For many who enter the teaching profession, they have one true goal in mind: to help and inspire young people breaking into the world.
But that optimism and enthusiasm can quickly melt away in the face of bureaucratic school administrations, lack of respect from parents and society at large, and angsty teenage rebellion from students.
From zany substitutes to literal crack fiends, here are my picks for the best movies about teachers and their students.
15. Matilda (1996)
Directed by Danny DeVito
Starring Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, Mara Wilson
Comedy, Family, Fantasy (1h 42m)
Matilda tells the whimsical story of a genius little girl who discovers she has telekinetic powers. It's one of the many movies adapted from the works of legendary children's author Roald Dahl.
Before she realizes she can move things with her mind, Matilda (Mara Wilson) is trapped in a life of cruel parents and even crueller teachers. Just when you thought the adults couldn't get any worse, Miss Trunchbull comes along!
Iconically portrayed by Pam Ferris, Miss Trunchbull is the scary disciplinarian headmistress who makes drill sergeants look nice. Luckily, Matilda's actual teacher is the opposite—an angelic soul who winds up adopting her. Thank God!
14. The Professor (2018)
Directed by Wayne Roberts
Starring Johnny Depp, Rosemarie DeWitt, Odessa Young
Comedy, Drama (1h 30m)
Johnny Depp has had his share of eccentric roles. One of his lesser-known ones is as Richard Brown, a disillusioned English teacher whose cancer diagnosis reignites the flame in his life.
After finding out that he has six months left to live, Richard embarks on a wild journey of self-destruction. He drinks all day, sparks up with his students, and says whatever is on his mind.
Living this newly uncensored and daring life ironically gives him more passion for life. And in ditching his usual style of monotonous teaching, his class shrinks in size but doubles in impact.
Richard's willingness to take risks and speak the cold hard truths that no one else will is what inspires his students to get out there and live the life that he lost to the mundane (and eventually cancer).
13. Nativity! (2009)
Directed by Debbie Isitt
Starring Martin Freeman, Marc Wootton, Jason Watkins
Comedy, Family (1h 45m)
A festive favorite for the whole family, Nativity! stars Martin Freeman as a grumpy primary school teacher in Coventry.
His short fuse is put to the test in two ways: first, he's forced to organize the school's nativity play, which went disastrously wrong last time; second, he has to endure his new teaching assistant, Mr. Poppy.
Mr. Poppy (played by Marc Wootton) is like a child within himself—an irritating but lovable man-sized child. After Mr. Poppy accidentally tells the class that Hollywood is coming to film them, the whole city finds out.
And it's up to Mr. Maddens (played by Martin Freeman) to turn this lie into reality. In reverse to the usual teacher-inspires-student trope, the optimism and innocence of his class inspires Mr. Maddens to examine and mend his broken heart.
12. Bad Teacher (2011)
Directed by Jake Kasdan
Starring Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel, Justin Timberlake
Comedy, Romance (1h 32m)
Being boozy and foul-mouthed doesn't necessarily make you a bad teacher. But in the case of Elizabeth, it does.
Played by Cameron Diaz, Elizabeth is a lazy chain-smoking gold-digger who plans to quit her job for a rich husband. When this plan falls through, she hones in on the cute and wealthy substitute Scott (played by Justin Timberlake), but faces competition from a preppy co-worker.
Despite all her schemes, traps, and seductions, Elizabeth fails to find true happiness. In the end, it's a heart-to-heart with one of her students that prompts Elizabeth to change her empty and destructive ways.
The success of Bad Teacher was followed up with a sitcom remake in 2014 starring Ari Graynor.
11. Notes on a Scandal (2006)
Directed by Richard Eyre
Starring Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Andrew Simpson
Crime, Drama, Romance (1h 32m)
The teacher-student affair is far from a new plotline. In fact, it was most famously done in Richard Eyre's Notes on a Scandal.
Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) is the scandalous teacher, unable to refrain from seeing a 15-year-old student at her London school.
Anyone catching her with a student would be bad news for Sheba, but it's the absolute worst with history teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), a closeted lesbian with a tendency to stalk her colleagues.
In her own warped way of showing affection, Barbara decides to blackmail her with this illicit information—and it doesn't end there.
10. Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
Directed by Sam Wood and Sidney Franklin
Starring Robert Donat, Greer Garson, Terry Kilburn
Drama, Romance (1h 54m)
James Hilton won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Mrs. Miniver (1942), but before that he was an author. His 1934 novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips has been adapted to cinema twice: once in 1939 and again in 1969. As is often the case, the original is better.
Robert Donat plays Mr. Chips, who begins his career as a strict and cold Latin teacher in 1870. Even after a couple of decades, he still hasn't thawed—it requires a woman's touch to warm him up.
Mr. Chips's marriage to the younger and invigorating Katherine (Greer Garson) ends up making him a supremely better teacher. He isn't just respected but loved—and he even manages to distract his boys from the World War happening around them.
9. School of Rock (2003)
Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Jack Black, Mike White, Joan Cusack
Comedy, Music (1h 49m)
Dewey Finn (played by Jack Black) never planned on becoming a teacher. In fact, he dreams of quite the opposite—being a boozy rock guitarist, stage-diving into crowds of fans.
A slacker who lives off his best friend's waning generosity, Dewey accidentally finds himself subbing at a fancy prep school. Hungover and underqualified, Dewey wiles the hours away in recess before having a miraculous idea: to turn the class into a band.
Sniffing out each student's musical talents, the class enters the Battle of the Bands on one condition: that it remain a complete secret. This fun new project brings the kids closer than ever before.
School of Rock was an immediate hit, mostly thanks to Jack Black's hilarious and unique style of comedy as the now-iconic substitute teacher Mr. Shn... Shnee... Shneb... let's just stick to Dewey.
8. Precious (2009)
Directed by Lee Daniels
Starring Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton
Drama (1h 50m)
Adapted from the 1996 novel Push, Precious takes place in 1980s Harlem, where 16-year-old Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is pregnant with her second child due to her father's rape.
An abusive mother, poverty, and disease pervades her life, but there's one small light shining in the darkness: after being put in the "Each One Teach One" program, Precious learns to cope through reading and writing rather than binge-eating and dissociation.
Ms. Blu Rain (Paula Patton) is the perfect role model for her class of troubled teen girls. She not only teaches Precious on an academic level, but she also shows her that love is possible and presents her with an exit route from her current traumatic life.
Lee Daniels premiered Precious at Sundance in 2009 despite having no distributor. Its effect blew viewers away and Oprah Winfrey quickly stepped up to promote the drama, leading to two Oscar wins.
7. The Whale (2022)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins
Drama (1h 57m)
In The Whale, Charlie is a slightly different kind of teacher to the rest that are featured on this list: we never once see him in a school. In fact, we never see him—or anyone—outside of his house.
Filmed almost exclusively in his living room (yet never dull or repetitive), The Whale has Charlie hosting his college classes online. Not only that, but Charlie keeps the camera off at all times.
Why? Because Charlie is ashamed of his morbid obesity, which is rooted in grief. He lost his wife and daughter when he came out as gay, then lost his boyfriend to suicide. He now copes as a binge-eating hermit.
Brendan Fraser won an Oscar for his lead performance, undergoing a huge transformation (weight gain plus a 330-pound fat suit) that renders him unrecognizable.
Darren Aronofsky's sentimental drama is angry, lingering, and compassionate, depicting the power literature holds.
6. Another Round (2020)
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang
Drama (1h 57m)
Another Round isn't really about students, as they're more background noise to the chaotic life of four disenchanted teachers in Copenhagen.
Run down by their boring lives—both at work and at home—the four friends decide to experiment: based on the Finn Skårderud theory that our bodies are 0.05% alcohol deficient, Martin (played by Mads Mikkelsen) and his colleagues decide to drink a small amount of booze every day.
Immediately, their lives become more impassioned, relaxed, and seemingly richer. Their lectures turn from mind-numbingly boring to utterly profound. However, there's only so much alcohol one can drink on a regular basis before it turns into an addiction.
Another Round won the Oscar for Best International Feature and was praised by critics and viewers alike.
5. Freedom Writers (2007)
Directed by Richard LaGravenese
Starring Hilary Swank, Imelda Staunton, Patrick Dempsey
Biography, Crime, Drama (2h 3m)
At the start of Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell has one goal in mind: to teach her students to the best of her abilities. Yet, over time, this ambition morphs into something much deeper.
Beyond the book reports and memory tests, Erin does everything she can to create a safe space for her at-risk students—a home or a refuge rather than simply a classroom.
But that, of course, isn't easy. Most of the class is split between rival gangs as racial tensions bubble through 90s California. Teaching becomes far more than just an everyday job for Erin; her efforts to reform and befriend her students takes over her entire life.
Hilary Swank stars as the sheltered-but-determined real-life English teacher, who wrote the The Freedom Writers Diary in 1999 (which this film is based on).
4. To Sir, With Love (1967)
Directed by James Clavell
Starring Sidney Poitier, Judy Geeson, Christian Roberts
Drama (1h 45m)
"You will show respect to me and each other at all times. You will address me as 'Sir' or 'Mr. Thackeray.'"
To Sir, With Love was a definitive movie of the 60s. The British drama dealt with tense social and racial issues of the time, commentating on how the image of black men was portrayed in the media.
For once, the character wasn't a criminal, gangster, or thief, but a respectable professor. Sidney Poitier is Mark Thackeray, an immigrant from British Guyana who takes up teaching as a temp job.
Like many films on this list, his class is made up of bullying rebels and troublemakers, but Mark refuses to let them break him.
3. Half Nelson (2006)
Directed by Ryan Fleck
Starring Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Shareeka Epps
Drama (1h 46m)
Dan Dunne may be a hungover cocaine-addicted mess, but his students love him. Rejecting the standard curriculum, Dan acts as a friend to his Brooklyn history students, opting for discourse over discipline.
However, the line between his work and personal life begin to blur, and one of his students find him high and paranoid in a locker room.
Ryan Gosling brilliantly embodies this role as the troubled-but-well-meaning teacher, and was highly praised for his humble performance.
Half Nelson rejects the sentimentality of drug culture, painting a brutally honest portrait of what it means to be lonely. For Dan, it's the possibility that he could truly help or comfort his under-privileged students that keeps him fighting on.
2. Whiplash (2014)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist
Drama, Music, Thriller (1h 46m)
Terence Fletcher (played by J. K. Simmons) may have granted young Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller) a seat in his prestigious Shaffer Conservatory Studio Band in New York, but the journey is far from comfortable, glamorous, or inspiring.
Instead, Fletcher screams, manipulates, and abuses Andrew on his path of glory. Swapping out the blackboard for a drum kit, Fletcher is a brutal one-of-a-kind music teacher with complete disregard for emotional well-being.
Despite the strain of Andrew and Fletcher's student-mentor relationship, Andrew continues to work under his wing, drumming 'til his hands literally bleed.
This psychological thriller was originally a short film, later adapted into a feature film that won numerous Oscars.
1. Dead Poets Society (1989)
Directed by Peter Weir
Starring Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke
Comedy, Drama (2h 8m)
"O, Captain! My Captain!" are the words of infamous poet Walt Whitman, popularized by American teen drama Dead Poets Society. Robin Williams was an inspiration within himself, so it's no surprise he played such motivating roles with ease.
Think Patch Adams meets Good Will Hunting. Williams' use of the Latin phrase carpe diem ("seize the day") has become infamous in his role as an unconventional English professor.
Set in the late 50s, the Welton Academy is a boarding school of strict sophistication, so the boys are surprised to find professor John Keating (played by Robin Williams) ripping up textbooks and standing on tables.
His unorthodox methods revive the unsanctioned Dead Poets Society, which his students host in a cave after lights-out. A touching story that pays tribute to the arts, Dead Poets Society will have you reaching for the stars in no time.