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“Cal-COO-lus? What is Cal-COO-lus?”

I’m pretty sure that I watched Stand and Deliver every year in at least one class throughout high school and possibly even junior high.

By the time I became a teacher, it was Freedom Writers that we kept showing our students. And the teachers not afraid of difficult conversations have been showing Dead Poets Society for the last 30 years.

During this season of remote learning, schools could take a page out of this playbook and use movies as a form of staff development.

It seems like schools are all over the place when it comes to what they are expecting from their students and their teachers. Some schools are requiring teachers and students to follow their regular schedules in a virtual setting with no changes in expectations for assignments or grading. Many of these same districts are also requiring their teachers to complete hours of professional development with all this “free time”.

Other schools are taking a much more minimalist approach, providing remote learning by only reviewing concepts with non-threatening activities that have no grades attached. They are seemingly more concerned with the social-emotional state of their students and teachers than their academic development during this very stressful season.

Both approaches have their merits, but regardless of your school’s approach, most educators are searching for creative ways to reach their students. In our previous entries in this series, we have suggested using songs to teach poetry, quotes to inspire writing, and movies to teach novels or history. 

In many ways, teachers are no different than students in this pandemic. We are stressed out. We are worried about what the future holds for the health of ourselves, our family, our friends, and our students. We are obsessed with the news (and social media if we’re being completely honest). We’re all struggling to keep a schedule, much less to get out of our sweatpants, take a shower, and actually get some work done.

IF you’re going to require professional development during this time, why not make it fun?

What Can You Learn from Movies About Teaching?

It’s safe to assume we can all agree that Hollywood’s depictions of schools are quite far from what actually happens in the average classroom. If we’re being quite honest, most movie teachers would either run out of the room crying, hide under their desks in the fetal position, or be fired immediately with their certificates revoked.

But great discussions can be had discussing the merits and errors in these films. How fun would it be to host a virtual viewing party to watch a ridiculous movie like Kindergarten Cop or Mean Girls. While neither movie is specifically about education, they have rather iconic representations of teachers.

“It’s not a tumor!”

“Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by Regina George”

If you want a real study in what not to do as a teacher or administrator, you could always go with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.




Stepping away from the absurd, there are great movies about teachers walking into incredibly difficult situations and transforming the chaos (often through idealistic, though quite admirable, means). In addition to the aforementioned Stand and Deliver, Freedom Writers, and Dead Poets Society, there is:

Blackboard Jungle - one of the first movies of this genre, a WWII vet takes a teaching position at a school for boys in New York City

Coach Carter - a coach returns to his alma mater in Richmond, CA to get the high school basketball team into shape, even if it means making some difficult and unpopular decisions

Dangerous Minds - a teacher uses skills she learned in the marines to reach bright students in an inner-city school

Lean on Me - an inner-city principal must work to rid his school of gangs and drugs before being able to address its abysmal academic performance

Music of the Heart - a music teacher in personal crisis takes a job teaching violin to underprivileged students in Harlem

Sister Act 2 - a showgirl disguised as a nun leads an inner-city, Catholic school choir made up of misfits and trouble-makers

To Sir, with Love - another classic, a black American Engineer who is unable to find a job in London takes a teaching position and works to establish respect with his students, most of whom have been removed from other schools because of bad behavior 

The Class (French film) - a teacher in Paris, France uses personal determination and unbelievable patience to reach his very troubled students

The Ron Clark Story - a small-town, Southern elementary teacher moves to New York City for the sole purpose of working with students in need

If you would rather consider films in which a teacher uses an unconventional approach to inspire students, don’t forget:

Akeelah and the Bee - a teacher works with a Los Angeles 11-year-old to pursue her dream of winning the National Spelling Bee

Emperor’s Club - a teacher at a prestigious boys school is challenged by the stubborn, oppositional son of a Senator

Hoosiers - arguably the most famous sports/coaching film, a failed college coach works to lead a high school basketball team to victory despite losing his star player

Paper Clips - this documentary shows how one school used collecting paper clips to dramatically illustrate and teach the tragedies of the Holocaust

School of Rock - a down-and-out rock musician substitutes as a music teacher in a very respectable private school and teaches the students how to play rock-and-roll

The Chorus (French film) - WWII orphans find inspiration when a new choir teacher comes to the school and begins to work with their potential

Whiplash - a ruthless percussion instructor at an elite conservatory pushes one of his jazz students what many would consider too far

And, of course, there are the movies that require a box of Kleenex. You know, students in crisis or tragedy, needing someone to intervene (and often, the teacher needs the love and support of their students just as much - kind of true to life, huh?):

Mr. Holland’s Opus - an aspiring composer teaches band while hoping to finish his masterpiece but discovers that his true opus was the many lives he touched along the way

October Sky - the son of a coal miner gets inspired by Sputnick much to the chagrin of his father, but his science teacher helps him accomplish his goals

Pay it Forward - a junior high student takes inspiration from a social studies assignment to create a movement fo kindness that spreads across the country

Remember the Titans - struggle and conflict must be overcome when a Virginia school integrates the football team in 1971

We Are Marshall - a new coach must find a way to build a new football team after a plane crash kills 75 of the West Virginia high school’s football players, faculty, and booster members

What Kinds of Students Can You Learn About in These Movies and Shows?

Another great activity is exploring the characteristics, needs, and ways to help special populations through movies and shows that may or may not even have anything to do with school. 

One of our writers has even conducted face-to-face professional development in which he did a quick mini-lesson/review of characteristics of a special population then showed an entire film (with lots of popcorn, of course) that exemplified the topic. Participant groups were given sorting cards with the pictures of specific characters along with category cards that align with the mini-lesson. After the movie ended, groups had to come up with their own creative way to teach or review the information (skits, songs, gameshows, menus - but no PowerPoints!)

While that exact scenario may not be as easy to replicate in a virtual setting, something very similar could be done. Either through a virtual platform like Zoom or Hangouts, or a prepared presentation like PowerPoint, information can be shared. 

Then have a virtual watch party (Netflix even offers this complete with a chatroom!). If that is too difficult to coordinate, participants could be given a window of time to watch it on their own).

Follow up with a virtual meeting or chat in which teachers discuss what they noticed about the character and how they lined up with the topic of focus. They could discuss the interactions of characters and inaccuracies of their portrayals. 

Inevitably, they will begin sharing stories about students the characters remind them of and how they worked with them.



Ant Farm (TV show)

Big Hero 6 

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 


Little Man Tate 

Meet the Robinsons 


Friday Night Lights (TV show)

Glee (TV show)

Speechless (TV show)

The King’s Speech

The Michael J Fox Show (TV show)

The Mighty



A Brilliant Young Mind: X + Y

A Boy Called Po

Atypical (TV show)

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Jack of the Red Hearts

Parenthood Please Stand By

Temple Grandin

The Good Doctor (TV show)

As an extension of this, teachers could use some of the above-mentioned shows or movies to start discussions about student diversity and needs with their students. Others to consider include:

Inside Out

The Magic School Bus (TV show)

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