June 23, 2011

MRQE Rewind: Good and Bad Teachers on the Big Screen

This Friday, Bad Teacher hits screens nationwide. You may have seen the poster: Cameron Diaz's legs kicked back over a desk, shades hiding her sleeping state. She plays Elizabeth Halsey, an awful teacher recently dumped by her well-to-do hubby. When not disregarding her students or sleeping on the job, she tries to seduce her new co-worker, played by Justin Timberlake. The movie also stars Jason Segal as the school's gym teacher. Trailers for this film keep it fairly simple: expect some yelling, a little swearing and of course some questionable teaching! But teachers make up quite an interesting faculty of characters on film. This week, we look at the most memorable ones, both good and bad.

Mr. Scheebly of The School of Rock (2003)

We start off with Mr. Ned Schneebly. That's right! Jack Black's star-making role as rocker-turned-teacher Dewey Finn in School of Rock. After getting the axe from his band and in desperate need of cash, Dewey assumes the identity of his friend Ned as substitute for a New Jersey prep school. He soon turns a bunch of stiff, unconfident kids into a kickass rock band! The movie is a star collaboration for director Richard Linklater, writer Mike White and star Jack Black. It's heartwarming and genuinely hilarious. A+

Mr. Shale of The Substitute (1996)

Next up is another teacher with an alias. But this time it's Tom Berenger as former CIA agent Tom Shale in The Substitute. Shale takes over teaching duties at a Miami high school after his fiance was left crippled in a mysterious car accident. Shale learns that his students may have been involved. They are members of a street gang known as The Kings of Destruction. He also discovers drug ring in the school. It's up to Shale to put a stop to the crime! Watch for J-Lo's hubby Marc Anthony in a supporting role. This action thriller was good enough to spawn three sequels . . . straight-to-video of course.

Mr. Shoop of Summer School (1987)

Mark Harmon is an off-season teacher in this comedy from 1987. Harmon plays Mr. Freddy Shoop, a gym teacher who must teach a summer English class to a bunch of flunkies if he wants to get tenure. I vividly recall a horror movie scene where the students pull a prank on the teacher; it was awesome! Ok, it's a silly movie, but still, a very entertaining romp from the 80s. Plus there were a number of interesting names attached to the film: Jeff Franklin (writer/creator of Full House), Carl Reiner (director) and the great Danny Elfman behind the music score. Who knew!

Mr. Kimble of Kindergarten Cop (1990)

Back in 1990, Arnold Schwarzenegger was unstoppable; the biggest action star in Hollywood. Kindergarten Cop was the sort of winning formula that studio heads jumped at, and rightly so. The simple premise of a tough-as-nails cop finding his biggest challenge in a class of screaming five-year-olds became a classic. Credit Ivan Reitman's direction for getting some priceless quotes out of Schwarzenegger: "It's not a tumor!" "Who is your daddy and what does he do?" I believe there's a whole soundboard on Ebaumsworld devoted to Schwarzenegger's one-liners. Fun times!

Ms. Johnson of Dangerous Minds (1995)

Michelle Pfeiffer gets tough in this school-of-hard-knocks drama from 1995. Based on the memoir My Posse Don't Do Homework (yes, you read that correctly), Minds stars Pfeiffer as Loanne Johnson, a scrappy teacher who takes over a tough teaching assignment in a rough East Palo Alto neighborhood. Although the teacher-against-the-odds premise has trotted into overkill in recent years, I think Dangerous Minds remains a good flick. Pfeiffer's performance is earnest but enjoyable, and a cast of very solid players in the student body make these hoodlums a little scary. Plus, there's Coolio...

Mr. Escalante of Stand and Deliver (1988)

California is once again the backdrop for our next entry. This time it's East Los Angeles for Stand and Deliver, the 1988 high-school drama starring Edward James Olmos as real-life math teacher Jaimie Escalante. The story follows Escalante's inspired mission to teach AP Calculus to illiterate high-school students. Olmos earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and he delivers! There's an exchange early on between Olmos and Lou Diamond Philips' rebellious student that is intense. Despite some historical inaccuracies (concerning what was delivered on test day by the real-life students) Stand and Deliver remains a well-dramatized teacher flick.

Ms. Covett & Mrs. Hart of Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Next up, something a little different. Imported from the UK is Notes on a Scandal, the acting tour-de-force from 2006 that starred Cate Blanchette and Judy Dench. Blanchette plays a young art teacher at a British "comprehensive" school (public school) who is caught having an affair with a 15-year old student by a veteran teacher (Dench). The film has less to do with teaching, and more to do with the psychology of jealousy and blackmail. Both Blanchette and Dench were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances. These characters certainly bring new meaning to the term "bad teachers."

Mr. Dunne of Half Nelson (2006)

And now, a personal favorite: the little known indie flick from 2006, Half Nelson, starring Ryan Gosling. Earning his first and only Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of a drug-addled middle school teacher, Gosling delivers a very interesting performance as a teacher with quite a few personal problems. When one of his students discovers him in the boy's locker room freebasing cocaine, Mr. Dunne (Gosling) tries his best to better his situation, while teaching his students a thing or two about History. Half Nelson lacks a driving moral force, which may be a turn-off for some viewers. But I find the film fascinating; I highly recommend it.

Mr. Marin of The Class [Entre les murs] (2008)

And now we jump across the pond, once again, for this French feature-film from 2008. The Class is based on the best-selling novel written by Francois Begaudeau, who stars as himself in this movie adaptation. This classroom drama depicts Begaudeau's experience teaching a class of racially mixed students at a Paris middle school. The students are somewhat disobedient and irreverent, but Mr. Marin (Begaudeau) remains persistent, and tough. The Class won the prestigious Palm d'Or at Cannes for its resistance to overdramatize the easily dramatized teacher genre. But the film didn't make too much of a stir stateside for possibly the same reason.

Mr. Clark of Lean on Me (1989)

As a Jersey native, I can attest to a certain range of educational quality in The Garden State. And Lean on Me, from 1989, puts Paterson, NJ front-and-center as a bad place to teach. Morgan Freeman stars as Joe Clark, the real-life principal of Paterson High who ruled his school like a fortress when faced with a takeover by the State of New Jersey. His students refused to learn, so he padlocked the doors and forced them to learn! I'm over-simplifying Clark's methods (and misstating them, according to Wikipedia) but Lean on Me is most enjoyable for the way Morgan Freeman approaches the role. Although his principal is distinct from the teachers that comprise our list, his questionable tactics make him a great final entry.


  1. Where are "To Sir With Love" and "Good-bye Mr. Chips" in this list?

  2. Mr. Hand from Fast Times at Ridgemont High!

  3. i love this post... it reminds me of my physics teacher who used to put his sweaty drunken hand on students' shoulders... and sweat dripped from his armpits.. he was YUK disgusting!

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