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5 Back to School Movies: The Instructor Edition


The way in which Hollywood often depicts professors, instructors, and teachers is often vastly removed from the reality that many of us live in. Unsurprisingly, films that focus on instructors tend to be much more serious in tone and genre than films that focus on students. In creating this listicle, I tried to move away from many of the utterly empty portrayals of the profession, choosing to focus, instead, on films that emphasize instructors as people who have lives and demands that extend beyond the classroom. But hey, we'll always have Summer School (1987).

The Class (2008)

A French film written by and starring François Bégaudeau (and titled after his book of the same name). The Class is set in a racially diverse inner city high school in Paris. François Bégaudeau wrote the book based on his own teaching experiences, and so you may find that the film more realistically represents the profession of teaching. A number of critics have remarked upon its documentary-style, which sets it apart from many of the other Hollywood academic films. Ever-present in the film are the challenges of teaching a culturally diverse populace and the negotiation of these challenges in ways that cultivate, rather than harm, racially diverse identities. Those unfamiliar with education in France, might be surprised at the education structure and rigor. If you wish to read a brief overview of the organization of education in France, check out “School in France.”

Detachment (2011)

Detachment explores the transience of the substitute teacher profession as Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) wanders from classroom to classroom. While the film is focused on Barthes’ most recent assignment in an inner city, racially diverse school, it focuses heavily on the issue of transience and prompts the audience to consider deep existential questions. Barthes is not the only individual in the film who occupies a transient space, the students also occupy transient spaces, and all of this is happening in a time when education itself feels transient. How do we make connections when everything is so temporary, so fragile? And what are we without those human connections? Adrien Brody delivers a beautiful and immensely powerful performance in this film; it should be at the top of your list.

Wild Strawberries (1957)

A 78 year-old retired professor, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), has isolated and ostracized himself from the rest of the world. Largely interacting only with his housekeeper—who serves as a sort of platonic wife, he finds himself in the position of traveling to Lund Cathedral with his daughter-in-law to accept an honorary degree, and during their drive he finds many opportunities to reminisce on his life and make amends for his mistakes. Ingmar Bergman is both the writer and the director of the film and the film is considered to be not only one of Bergman’s crowning achievements but also an artistic masterpiece. In The Passion of Ingmar Bergman, Bergman notes that his inspiration for the film derived from the question, “What if I could suddenly walk back into my childhood? … I thought: suppose I were to make a film, completely realistically, about suddenly opening a door, emerging in reality, and then turning a corner and entering another period of one’s existence” (212). The film’s beautiful black and white photography, and opening sequence contribute greatly to its status as a masterpiece. It’s definitely well worth a watch.

Still Alice (2014)

Admittedly, my list is starting to look a little depressing, but I think it’s important to view teachers as people who have lives and experiences that inform their teaching style and presence in a classroom. The vast majority of films present teachers (and students) out of context, as if the classroom is a micro-society that can be divorced from the macro, but it’s not. When your mind and memory are your labor and livelihood, how personally and professionally devastating must it be to lose them? It’s probably every academics worst nightmare…and it happens to Alice. Alice is a linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. The film focuses on the challenges that such a diagnoses brings on a personal and familial level and how one family navigates them. The film is heartbreaking and inspirational. Bring tissues.

Mr. Holland’s Opus (2005)

Mr. Holland's Opus follows Glenn Holland, a music teacher and composer; his dream is to compose “An American Symphony,” but he ends up taking a teaching position in order to pay the bills and his dream is relegated to his spare time. We watch as his new teaching job slowly begins to consume him, impassion him, and inspire him. As time rolls on, we are treated to the fruit of his inspiration, generations of students who have carried a love of music into the world, who were changed by his tutelage, and who strive to pay it forward. I very much enjoy Mr. Holland’s Opus; it always reminds me of Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band” (1981), which was written as a tribute to his father (and should have totally been the film’s theme song). In some way’s I have always considered the film to be a bit too idealistic, but Dan Fogelberg’s musical tribute proves that this can happen in real life, and Mr. Holland’s life is far from idealistic, particularly if we consider his personal and home life. It’s a very touching and moving narrative, and I have to say that one of my favorite parts of the movie is the socio-cultural context we get as the movie cycles through specific time periods.

Do you want to keep the film reel rolling? Then, check out these additional titles.

Dead Poet’s Society (1989)

I love this film, and I love Robin Williams in this film, but it’s literally on every list

Educating Rita (1983)

Featuring a young Michael Caine

Lean on Me (1989)

Starring Morgan Freeman

The Wave (2008)

I have not seen this one yet, but it’s definitely giving me The Experiment (2010) and Lord of the Flies vibes

Freedom Writers (2007)

Another film that pops up on many back to school lists

A Single Man (2009)

Starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, and Matthew Goode, the cast is pretty well stacked; this film definitely focuses more on the personal than the professional, and Tom Ford directed it, so you know it will be beautiful

Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

Starring Julia Roberts, this is another film that often comes up when we talk about onscreen professors/instructors

Larry Crowne (2011)

Julia Roberts reprises her role as college professor and Tom Hanks plays a non-traditional student

The Rewrite (2014)

Starring Hugh Grant, it’s billed as a rom-com (imagine that)

Crooklyn (1994)

Directed by Spike Lee and starring Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo, it’s considered to be semi-autobiographical

White Squall (1996)

Starring Jeff Bridges, and a bunch of people who weren’t famous then but are now, it’s like the zenith of alternative education (think homeschooling, but on a boat)—I’ve strangely always enjoyed the film

School of Rock (2003)

Another Classic

Weirdly, I do have more titles, so feel free to contact us if you still haven't gotten your fill!

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