Class acts

3rd May 2013 at 01:00
From inspirational demigods to sleazy seducers of the innocent, teachers in film are often far removed from the real deal. Tom Bennett sorts the fact from the fiction

Next month marks the release of Monsters University. And I've just watched One Eight Seven, a film where Samuel L. Jackson plays an LA teacher tilting at windmills of bureaucracy and callousness.

Changing channels, I find a choice between Wild Things (noir sex-thriller with Matt Dillon as a school guidance counsellor struggling with his conscience and, often, Denise Richards' girdle hooks), School for Seduction (Kelly Brook's repelling turn as a teacher who . oh, who cares?) and St. Trinian's (ghastly nihilist autopsy of an already grisly premise). In short, teachers are everywhere on television and in film.

I am obsessed with teacher films, which is unsurprising since film was my invisible friend growing up and education is my invisible friend now I pay taxes and drive. But I hope that when the aliens discover the remains of the human race they do not come across my DVD stash, or they will think our profession is populated by bohemian radicals, louche poets and vigilantes.

The abyss between fact and fiction is vast. Very few teachers in films seem to grade papers, supervise detentions or moan about photocopiers. They do spend a lot of time inspiring genius, turning up at their students' homes (some weeks I do little else) and entering them for state finals of competitions. If I ran a state final, the moment I saw the eccentric underdog team arrive on a wild card, I would just give them the trophy and go home.

But why should it be any different? Most teacher films are not written by teachers. Dead Poets Society, the great unofficial teacher recruitment film, was written by Tom Schulman, who based it on his time as a student. Most films based on real teachers (Coach Carter, Freedom Writers, The Great Debaters) are screenplays drawn from biography. They have been distilled for dramatic narrative; they are not dissertations on pedagogy.

There are noble and noticeable exceptions: Dangerous Minds - yes the one with Coolio - may strike you as a B-movie, but at least it was based on the memoirs of ex-US Marine LouAnne Johnson, who went into teaching after demobilisation. I suppose you really can turn a class around with mixed martial arts, but they didn't teach me that when I was training.

Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie can claim provenance from Spark's time as an English teacher. To Sir, with Love, written by E.R. Braithwaite, was based on his post Second World War experiences as an educated black man integrating into white East London society. I have not checked if School of Rock is based on a true story, but I think it is safe to say it wasn't.

My greatest pleasure is hugging myself with joy as I spot yet another blooper, and realising that somewhere between the script and the edit anything resembling reality was jettisoned for the sake of aesthetics. Who can blame the film-makers? Schools are fertile, self-contained theatres of drama that can form the perfect setting for coming-of-age tales, sexual tension, racial dynamics and so on. Cinematically, however, they are very rarely used to discuss actual teaching, unless you count the truism that by the end everyone must have learned something - and everyone has to hug.

There are also a million films set in schools for no other reason than that the protagonists are too young to be anywhere else. I tend to ignore these kinds of productions (The Faculty, for example) as not being true school films: the classroom is merely window dressing to the melodramas of emergent identity. I prefer films where the characters are actually teachers, (a) because I am one and (b) because the script is forced into making observations about the function and meaning of the role.

As such, I have identified the themes that teacher films usually encompass.

Teachers are inspirational demigods, avatars of liberty and mystical conduits between the potential of a child's soul and its realisation.

Ah, Robin Williams, what have you done to us? Generations of teachers have entered the profession since Dead Poets Society was released in 1989, convinced that all they have to do is come into the classroom with boundless energy, love and enthusiasm, tear a chapter of dogma from the set text and march students around the quadrangles until everyone leaps on to their desks shouting, "O Captain! my Captain!" and learns that poetry will get you laid.

Reality: Mere enthusiasm will get you through the first 15 minutes of teaching, maybe. After that you need the cool head of chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, nuts of Kevlar and the stoicism of Prometheus.

It's funny when students don't do what teachers say.

Reality: Ha ha, yes it's hilarious. Because in films, when children refuse to do what they are told it is usually at the expense of some trivial, disposable exercise, which is then replaced with an act of innocent impishness. If you have experienced being ignored by an entire class then you will know that comedy often involves the tragedy of others, and in this case it is your tragedy. It is remarkably less funny then.

See:Daddy Day Care; Kindergarten Cop; anything with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Vin Diesel or Hulk Hogan.

Teachers are selfless, sainted servants of the community: undersung, underpaid and overlooked.

In Mr Holland's Opus, Richard Dreyfuss plays the everyman across the span of his working life: from frustrated musician paying the bills by "taking class" to retiring elder. He sees his career as interfering with his real passion - composing - and writhes in frustration at merely teaching when he wants to be doing. The ending (spoiler alert) confirms one of Hollywood's safest stories: that teachers are community superheroes.

Reality: At least it is honest. We do not do this job for gold watches or cuddles. We do it because it is important. Let's hope we realise that a little earlier than Holland.

See also:Waiting for `Superman'; American Teacher.

Given enough time and patience, a teacher can reach any student.

Good Will Hunting demonstrates this nicely. Robin Williams pops up again as a hairy maven who rocks polymath, blue-collar misanthrope Matt Damon by reminding him that, although he may be annoyingly gifted, he is also a complete arsehole.

Reality: It is a reassuring message, especially if you are a new teacher and you realise that you are about half a paragraph ahead of the children in content and they know it. This is a film for anyone who feels that book-learning is meaningless without the skills to conceptually manipulate it. Williams' killer riposte to Damon ("I can't learn anything from you I can't read in some fuckin' book") suggests that people fretting about the point of knowledge in the internet age is nothing new.

See also:Stand and Deliver.

It is funny when teachers get drunk

Society has ravenously moved on from the bare bones of the clergy and the judiciary, picked white and dry for morsels of satire, to set upon the next sacred cow: the teacher. Wouldn't it be hilarious to imagine teachers drinking, screwing and screwing up? Wouldn't it? It certainly would, apparently, to men in smoky rooms with hundreds of millions of dollars to spare, who green-light these turkeys.

Reality: There is nothing wrong with two-for-one offers from the local liquor store - stop judging me.

See:Bad Teacher. On second thoughts, don't. It is utterly irredeemable. Justin Timberlake is in it. Bad teacher? Bad film.

The teacher-student relationship is built on trust, authority and professionalism. Consequently, in films teachers and students get it on like sailors on shore leave.

You don't even have to dip your innocent toe in the X-rated world to trip over this one. Take, for example, Dawson's Creek. The transgressive nature of the love that dare not submit itself for external assessment ensures it pops up as regularly as a mobile phone in a maths lesson.

Reality: If you are a real teacher in a real school, you will be doubly convinced of how removed the reality is from this fiction. Most staff are far from debonair, alluring Lotharios and cougars. Apart from the occasional teachers who inexplicably pop up in scandals now and then, the reality is, thankfully, usually as uncomplicated as custard. The only yearning in most schools is between the janitor and his snack cupboard.

See also:Notes on a Scandal; Wild Things; the inside back cover of most teenage boys' exercise books.

Anyone can teach, if they believe in the children and use eccentric, unconventional methods.

School of Rock is the worst example of this. Somehow (and I'm winging it here a bit - I haven't seen it all the way through because Jack Black makes me want to put my hand down my throat and pull myself inside out), Black (pictured) creeps into a high school and ends up taking a class for a whole semester without anyone noticing. I'm not joking. And neither is he.

Reality: Children love wacky, unconventional teachers. They make great clips for YouTube.

See also:Dangerous Minds; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; The Karate Kid.

To reach children, you have to speak to them in their language, on their terms. Sometimes that may mean punching them in the face.

Michelle Pfeiffer's heroine in Dangerous Minds struggles with her ghetto rats until she out-toughs the toughs and uses her combat training to, er, win their hearts and minds.

Reality: Take it from a man who has a keen interest in youth culture and idiom: you will never get anywhere with children by pretending to be more ghetto than them. It is insulting. Plus, you look like the old men I used to see in nightclubs, desperately trying to bump and grind along to Eminem or Snoop Dogg. See? Even my musical references are out of date. Don't try to be more kid than the kids. They want you to be an adult not the leader of the gang.

See also: Freedom Writers; Coach Carter.

I will finish with two films that hit the bullseye and split the first arrow with a second. They hum with authenticity, and it is no surprise that one is written by a teacher and the other is fly-on-the-wall documentary perfection. They are both French: To Be and to Have(Etre et Avoir) and The Class (Entre les Murs).

To Be and to Have is a thing of beauty, trailing a rural elementary teacher in France as he tries to teach a mixed-age group of children. A gentle, quiet film, it reminds me more of what education is about than almost anything I have seen. It is a story told with as little urgency as a feather dropped from a tree house, and I defy you to be unmoved.

The Class is an exploration of the perils and transient victories of the contemporary school system. The children are brittle and abusive, modern and voracious. The teacher is patient and adult, but harrowed by the system he works in. You will have some indication of how much I admirewant to kill Franois Bgaudeau, the writer of the novel that inspired The Class, when I point out that not only was his book made into a film but he also stars in that film as himself. It went on to be nominated for an Oscar. That is the sort of professional development you don't often see.

I'm ready for my close-up.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today