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I remember back in my teacher preparation program, we were cautioned against beliveing in the idea of the “hero teacher” that gets glorified in the occasional movie that comes along with a classroom as the setting. True, these stories are often exagerrated to make the main teacher character look like a magical being that can take a horrible situation with underachieving and troubled kids and turn it into a college prep school in a matter of months with very few struggles. Not completely realistic.

The real teacher heroes, my professors told us, are real teachers just like us–teachers that have moments of brilliance, but also a day in, day out job that will be full of challenges and problems that take real time to solve. To some degree, I agree with that. Men are not angels–we cannot transform every life we touch. But you know what? I do believe that teachers can do incredible things. I see them do inspiring things every day. And I’m fairly certain that I know a couple people who could have movies made about their teaching experiences. So don’t tell me that hero teachers don’t exist. They do.

In honor of this unrelenting belief in the teacher hero, here are my top five teacher heroes of contemporary cinema. Watch these heroes in action, and see if you can find anything familiar about them–you may recognize a former teacher, a colleague, or even yourself.

**Honorable mention: Dead Poet’s Society (Mr. Keating is on his very own level of awesome), Stand and Deliver (Jaime Escalante: so good, people were convinced that his kids cheated on their tests).

5. The Ron Clark Story,  Matthew Perry as Ron Clark

“The problem isn’t the kids. It’s not even what they can achieve. The problem is what you expect them to achieve. You are setting the bar here. Why? Set it up here! They can make it.”

I like this film because it felt incredibly real to me. Teaching in an urban district will give you a fierce loyalty to kids that outsiders like to put down, and Mr. Clark is right there with us. Also, just like any elementary classroom, this film offers many opportunities for the unexpected, the uplifting, and the comical. Up against a seemingly impossible task in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the country, Clark became one of the top teachers in the nation. Best thing? Based on a true story.

4. Finding Forrester, Sean Connery as Forrester

“PUNCH the keys, for God’s sake! No thinking – that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!”

This film is an amazing portrait of the power of words as well as the bond between teacher and pupil. It’s also the perfect tribute to all of those seemingly crochety, old, rough-around-the-edges teachers out there who in fact have nothing but love and devotion for what they do. The two lead characters are perfect counterparts, and remind us that the teacher often learns just as much as the student. Finally, it’s a great model for classroom feedback, both good and bad!
3. School of Rock, Jack Black as Dewey Finn

“Are we gonna be goofing off like this everyday?”   “We’re not goofing off. We’re creating musical fusion.”

Dewey poses as a substitute teacher to scam cash off of his legit roommate, Mr. Schneebly. Despite his early efforts to be the laziest teacher of all time, he ends up leading his students through the ultimate creative project: the creation of a rock band. Don’t dismiss him as a hack, though–Finn’s uncanny knack for bringing humor and utmost reverence for rock music into his classroom ends up being one of the best educational experiences his students could ever have!

2. Remember the Titans, Denzel Washington as Coach Boone

“This is where they fought the battle of Gettysburg. Fifty thousand men died right here on this field, fighting the same fight that we are still fighting among ourselves today. This green field right here, painted red, bubblin’ with the blood of young boys. Smoke and hot lead pouring right through their bodies. Listen to their souls, men. I killed my brother with malice in my heart. Hatred destroyed my family. You listen, and you take a lesson from the dead. If we don’t come together right now on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed, just like they were. I don’t care if you like each other of not, but you will respect each other. And maybe… I don’t know, maybe we’ll learn to play this game like men.”

If you haven’t seen it, you need to. This story, based on real people and events, is about a man who not only instructed his boys on the ins and outs of their sport, but also how to interact with respect, brotherhood, and leadership. If only Coach Boone could do a community-building workshop with all of our students! Remember the Titans makes me cry, laugh, and cheer every time.

1. Freedom Writers, Hilary Swank as Erin Gruwell

“I don’t want excuses. I know what you’re up against. We’re all of us up against something. So you better make up your mind, because I am not letting you fail. Even if that means coming to your house every night until you finish the work. I see who you are. Do you understand me? I can see you. And you are not failing.”

One of my students once told me that I reminded her of “that one teacher from Freedom Writers.” I considered that the highest compliment of all time. Also a real person, Erin Gruwell used writing to transform a classroom of conflict, hatred, and insecurity into a safe haven where her students could acheive what they never thought possible. She gave up so much in order to be the most devoted teacher she possbily could. She gave her students the power to let their own voices be heard. She’s still out there, fighting the good fight, and that makes her number one.

So, break out the popcorn, and enjoy. Teacher heroes are everywhere! (However, only on the big screen will they look as beautiful as Hilary Swank. 🙂 )