If humans are products of their environment, then students are the products of their teachers. Without mentors, scholars and professors, we would have a difficult time processing the deluge of information that fills our world. That’s why the best teachers are paid to absorb knowledge and distribute it unadulterated to their pupils. It’s easier said than done, as a truly great teacher must be able to access the heart and soul of their students in order to truly communicate. The satisfaction of the college student rests as much on classroom revelations as it does on extracurricular relations.
That’s why teachers are typically more important than stock film characters. With many movies, the teachers are the story, as they hold the keys to wisdom and understanding that so few are privileged to hold. Often, the weirdest and most unpredictable methods of teaching yield the strongest results. At least in the movies.
Here is our list of the 15 Movie Teachers With Unorthodox Methods That Work:
John Keating – Dead Poet’s Society (1989)
If more teachers read Shakespeare while impersonating John Wayne, then surely more students would appreciate the bard’s greatness. In Dead Poets Society, John Keating (Robin Williams) breaks the mortal coils of academia to provide his impressionable students with an education that accesses both the mind and the heart.
His method? Standing on desks, ripping out pages from textbooks and using the black and white alumni photos as memento moris shouting out “carpe diem!” to the living. Keating livens up the Latin and turns his class of idealistic boys into men of honor and greatness. He uses the classroom as a battleground for success and a launch pad for his students’ futures. Describing life as a play with rhyme and verse, he asks his students “What will your verse be?” It is one of the late Mr. Williams’ most lasting roles.
Severus Snape – Harry Potter (2001 – 2011)
While the truth about the seemingly slimy teacher took eight Harry Potter films to come out, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) always held his own as a competent teacher of potions. Through various forms of hazing, ridicule and criticism, Snape instilled a sort of boundless energy in Harry Potter and his classmates, forcing them to absorb their lessons through the bitter pills of anger and spite.
Despite his dour classroom setting and mirthless attitude, Snape seldom relied on favoritism and instead promoted a climate of competition that ultimately gave Hogwarts students a means of defending themselves when they needed it most. Unlike other teachers like Gilderoy Lockhart (played by the ineffable Kenneth Branagh), Snape taught his students practical usages of magic that had a place in the real world, however rarely they might be deployed. Modern teachers could learn something from the Slytherin poster boy, rather than teaching hypotheticals in a world that needs more practical solutions.
Professor Jennings – Animal House (1978)
If students are family to the school faculty, then professors see their sons and daughters leave for greener pastures at the end of every school year. For the intelligentsia, graduation means it’s out with the old and in with the new. That fleeting sense of time may be exactly what enables Professor Jennings’ (Donald Sutherland) growing sense of apathy. The man struggles to teach with any sort of conviction, boring his students into oblivion as he makes a last ditch effort to keep their attention after effectively calling John Milton’s Paradise Lost a sham: “I’m not joking! This is my job!”
How does Jennings deal with the heat? Weed. Lots of weed. Jennings smokes the left-handed cigarette with his students, propelling them to reach some truly cosmic conclusions that make them temporarily more philosophical than any regimented class structure could hope to achieve. That’s likely why Jennings considers opening a second stream of income: selling pot to the students of Faber College.
Dan Dunne – Half Nelson (2006)
When Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) gets caught smoking crack cocaine by his student, Drey (Shareeka Epps), he risks not only losing his job but his freedom. Instead, the lonely teacher gains a friend and confidante in the form of an unlikely and young ally. As a man of the classroom, Dunne shirks all the academic tendencies of public schools, relying on his own curriculum of dialectics-informed reasoning, a philosophical blend of the scientific and natural worlds as fronted by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Dunne may be two puffs away from becoming a full-blown crackhead, but he teaches from a passionate and unified worldview that keeps both himself and his classroom engaged. To the disdain of the middle school faculty, Dunne flouts convention to give his students a more complete picture of the real world. As seen in his relationship with Drey, his teaching style works wonders. So does Ryan Gosling’s performance, which stands as one of his greatest to date.
Glen Holland – Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)
Few teachers ever reach the emotional core of their students the way a professor of the arts can. Glenn Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) sacrifices his budding music career to become a family man, earning his bread and butter by teaching his craft at the local high school. He quickly learns that his type of business is under-appreciated and even disrespected in the academic hierarchy. This drives Mr. Holland to conjure the artistry lying dormant in his students, coaching them from beyond “the notes” on the page and into the depths of their emotional needs.
His effect on the student body is profound, and over the 30 years of his tenure, he leaves indelible marks on countless lives. As his most prized student reflects at the end of the film, “We are your symphony, Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus, and we are the music of your life.”
Arthur Hundert – The Emperor’s Club (2002)
With one of the greatest theme songs in James Newton Howard’s oeuvre, The Emperor’s Club excels in showing an ambitious and somewhat cold teacher softened by interacting with his students. At St. Benedict’s Academy prep school, Arthur Hundert (Kevin Kline) teaches his Classics lessons with an unorthodox blend of kindness and rigor. Emile Hirsch plays the ruffian student, Sedgewick Bell, who flouts school regulations and rules, cheating his way to victory in the Julius Caesar contest. Kline is unwittingly a participant in Hirsch’s game, blinded by his pride and enthusiasm for helping the prodigal son come home.
Told in two different timelines, The Emperor’s Club shows Professor Hundert use Bell’s recidivist guilt as the ultimate teacher, rather than turning to traditional outlets for punishment. “All of us, at some point, are forced to look at ourselves in the mirror, and see who we really are. And when that day comes for, you, Sedgewick, you will be confronted with a life lived without virtue, without principle. And for that I pity you. End of lesson.”
Professor Fletcher – Whiplash (2014)
It’s not just the chair throwing and vulgarity that makes Professor Fletcher an unorthodox teacher. It’s also only part of what made him successful. His legacy left a curse on many of his students (one who apparently committed suicide) and a blessing for a few. Through all the temper tantrums and anger, he seems to be repeatedly asking his students: How badly do you want this? In Whiplash, he makes his students bleed, weep and sweat not simply to pass muster or get the grade, but to find new levels of untested talent. He puts student against student, scouring not just their skill but also their mental fortitude.
It’s a cage match of (flying) musical chairs, with the biggest fights taking place between the two inches of headspace that house the brain. When Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) gets beyond the self-pity, frustration and deep-seated doubt, finally reaching that threshold of from which he is finally able to succeed and match the intensity level of Fletcher.
Veronica Vaughn – Billy Madison (2015)
How many teachers strip tease for students on questions about British history? Not enough. The blend between titillation and learning is superb and should be revered as a semi-respectable form of education. Clearly, Billy Madison (Adam Sandler, who else?) will never forget any questions about the Spanish armada. Veronica Vaughn (Bridgette Wilson) single-handedly instilled the teacher fantasy in a generation of susceptible youths.
She served as the inspiration for Billy Madison to improve upon his seemingly inert sense of self, and through her various “incentives” and demands, turned the man-child into something more mature. Behind every great man is a strong woman, and while Billy might not fully qualify as the former, she certainly does as the latter. Despite what Chris Farley had to say, Vaughn was more than just “one piece of ace!”
William Forrester – Finding Forrester (2000)
Writers write what they know, so it should be little surprise that many characters in screenplays are struggling writers. After all, anyone who has ever published or sold a novel or screenplay understands the process it takes to succeed. As the titular Forrester in Gus Van Sant’s film, Connery’s character sold a single, Pulitzer Prize winning book, based off the harrowing and traumatic experiences of his past, then receded into the shadows of privacy like J.D. Salinger.
Since the book’s success, Forrester has been a reclusive window-watching voyeur. When he crosses paths with Jamal, who breaks into the man’s home on a dare, Forrester’s wealth of knowledge and experience finally finds a new home. As a teacher, Forrester succeeds in making the lessons about more than the subject at hand. While he offers life advice that makes Jamal a more competent writer, the student excels in his craft by first improving his life.
Jean Brodie – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)
The opposite of a habit-wearing nun, Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) specialized in giving her female students a true social and romantic education. Eschewing the constraints of the usual English boarding school, Brodie valued the humanities and the arts as the essence of life. Jean Brodie frees her students from the rigidity of the academic system and fills them not with the knowledge of books and history, but with the emotional wealth of experience and emotion.
She teaches her students through her own actions, rather than her words, often giving the young women a real life enactment of the romance novel. She quite literally tells her students to “please try to do as I say and not as I do,” though often to little avail. Brodie creates as many problems as solutions for her students, but ultimately leaves a remarkable legacy.
Mr. S – School of Rock (2003)
As the slaphappy and electric Mr. S, Jack Black brought to life one of the most entertaining teachers on film. Seeing the raw potential for rock greatness in the humble form of a middle school music class, Mr. S builds a band as good as any other.
While his desires are entirely selfish in nature, and his title as teacher an utter sham, he manages to bring life and pizzazz to a prep-school crew that desperately needs it. Whether they’ve been silenced by the hush-hush tones of the school hallways or creatively stultified by their controlling parents, each of the students are unfettered by the boundless enthusiasm of Mr. S. Like all great teachers, he shows the students how to color outside the lines: “You’ve gotta feel it in your blood and guts! If you wanna rock, you gotta break the rules!”
Melvin Tolson – The Great Debaters (2007)
It has been said that public speaking is the average American’s second greatest fear. In The Great Debaters, Jim Crow laws and the pervasive inequality through America trump the irrational anxiety over oratorical endeavors. As Melvin B. Tolson, Denzel Washington chooses not to engage the racial disparities through physical violence but instead through intellectual war fought in the landscape of formalized debates.
At Wiley College in Texas, English Professor Tolson takes it upon himself to audition black students for the college debate team, selecting what he thinks is the most dynamic combination of students possible. His goal is to teach these men and women how to rise up from the metaphorical and physical shackles in their mind and become fully empowered by their faculties. Tolson, who was also a successful poet and political organizer, berated his debaters until they took the shape of winners: “I, and every other Professor on this campus, are here to help you to find, take back, and keep your righteous mind.”
Miss Frizzle – The Magic School Bus (1994 – 1997)
Some theorists believe “The Friz” held truly magical powers in her body, specifically in her dynamic, red mane. Regardless of whether she’s a muggle or sorceress, her “take chances, make mistakes and get messy!” attitude puts her in the middle of countless precarious situations along with her class. One half adventurer and the other a teacher of the Socratic Method, Miss Frizzle (voiced by Lily Tomlin) protects her students at all costs but never shies away from letting them find solutions to their problems.
Miss Frizzle may be omniscient, but she at least has the dignity to let her students learn the answers themselves. Her superhuman ability to laugh in the face of certain death (as when entangled in the center of a spider web) offers her students a lesson in courage, though she may laugh because she is immortal. Like Mr. Holland, she abandoned her career as a musician in favor of a teaching career, and like Mr. Holland, she left quite the mark on her pupils (and the millions who watched her on TV).
Mr. Miyagi – The Karate Kid (1984)
Whether it’s music or martial arts, great teachers show their student that the secret to success is within and not without. In the classic underdog story of The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) turns a withdrawn boy into a confident man. After Miyagi saves Daniel (Ralph Macchio) from yet another beat down, he endeavors to teach the boy how to defend himself. Thinking that a martial arts session would be immediately exciting and fulfilling, however, Daniel starts from the ground up with chores that test his endurance.
Only after he establishes a pattern of discipline and understanding does Miyagi reveal more to him on both emotional and physical fronts. Miyagi’s modus operandi focuses on moderation and balance, which he believes is the key to martial arts greatness and equilibrium in life.
Andie Bergstrom – SpaceCamp (1986)
They say that those who can’t do, teach. For Andie Bergstrom (Kate Capshaw), this proved true most of her life. Trying to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut, Andie met her share of resistance and missed opportunities. While the stern yet likable teacher seemed to be forever grounded on earth, a twist of fate suddenly put her in the stars. Prior to (accidental) liftoff, Andie led the instruction of blue team with some of NASA’s up and comers. Her unorthodox move of promoting the potentially reckless Kevin Donaldson (Tate Donovan) to Shuttle Commander met backlash, while the seemingly more responsible candidates were given less powerful positions.
Ultimately, her choices and training are the stuff that keeps her team from surviving the last frontier. To the tune of John Williams’ magnificent score, Andie gets to be professor and player, spacewalking to help keep Blue Team alive. When she gets injured, however, her students are forced to rely on their training and bring the Atlantis back home.
There you have it! What movie teachers with off-the-wall methods do you remember best? Let us know in the comments below!
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