What 4 iconic silver screen teachers can teach us all

Needs some inspiration on why what you do matters? Then these four teacher-heroes of cinema could be the perfect reminder

Andy Bayfield

Watching films can help pupils to look after their mental health

How many of us have been unconsciously shaped by our formative experiences in the cinema?

What better to teach morality than Indiana Jones refusing eternal life to instead reconnect with his estranged father, or Frodo Baggins modelling courage as he walks among giants to destroy the One Ring. 

The silver screen has had its fair share of pedagogical heroes too; so what can we take from some of the most important cinematic teachers of the 20th and 21st centuries?

1. Mr Farthing – Kes

Ken Loach’s searing, angry polemic rails against formal education and still packs a punch today with Loach’s unsubtle, but powerful, message being that the British system fails the most vulnerable in society.

In Mr Farthing, Loach creates as holistic a teacher as you are likely to find; you cannot imagine him planning the perfect Ofsted lesson nor leading a Kahoot quiz, but his emotional intelligence, understanding of his students and deeply held compassion and care for the weakest in his community surely strikes an emotive chord in every teacher.

What can we learn from Mr Farthing?

Though nearly impossible to measure and harder still to ‘teach’ in those who do not possess it innately, relationships, care and curiosity are the foundations of any effective teacher and something we must keep alive within the spirit of education. 'Farthing represents a type of teacher that seems alien in 2021, but shouldn’t do.

2. Mr Keating – Dead Poet’s Society 

One of the late Robin Williams’ finest performances sees him play the role of English teacher Mr Keating. He eschews the stuffy, dry expectations of the boarding school at which he works to touch his students’ souls with the wonders of the English language.

What can we learn from Mr Keating?

Two seemingly unfashionable teaching traits: charisma and subject knowledge. In the growth of the teacher as facilitator movement, we seem to have forgotten the alchemy that can happen when a magnetic individual leaves a group of young minds spellbound at their passion and understanding of their subject.

Contrary to popular myth charisma can, and perhaps should, be taught on PGCEs, BEDs and beyond.

Indeed, my current role allows me to see a number of different subject teachers at work every week, and the best ones combine tangible strengths (intricate planning, student-led activities, and high amounts of student, rather than adult, talk) with less measurable elements (the teacher’s own presence, use of humour, relationships with their students, body language and voice). 

That this has ever been up for debate is strange to me but you can trace its roots to the 1970s and Brazilian educator Paolo Freire who, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, attacked the teaching of facts and knowledge as education which ‘becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teachers the depositors’. 

This though is a major mischaracterisation: subject knowledge is the very root of effective pedagogy and student powered initiatives in the classroom cannot take place without it. Mr Keating - and non-fiction teachers who work like this - prove this every day.

3. Mrs Johnson – Dangerous Minds

Ex-supersoldier Michelle Pfeiffer decides to trade the battlefield for a different sort of war – a failing school in Belmont, California.

Something of a cultural phenomenon upon release, no cliche is left unused as Pfeiffer slowly changes the lives of her class of disconnected adolescents.

As is now common in this piece, she is of course a livewire maverick with little interest in the school’s protocols or procedures; she’d rather teach them karate and give them candy bars. 

What can we learn from Mrs Johnson?

Connection, connection, connection. Johnson uses whatever is available to her in order to build rapport and trust with a group of students the rest of society has forgotten about. It’s a powerful reminder that what teachers do often transcends imparting education and is about helping young people learn about themselves too.

4. Captain John Miller – Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The moral centre of Spielberg’s men on a mission masterpiece is a school teacher – Captain John Miller played by Tom Hanks – and therein lies the genius of the film’s screenplay by Robert Rodat.

For Captain Miller finds himself as the teacher among a ‘class’ of dysfunctional and volatile misfits (his platoon) who must use every teaching trick in the book to keep his erratic class on task: modelling empathy as well as strength, to sensitively guiding the most vulnerable (Corporal Upham) student through the hell on earth that is Europe in 1944.

His reward? Unending loyalty, and a class who literally give their life for the values he holds. 

What can we learn from Captain Miller?

That teaching represents something bigger than itself. Spielberg could have made Miller an elite soldier, hardened by years of violence, but instead selected a profession that acts as a counterweight to war itself.

Spielberg’s message with this choice is two-fold; firstly, that World War 2 was not fought by Jason Bournes, but normal individuals trying their best in extraordinary circumstances, and secondly and perhaps even more profoundly that teachers represent of decency, conscience and quiet courage that is often overlooked when we consider what heroism looks like; the last 16 months highlights this as clearly as any movie.

Andy Bayfield is the teaching and learning leader at an international school in Malaysia.

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Andy Bayfield

Andy Bayfield is the Teaching and Learning Leader at an international school in Malaysia

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