The Best Movies About Inspirational Teachers

An inspirational teacher can make a difference to a student by providing guidance and support at a crucial moment in a young person's life. The classroom – with all its inherent drama, conflict, and diversity – has provided the perfect setting for many movies. Whether it's the passion of a young, idealistic teacher or the wisdom of a seasoned vet, these films remind us how important an educator can be in shaping young minds. Here are the best teachers you can find in the movies.

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To Sir, with Love (1967)

© Columbia Pictures

Sidney Poitier is the quintessential inspirational teacher. He plays an idealistic engineer-turned-teacher who ends up in an East End London school where the staff has given up on the rowdy, incorrigible students. Things start rough, but once he throws out the textbooks and decides to teach the kids about life rather than square roots and split infinitives, he begins to win their trust and respect. The film deals with discrimination based on both race and economics, and Poitier is perfect as the man the kids come to refer to as "Sir." Judy Geeson and Lulu were reunited with Poitier in the 1996 TV sequel directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

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Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

Goodbye Mr. Chips

Robert Donat shocked everyone by winning the Best Actor Oscar over Clark Gable's Rhett Butler. But Donat's performance as the beloved Mr. Chips endeared him to Academy voters. His character was modeled on author James Hilton's old classics master, W.H. Balgarnie, who taught for a half century at The Leys public school in Cambridge. The film was later remade as a 1969 musical with Peter O'Toole and Petula Clark.

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Stand and Deliver (1988)

Stand and Deliver
Warner Bros.

Edward James Olmos plays real-life teacher Jaime Escalante, a Los Angeles teacher who inspires his underachieving students to learn calculus to boost their self-esteem. But they do so well in their AP testing that their success prompts accusations that they cheated. Ironically, the real Escalante ended up losing his position as math department chair at Garfield High after the release of the film and eventually left the school and returned to his native Bolivia to teach.

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Up the Down Staircase (1967)

Up the Down Staircase
Warner Bros.

Sandy Dennis plays teacher Sylvia Barrett from Bel Kaufman's best-selling novel. Barrett is a rookie teacher who has to put the theories she learned getting her degree into practice at the racially mixed Calvin Coolidge High School. Barrett's triumph is not only in reaching many of the students but also in being able to maintain her compassion and dedication in the face of overwhelming obstacles. She had to contend not only with tough teens that didn’t trust her but also an administration that didn’t place much value on her students. The film was shot at a real New York City School.

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Conrack (1974)

20th Century Fox

In the book The Water is Wide, Pat Conroy chronicled his experiences as a white teacher assigned to an isolated island off the coast of South Carolina where most of the people were poor and Black. Jon Voight plays Conroy who came to be known as "Conrack" by the kids who mispronounced his name. This intimate film proves you don't need an inner-city school as the setting for an inspirational tale of a teacher and his students.

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To Be and To Have (2002, France)

To Be and To Have
New Yorker Films

A one-room school in rural France is the setting for this documentary portrait of teacher Georges Lopez. Exhibiting amazing patience, Lopez must deal with students ranging in age from four to eleven. A wonderful portrait of a truly dedicated teacher. Another deeply affecting small-scale portrait of a classroom.

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Freedom Writers (2007)

Freedom Writers
Paramount Pictures

Hilary Swank plays real-life teacher Erin Gruwell who takes on freshman English at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. The school is racially diverse but not well integrated, with students sticking to their own ethnic groups. Gruwell proves to be naïve and out of her element yet her dedication to finding a way to reach these troubled kids is truly inspirational and moving. In real life, a number of Gruwell's students have themselves turned to teaching because of her.

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Blackboard Jungle (1955)

Blackboard Jungle

Curiously, twelve years before he would find himself in front of a classroom in To Sir, with Love, Sidney Poitier was seated at a desk in Glenn Ford's classroom. Ford's English teacher is based on Evan Hunter, who wrote about his experiences teaching in a violent South Bronx school. The film marked the debut of Vic Morrow, who played one of the school hoodlums.

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The Miracle Worker (1962)

The Miracle Worker
United Artists

Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan and Patty Duke as her unwilling and unruly student Helen Keller won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscars, respectively, for their work. The two had originally created the roles on Broadway, and Duke would later play Sullivan in a 1979 TV movie version of the story. Sullivan's determination to reach the blind and deaf Keller epitomizes how a good teacher can make an amazing impact on a student.

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The Great Debaters (2007)

The Great Debaters

Denzel Washington directed and starred in this story of professor Melvin B. Tolson of Wiley College in Texas. Set in the 1930s, the film focuses on how he formed the school's first debate team and managed to challenge prejudices to get his team to face off with Ivy League Harvard. Washington is tough, intelligent, and passionate as a teacher with a cause.