December 27, 2023
WRITTEN BY: AMARÚ
This time of year is one that all school teachers simultaneously dread and love. We dread those last few exhausting days before winter break; standing in class, yelling at children, multiple mental countdowns ticking closer and closer to freedom, Christmas, the New Year, and my birthday (I take Cash App gifts if you’re wondering). And we love what those countdowns lead to: sleeping in, peace and quiet, and real adult interaction.
For me, winter break often entails as much movie watching as possible. But no matter how much I try to avoid the classroom on my days off, I can’t help but think about it in some capacity, especially when I watch films with fictional counterparts doing my actual full-time job. Some of these films I initially experienced as a child, and some were first time watches after I began teaching, and, boy, I can tell you that being on the other side of the desk has changed the way I watch these cinematic educators. I’m constantly pointing at the screen, either smiling at something that is all too familiar, or yelling “BULLSHIT” at things that would never, EVER happen, which got me thinking. How realistic are these movie teachers, really?
With that in mind, I decided to take my classroom expertise to rate the accuracy of five of my favorite educators throughout film history. This is by no means a ranking. I’m just trying to shed a little light on whether those influential speeches from some of your favorite movie teachers might actually happen in real life. Side note: if the educator is based on a real-life person, you won’t find them on this list. So, I won’t be speaking on the chain-locking Coach Carter or Joe Clark (Lean on Me), nor the inspirational Jaime Escalante (Stand and Deliver) or LouAnne Johnson (Dangerous Minds). But fake teachers are fair game. First up…
NAME: MISS JENNIFER HONEY (EMBETH DAVITZ)
GRADE LEVEL: FIRST GRADE TEACHER
Now, as much as I’d like to believe that teachers are magic, that, of course, is the biggest knock against the enchanting first grade teacher, Jennifer Honey. On one hand, she has a “deep, dark secret” that she doesn’t let affect her teaching practice. That’s just about every single teacher I know, leaving a completely different lifestyle at the door every morning when they walk into the school. On the other hand, if real-life teachers had magical powers, they would use them every chance they could to get kids to stay in their seat, catch flying objects in mid-air, and maybe, just maybe, cause a tiny slip or tumble of the troublemakers when their fourth redirection of the class period has made no difference. That’s probably why Ms. Honey has such a slight, whispering demeanor in class, and why all her first graders are quietly waiting on her every single word: her students KNOW. BETTER… All jokes aside, elementary school teachers are angels walking amongst us, and the non-magical half of Ms. Honey is a damn accurate representation of the best of them, except, based on what side of town she’s teaching, she would not be able to tell an adult that “maybe [they] shouldn’t be a parent,” no matter how well intentioned. But then again, maybe she could… MAGIC. POWERS.
NAME: DETECTIVE JOHN KIMBLE (ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER)
MOVIE: KINDERGARTEN COP
GRADE LEVEL: C’MON SON… IT’S IN THE MOVIE TITLE
The apprehensive looks, the nervous breathing while listening to kids say the darndest things, the “SHUUUUUUUUUT UUUUUUUUUPPP!!!”… everything about substitute kindergarten teacher/undercover police detective John Kimble is accurate. All the way, totally truthful, one thousand percent accurate. When you walk into a classroom filled with energy-ridden five-year-olds thinking that you have everything under control, when, in fact, you have absolutely no idea what’s coming, all hell will indeed break loose. One day in an unkempt kindergarten class would make the best of us run away, yell at the top of our lungs, then subsequently lie down exclaiming “they’re horrible” to anyone who will listen. This is the movie I’d show to all those people that want to say something bad about the teaching profession. Spend one day in our shoes, and you’ll see just how hard it actually is. Still, if you care, you bring your true self, and you actually prepare, you’ll learn to love the little brats. Not me, though… again, elementary school teachers are angels. I’ll stick to my middle school devils.
NAME: DEWEY FINN (JACK BLACK)
MOVIE: SCHOOL OF ROCK
GRADE LEVEL: FIFTH GRADE
This man would have been fired in 2.5 seconds. I know there’s a teacher shortage, but you’re forgetting two important words when it comes to that: public school. Dewey Finn was substituting in a fifth-grade prep school class that cost $15,000 a year to attend. There is no way he’s getting away with a tenth of what he tried to pull off. First of all, the principal would have walked him right back out the door once he mentioned giving kids “a little smack” or leaving early because he had “stuff to do.” Secondly, telling a kid to shut up, sleeping in front of kids who want to learn, and then teaching them about “the man” would have gotten him tattled on real quick. I’ve never taught at an actual prep school, but I’ve taught similar demographics, and I got sent to the principal’s office the second I said the smallest off-color comment trying to be funny (don’t ask). Kids will tell on you quickly, and Dewey Finn would have gotten 15 parent complaints to the school about his “lessons” before he could even get a chance to become the awesome mentor he eventually became to those musical munchkins. That’s the only reason he isn’t at 0%. Real-life music teachers around the world really are that cool, and all good teachers can steer a child’s life towards greatness just like he did. Dewey Finn may not be an accurate representation of teaching, but he is an accurate representation of awesomeness.
NAME: JOHN KEATING (ROBIN WILLIAMS)
MOVIE: DEAD POETS SOCIETY
GRADE LEVEL: HIGH SCHOOL
Speaking of awesomeness, allow me to re-introduce the masterful John “O Captain, My Captain” Keating. Think back to that one teacher that changed your being, riveted you with their lessons, made you laugh out loud, and had you ready to run through walls. If you had that luxury, then you knew a John Keating. He is what Dewey Finn would be if Finn lesson planned…or prepared…or just knew what the hell he was doing. Teachers are hired to teach academic subjects, but in reality, they teach children how to be human beings and how to become their own individual person. No matter the subject, teachers who teach with passion and preparation reach their students at their cores. That’s what John Keating did. He treated his students like adults who were getting ready to enter the world. His combination of truth, intelligence, leadership, and expertise is what all teachers aspire to be when they first step into the classroom. Now, whether that passion is still palpable after years and years of cost-cutting, parent complaints, disrespectful students, government interference, and administrative neglect is a whole other question. Luckily, the 5% I’m taking off his accuracy is a good thing because there is no way in the world that any school nowadays is firing a teacher that is that damn good at his job.
NAME: SISTER MARY CLARENCE (WHOOPI GOLDBERG)
MOVIE: SISTER ACT 2: BACK IN THE HABIT
GRADE LEVEL: HIGH SCHOOL
If you want to be somebody, if you want to go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention. If you don’t believe that’s a black momma teacher quote that’s just as relevant now as it was 30 years ago when Sister Mary Clarence told it to her rough-around-the-edges classroom, then you haven’t stepped foot inside a public school classroom, maybe ever. Every low-income public school has kids who have great potential but will try your last nerve. Every low-income public school has a black momma in their building (probably more than one). Even in 1992, it was highly understood that you only get one time to try that black momma’s nerve before she’s on your neck. On your neck with love, but on your neck, nonetheless. About 30 minutes into Sister Act 2, after taking one too many doses of disrespect from her music class, Sister Mary Clarence walks into her room and reads every single student head to toe, laying down the law, and letting them know that her class is no longer one that can be slept through. And if they didn’t like that, they could take their F’s and walk right out the door. This scene, and the entire film, is an excellent display of how teachers can be authoritative yet respectful, strict yet welcoming, funny yet forceful, demanding yet loving. But more importantly, Sister Mary Clarence, like many great Black, female teachers, did everything with an aura that resonated belief in her students. So even when she was cursing them out without using profanity, her kids believed in the potential she saw in them. This unwavering belief of black women is the most accurate movie representation of teaching I can think of because, not only did I experience this as a student, but I also watched it not two weeks ago as a teacher. There’s a Sister Mary Clarence who probably teaches a child you care about this very school year, and you better be happy she does.
There’s only one other instance in film that is as accurate a representation of teacher life as Whoopi is in that scene, and that is where I will leave you.
Happy Holidays everyone!
Photo Credits: Photo 1 - Sony Pictures Releasing; Photo 2 - Universal Pictures; Photo 3, 5 - Walt Disney Studios; Photo 4 - Paramount Pictures