The raucous comedy Bad Teacher, which stars Cameron Diaz as a foul-mouthed, ruthless, alcoholic, pot-smoking teacher looking to marry her meal ticket and get out of the day job she despises, opens in theaters nationwide today.

Singer-turned-actor Justin Timberlake co-stars as a rich, handsome substitute teacher who Diaz’s character works to win over.

I haven’t been able to attend any press screenings of the film leading up to tomorrow’s release, so I’m obviously ill-equipped to review it. But what I thought I’d instead do is, taking the film’s title and content into consideration, is to take a look at a few films from cinema’s past that featured stories centered around teachers – specifically “good teachers;” the kind of dedicated, inspirational educators who we will likely remember far longer than Diaz’s Elizabeth in Bad Teacher, if critical reviews of the film thus far are anything to go by.

So, without further ado, here are 5 “inspirational teacher movies” worth taking a look at if you haven’t already seen them. I ranked the list of five in chronological order, by year of release, starting with the oldest:

Blackboard Jungle (1955), starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. Ford plays a white teacher in an inner-city high school where many of the students, led by a young Sidney Poitier, challenge his authority by frequently engaging in anti-social behavior. Ford’s character repeatedly attempts to connect with his students, challenging their lack of interest in their education, leading to a final, crucial face-off. The film, nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, is famous for its rock and roll soundtrack, which Turner Classic Movies (TCM) listed as one of its Top 15 most influential movie soundtracks of all time.

To Sir With Love (1967), starring Sidney Poitier; although, this time around, he played the teacher, not the student. Poitier plays an idealistic, novice teacher (who’s also black), charged with a class of mostly white unruly, pessimistic teenagers, in a seedy part of London. And just like Ford in Blackboard Jungle, he seeks to engage his students who have become disillusioned with the staid process of learning. Poitier then has to get creative and use unconventional methods to educate his students, during which they learn much more than math and science, but also about life. The film influenced the wealth of similar inspirational teacher/student dramas that followed it, like Dangerous Minds and Mr. Holland’s Opus.

Stand And Deliver (1988), starring Edward James Olmos. Based on a true story, thanks to the dedication and inspiration of their new teacher, a class of institutionally ignored, disorderly students who aren’t expected to exceed beyond basic arithmetic, make academic history by achieving record high scores in the state’s Advanced Placement Calculus Exam. This may be Olmos’ most recognizable role, for which he was nominated an Academy Award in the Best Actor category.  Jaime Escalante, the real-life East Los Angeles teacher whose story inspired the movie, died from bladder cancer last year.

Lean On Me (1989), starring Morgan Freeman. The character Freeman plays is a principal, not one of the teachers, but I think it’ll be hard to talk about films of this genre and not include Lean On Me. In the film, which is also based on a true story, Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman), is a tough disciplinarian, with extreme, radical ideas, hired to save the worst school in Paterson, New Jersey – Eastside High School. Naturally, conflict ensues between Clark and just about everybody else, including the teachers who work for him, the school board, the police, drug dealers, and more. And of course, he wins in the end, accomplishing what he set out to from the outset, becoming a national hero and symbol for tough-love education. I should note that certain creative liberties were taken with the story, which might seem outlandish to some. But they had to make it “entertaining,” right?

And lastly, also in 1989, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. Williams gives a wonderful (although a bit unwieldy) performance as an unconventional English teacher in a very conservative private prep school, in the 1950s. As you’d expect, in the end, he inspires his students with poetry and encourages them to embrace life. The film was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Robin Williams, Best (Original) Screenplay, winning in the last category. It’s not a film I’d call subtle in its message, but, what it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in performances and some really inspirational moments.

So there you have it. 5 films about inspirational teachers that you may or may not have seen, and that even real-life educators will find encouraging. After you watch Bad Teacher this weekend, assuming you intend to, check out one of these 5 titles to complement.

What are some of your choices?


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Tambay Obenson is editor of Shadow And Act on the indieWIRE Network at

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