Have you ever had a teacher who inspired you? A teacher who pushed you to become a better student? A better person? Most people don’t like going to school for a variety of reasons, but occasionally there comes a teacher who really cares about their students. To them, it’s not about getting tenure. It’s not about how much money they could make (which isn’t that much to begin with). It’s about educating and reaching the children of the future. Sometimes these teachers face resistance, be it from the students themselves or from the administration of the school. And yet, they persevere in the hope that they can reach just one student and help them to find their true potential. I have had several teachers over the years that I would put into this category and helped me get where I am today. This week’s two films highlight teachers who care.
Dead Poets Society
Length: 128 minutes / 2.13 hours
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.” Sometimes it feels like the education system is stuck in a rut. It can point to the data of why it focuses on preparing students for standardized tests, but in doing so relegates each child to a number, and not a person. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to break these habits, since they are intrinsically tied to funding. Consequently, it’s almost easier to find the teachers who care about their students. They’re the ones who teach a little differently than what is expected. Even substitute teachers, like Jack Black’s character in School of Rock (2003) can influence students if they just take the time to engage with them on a personal level, finding the students’ talents and bringing them out for the world to see. Another teacher who bucked the system was that of John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society (1989).
Seeing the potential in his students, English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) tells them that life is more than just scholastic pursuits. He encourages them to “seize the day” in order to find out who they truly are. Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) takes the edict to heart and begins to find that he enjoys acting, much to the disapproval of his father. Upon meeting resistance from his family, Neil feels his only option is to end his life in suicide. Due to the death of one of its students, Welton Academy investigates and learns how much Keating has influenced his students. Since he did not follow the strict rules of the boarding school, Keating is forced to resign. Arriving at his classroom to pick up his belongings, Keating finds the students who know the truth of the situation standing up for the one teacher who cared for them.
Pay it Forward
Length: 123 minutes / 2.05 hours
When a teacher finds a student with exceptional talent, sometimes they will make it a point to encourage said student to explore the possibilities of their talent. At least, the teachers who care are more likely to do so. For example, Miss Riley (Laura Dern) from October Sky (1999) saw that some of her students had an interest in rocketry and encouraged them to keep with it even though their recent attempts were explosive failures. If she hadn’t provided the nudge in the right direction, the four “rocket boys” wouldn’t have followed through with their interest and would not have won the national science fair. This validation at the national level is part of what helped these men get into the rocket science careers that have made them so successful. And all it took was a teacher who cared. Now, what if a teacher encourages his students to change the world?
Wanting to challenge his students, social studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey) gives them an assignment to think up and implement a plan that will improve the world. Expecting to get back mediocre ideas, he is surprised to find Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) has struck upon an idea he calls “pay it forward.” Simply put, a person must do a good deed for three other people that they could not accomplish by themselves. Unfortunately, Trevor’s mother does not approve of this idea, since it has led her son to bring a homeless man home in the process. Confronting Mr. Simonet, she soon finds that Trevor’s next “pay it forward” target is his teacher, setting both adults up to pursue a romantic relationship. Unfortunately, Trevor’s empathetic kindness gets him into trouble with some bullies, eventually providing him the opportunity to spread his idea to a much wider audience.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 empathetic educators