithesis of Robin Williams’ John Keating. The movie focuses briefly on the school days of little Pink, but the music and images during this section are some of the most memorable. As the lyrics from “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” read, “When we grew up and went to school/There were certain teachers who/Would hurt the children any way they could.”
The Teacher uses corporal punishment as well as verbal abuse on his students, but the fantasy sequence where the students burn the school to the ground and carry him off is incredibly satisfying. It may also be McAvoy’s best known roll, and although Roger Waters has expressed issues with the final product, the film does bring to the concept album to life in loud, living color.
4. WORST – DOLORES UMBRIDGE IN HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX
Probably the worst of all of Hogwarts’ many Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers (including Gilderoy Lockhart), Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is one teacher no one hopes to have. By forcing Harry to write with a quill that scars him and drains his blood, using illegal truth potions to interrogate students, and policing every move of teachers and students alike, Umbridge’s power hungry ways alienate nearly everyone. And on top of that, she teaches from the book because she honestly knows next to nothing about the subject matter.
3. WORST – THE ECONOMICS TEACHER IN FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF
“Anyone, anyone?” Watching the economics teacher (Ben Stein) in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off can get anyone laughing because haven’t we all had a teacher like this? The monotonous voice, the droning speech, the inability to stop long enough for anyone to actually answer one of his questions; though he isn’t in the film long, he’s one of the most memorable parts about it (and the students’ faces are priceless).
The film is considered one of the all-time teen movie classics from director John Hughes and has received critical acclaim from its release up to today. In addition, the part itself actually launched Ben Stein’s acting career who, before the 1986 film, was a Hollywood consultant, poverty lawyer, speech writer, and yes, even a teacher.
2. ELIZABETH HALSEY IN BAD TEACHER
It’s right there in the title; Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) is rude, cusses at her students, hates her job, and basically doesn’t care about anyone but herself. Over the course of the film, she drugs and blackmails a state official, embezzles money from parents (that she wants to put toward a boob job), and cheats on a state test in order to get even more money. Diaz’s performance as Halsey is funny, but it is frightening to imagine her actually teaching children.
While the film performed well at the box office and even spawned a short-lived TV show, Halsey is definitely not the teacher you would want nurturing any of the young minds you know. Although she does end up changing somewhat by the end, it’s still a cringe-worthy film for any parent with a young kid.
1. WORST – EVERY TEACHER IN THE FACULTY
Even though all high school students think their teachers are actually aliens out to get them, the students at Herrington High School are actually right. In the 1998 film The Faculty, Piper Laurie plays the drama teacher who helps force one of the alien creatures into the ear of the school nurse (Selma Hayek), and Jon Stewart as the science teacher eventually succumbs as well. Soon, the whole school is turning on the students, and it’s up to a small few to save them by finding the queen.
The film didn’t receive either critical or box office success but has since become a cult classic, in large part because of its director Robert Rodriguez. Kevin Williamson, who was brought in to do rewrites, chose not to direct because he wanted to work on his own scary teacher movie Teaching Mrs. Tingle. However, it is difficult to imagine a worse scenario for students than an army of teachers being mind-controlled by space slugs.
Special Mention – WORST of the BEST – DR. TERENCE FLETCHER IN WHIPLASH
In the 2015 film Whiplash, J.K. Simmons plays Dr. Terence Fletcher, a music teacher at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory. Simmons won an Oscar for his performance, and while it was certainly deserved, it was difficult to decide whether Fletcher himself belonged on the list of best or worst teachers. The truth is, he remains in his own category.
Fletcher both physically and verbally abuses Andrew Neiman, the first year drums student he promotes to his studio band. Eventually, Neiman snaps and attacks him after Fletcher’s insults have caused him to reach a breaking point. However, the film actually gives you an insight into Fletcher’s way of thinking when he says, “I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that’s an absolute necessity.” In the end, all Fletcher’s pushing has made Neiman a better drummer––but is it worth it?
The Oscar-nominated film allows you to answer this question for yourself, but the truth about Fletcher is he acts the way he does in order to create something great. And love Fletcher or hate him, Whiplash does portray one of the most intense and riveting teacher-student relationships in all of film history.