The Corn Is Green (1945)
Despite being only 36 at the time, Bette Davis played the late-middle-aged Lily Moffatt in this drama. She decides to set up a school in a Welsh coal-mining town, despite local opposition, and inspires a local miner (John Dall) to apply for Oxford University (he’s a talented writer even though he can’t spell too well). A lovely movie based on the semi-autobiographical play by Emlyn Williams, this earned Dall a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his first movie role. A TV remake was made in 1979 with Katharine Hepburn in the lead role.
Teacher’s Pet (1958)
The journalism teacher Erica Stone (Doris Day) asks the newspaper editor James Gannon (Clark Gable) to speak at her university, but he sends back a rude refusal letter in response. Through a series of deceptions, he eventually ends up pretending to be a student in her class (this is a 1950s romantic comedy, you know), and – unaware of who he really is – Erica finds herself falling for her clever new student. While Gable may have been a bit long in the tooth to be Day’s love interest (he was 57, she was 34), they nonetheless make a great sparring team and Day especially is a treat as the idealistic teacher we all wish we’d had.
To Sir With Love (1967)
James Clavell – best known as the author of the novel Shogun and the co-writer of classic war movie The Great Escape – wrote and directed this British drama based on the E?R Braithwaite novel. Sidney Poitier – who had played a pupil in the classic Blackboard Jungle in 1955 – is the engineer who reluctantly takes on a teaching job at a school in the East End of London and has to deal with unruly kids, racism and (gasp!) young girls in mini-skirts, including the 1960s pop singer Lulu (who also sings the theme song). Many teacher-inspires-pupils movies have come since, but this remains one of the best.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)
“Little girls, I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.” So says the 1930s private schoolteacher Jean Brodie (the incomparable Maggie Smith, who won a Best Actress Oscar) as she uses unorthodox methods to teach her girls, romanticising Franco and Mussolini much to the horror of the headmistress. While some of her ideas – OK, most of them – are questionable, there is no denying Brodie’s influence over her charges or her admirable desire to inspire original thought in all of them.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
He’s handy with a whip, looks dashing in a leather jacket and fedora (both now on display at the Smithsonian), and he’s an expert archaeology professor, too. No wonder the female students in Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones’s class stare at him adoringly (and even write “I LOVE YOU” on their eyelids) or the top brass in government come to ask his aid when it looks like the Nazis may have got their hands on a trinket that will lead them to the lost Ark of the Covenant. Harrison Ford was never cooler than in the four Indiana Jones movies, and while the fourth (The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) was a crushing disappointment, it did at least have our hero roaring through the college library on the back of a bike, muttering to one student as he crashes past: “You want to be a good archaeologist? You’ve got to get out of the library!”
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Yes, the whole “O Captain, My Captain!” scene near the end is cheesier than a kilo of Brie, but Robin Williams, nonetheless, gives a moving performance as the English teacher John Keating, who inspires the male students of Welton Academy with his unorthodox methods. Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Josh Charles are among his pupils whom he memorably instructs: “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary,” a quote that ranked 95th in the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movie Quotes of all time.
Dangerous Minds (1995)
Based on a true story, this drama – best known for the hit soundtrack song Gangsta’s Paradise – stars Michelle Pfeiffer as LouAnne Johnson, an ex-marine who discovers teaching at a rough Californian school is much tougher than life in the military. Resorting to unusual tactics to get through to the kids – karate, bribery and introducing them to the works of Dylan (Bob) – this follows the same teacher-wins-over-kids-with-tough-love formula as Lean on Me (1989) and Stand and Deliver (1988) but earns extra points for a strong female leading role for Pfeiffer.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Robin Williams may have won the Oscar for his role as the psychologist trying to help the disadvantaged-but-gifted Will (Matt Damon), but it is the quieter performance of Stellan Skarsgård as the MIT professor Gerald Lambeau in the hit that stays with you as he discovers the troubled maths genius in his midst working as a janitor and tries to reach out to him. “Most days I wish I’d never met you because then I could sleep at night,” he tells Will. “I didn’t have to walk around with the knowledge that there was someone like you out there. I didn’t have to watch you throw it all away.”
The precocious 15-year-old Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) finds a mentor in the industrialist Herman Blume (Bill Murray) and love – of sorts – in the form of the beautiful teacher Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) in this comedy drama from Wes Anderson set at the prestigious Rushmore Academy. Of course, Max’s love for his teacher is unrequited, but that doesn’t stop his frequent declarations of devotion, or his raging hatred of Blume when he discovers his friend is dating Miss Cross. There are lovely performances from the entire cast, with Williams perfect as the teacher bringing her warmth to the group of oddballs around her.
Music of the Heart (1999)
Madonna was originally tipped to play the role of real-life violin teacher Roberta Guaspari, but it is Meryl Streep who stars in this drama about the woman who inspired the children of a tough East Harlem school, raising funds with the help of well-known musicians when the music budget for New York schools was cut. Streep, excellent as always, was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in this sweet movie that was directed by Wes Craven, better known for horror movies such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream (it’s actually his only non-horror movie to date).
Mean Girls (2004)
The Saturday Night Live star Tina Fey wrote this witty black comedy about high-school cliques in which the formerly home-schooled Cady (Lindsay Lohan, in one of her best performances) learns about fitting in the hard way after being accepted by the Plastics, a group of girls who write vicious and mean things in a notebook about their fellow students. Fey also stars as the one seemingly sensible teacher at the school, who even becomes the subject of a horrid Plastics rumour herself.
Not so helpful teachers
• National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)
If only Faber College really existed. They have raucous toga parties, food fights in the canteen and a literature professor (Donald Sutherland) who thinks nothing of walking around trouserless. “Teaching is just a way to pay the bills until I finish my novel,” he says. The funniest college comedy of all time, this 1978 film from director John Landis also starred Karen Allen, Tim Matheson, Kevin Bacon (in his first movie role) and, of course, the late, great John Belushi.
• The Faculty (1998)
Most of us, at some time or other, think our teachers came from another planet – but in 1998’s The Faculty it’s actually true. It seems the staff of Herrington High – including the coach (Robert Patrick), school nurse (Salma Hayek) and teachers (Famke Janssen, Bebe Neuwirth) have been taken over by an alien parasite and only a ragtag group of students (Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, Jordana Brewster) can stop them. Written by Scream’s Kevin Williamson and directed by Desperado’s Robert Rodriguez, it’s a fun teen sci-fi with some great one-liners and a teaching staff from hell.