Teachers on Film

Who would play you in a film adaptation of your life? Many people already have an answer to this question, from the delusional Ryan Goslings to the (faux) modest Steve Buscemis.

If we change the question slightly, to ‘who would play you in a film of your life as a teacher?’, I wonder if the answer would be different. Our style of teaching is inextricably linked to our personality, but all teaching is to an extent a form of acting, with the classroom our stage.

Teachers have been portrayed as heroes, role-models, sadists and plenty more besides, and provide an avenue of revenue from big Hollywood blockbusters to straight to DVD C-movies.

There follows a list of some of the most notorious teachers on film. Are you one? Do you recognise any of them? Are these characters richly observed, three-dimensional human(e) beings or wafer-thin caricatures? I have collated a magnificent seven (one for every lesson in my School day) from least to most-favourite. Would you like to be taught by many/any of these characters?

  1. Susan Kennedy (Neighbours)

Not a film, admittedly (yet), but Susan’s story is one of meteoric career rise, moving in a relatively short space of time from working for Annalise in The Coffee Shop to being Principal at the local high School. It’s an inspirational tale; proof that you don’t need to teach any obvious subject, have relevant experience or even work long hours to be a successful School leader.

  1. LouAnne Johnson (Dangerous Minds)

Almost as unbelievable as the Susan Kennedy story, and with fashion only slightly less 90s-disaster, Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in this dud is ex-US marine LouAnne Johnson, who manages to turn around the fortunes of some drug-pushing kids, hitherto heavily involved in gang-warfare, through the writing of Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas accompanied by a liberal scattering of un-merited A grades and lots of chocolate. The film is adapted from the book, My Posse Don’t Do Homework, which placed in the context of tit-for-tat murders and drug wars, doesn’t seem all that bad. The film proves that you can turn around any disengaged kids by donning a plastic-looking leather jacket and teaching them a few karate moves on day 2 of the School year.

  1. John Keating (Dead Poets Society)

 From a personal point of view, this vies with Love Actually as my least favourite film, but at least this is one bad film, as opposed to a mash-up of several. Keating is the maverick teacher who doesn’t do much teaching, but he does encourage his pupils to ‘make your lives extraordinary’, whilst ripping up parts of books (the dull introduction, fortunately, rather than the bit with Whitman’s poetry) and allowing boys to stand on tables to gain a ‘different perspective’ (a slightly higher one, presumably). The Headmaster is less of a fan of Keating than the boys, and he doesn’t like the fact that Keating (like Dirty Harry) refuses to play by the rules. The Dead Poets Society is resurrected by the preppy boys as an ode to Keating, and we get a unison chanting of Whitman’s O Captain, my Captain as Keating is banished, ostensibly for being too inspirational, but also for wanton vandalism of School property and flaunting Health and Safety regulations referring to standing on tables.

  1. Douglas ‘Hector’ (The History Boys)

 Possibly the only play/film where a General Studies teacher (the subject equivalent of deep fine leg, which is where you hide your weakest fielder) takes centre stage. Hector is a flawed character, given his predilection for touching up his pupils whilst giving them lifts home after School on his motorbike. His saving grace is his inspirational teaching of said General Studies course. His technique involves moving the tables around a bit and acting out some of the material (though not too vigorously due to his own corpulence) to make it more memorable. He is preparing a group of ‘seventh term’ boys in a Sheffield Comprehensive for their tilt at Oxbridge, and despite this being quite a tough gig, he manages to get them all in, even the Russell Tovey character, who is clearly not very bright. Later, Hector is killed on his motorcycle, unbalanced by one of the boys on the back (there’s karma for you), and we get to find out via ghostly voice-over what happened to this Oxbridge set. Despite all winning places at Oxbridge, none of them seem to do anything terribly exciting with their lives, unless you count ‘Dry Cleaning Manager’ as something to aspire to.

  1. Charles Edward Chipping (Goodbye, Mr Chips)

The model for all long-serving teachers, Mr Chips is a School stalwart who spends his entire career (all 58 years of it!) at Brookfield Public School (which sounds rather posher in UK-speak than in Australian context). He develops slowly, from naïve young Schoolmaster, mocked by his junior Latin class, all the way to Headmaster. His promotion occurs at geological pace compared to Susan Kennedy, and the deaths of many colleagues during the war helps enormously when it comes to promotion opportunities, but it’s tough to hold back a tear in the final scene, as he utters the line:

‘I thought you said it was a pity I never had children. But you’re wrong. I have. Thousands of them, and all boys.’

  1. Miss Jean Brodie (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a grown-up version of The History Boys: more subtle, complex and layered. A false dichotomy exists between the necessity of rigorous knowledge espoused by the School’s Headmistress and the cultural and artistic pursuits favoured by Jean Brodie. This is a familiar theme in teacher-fiction, that of the creative and brilliant individual, hamstrung by the boring limitations of the system and curriculum. It’s a lazy stereotype, perhaps, but Jean Brodie is a teacher who needs the pupils more than they need her, and this is often the case with teachers who develop a small cult following in their place of work. The dramatic death of ex-pupil Mary, killed whilst travelling to Spain, her head full of the fascist ideals of Franco, is a jarring and unnecessary plot development, with the overbearing influence that Brodie has over ‘her girls’ evident to all but her. This is a film that is sympathetic to everyone and no-one, and is all the better for it.

‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life’.

  1. Walter White (Breaking Bad)

‘The One Who Knocks’ tops the list. Walter White manages to become a cold-eyed killer, whilst maintaining a slavish devotion to the chemical purity of his product. It’s a lesson for us all: you don’t need to sacrifice accuracy in your chemistry experiments to build an illegal multimillion dollar drug empire. Walter’s teaching style is traditional, but his passion for the subject is evident and the chemistry in the series is correct throughout, with a pleasing bath-tub scene involving hydrofluoric acid and the only appearance of mercury (II) fulminate on television that I can remember. Walter is modern-day proof that ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’, and whereas his morals become more suspect with each series, it’s tough not to be #teamWalter.