14 Inspiring Movies About Teachers That Will Uplift You
The best teacher movies motivate with moving portrayals of educators who make a difference in the lives of their students
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Our favorite movies about teachers
Teachers are the foundation for pretty much everything in our society. Not only do they provide academic instruction, they often offer guidance, provide life lessons and inspire us. If you’ve been lucky enough to have a great teacher even once in your life—or you’re just a fan of teacher movies—you understand how much of an effect they can have both in and out of the classroom.
Writing thank-you notes to your teacher or handing over an apple for the teacher have been the traditional ways we show our appreciation for their contributions, but teacher gifts aren’t the only way we acknowledge their impact. On the internet, there are loads of teacher memes and teacher quotes that celebrate everything these heroes do for us. (And while expressing gratitude to a beloved teacher is always in style, take note of these polite habits teachers actually dislike.)
There’s also no shortage of teacher movies in Hollywood, celebrating great educators, coaches and principals who face daunting challenges and often overcome insurmountable odds along the way. Here’s our roundup of some of the very best.
How we chose the most inspiring teacher movies
For this list, we focused on films with messaging about overcoming the odds, movies that feature teachers who help their students realize their full potential—either through tough love or by teaching them a new way of looking at the world. While there are loads of teen movies that take place in high school, only some of them show the power of great teachers. While not every one of these films has a happy ending, each and every one is inspiring and shows just how powerful a great teacher can be.
Dead Poets Society
Memorable quote: “Carpe Diem! Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
Dead Poets Society was one of Robin Williams’s first drama movie roles, and what a role it was. Williams was nominated for an Oscar for his role as English teacher John Keating, an instructor at a stuffy New England prep school. His unorthodox teaching style is an inspiration to many of his students, who take to heart his advice to live their lives on their own terms.
After Keating is blamed for the death of a student who had been struggling with his identity and rejection from his family, he loses his job. But in one of the most tear-jerking scenes from any of the teacher movies on this list, his students rally behind him, reciting Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” in support.
Lean on Me
Memorable quote: “Self-respect permeates every aspect of your existence. If you don’t have respect for yourself, you’re not gonna get it from anyone else.”
Morgan Freeman’s resume contains everything from action movies to sci-fi movies to thriller movies, but in 1989, he starred in the inspiring drama Lean on Me, based on the true story of high school principal Joe Clark. In 1987, Clark was the head of Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey, which had deteriorated as a result of crime and drug use.
Clark’s mission is simple: raise the school’s standardized test scores or the school will get turned over to the state. To meet the goal, Clark’s tactics were often extreme and controversial, he expelled students and used tough love and threats to intimidate others. After he implemented more rigorous academics and enforced a strict code of conduct, the school’s tests scores improved, and Clark proved an inspiration to the students at his school.
Memorable quote: “We start by showing up.”
One of the newer movies about teachers on our list, 2020’s Critical Thinking is a movie based on a true story of the Miami Jackson High School chess team, the first inner-city team to win the U.S. National Chess Championship. The film was directed by John Leguizamo, who also stars as the teacher who coached the team, Mario Martinez. (The prolific and multitalented Leguizamo immediately followed up this role by playing Bruno in one of our favorite cartoon movies, Encanto.)
When Martinez, known as Mr. T, begins coaching a chess team in his Miami high school, no one, including the school’s principal, sees the value in it. Despite the fact that few people believe in the team, Mr. T sees chess as a way out for his students, so he throws all his money and support behind them. The result is an underdog victory that will make you stand up and cheer.
Memorable quote: “I believe one should fight for what one believes. Provided one is absolutely sure one is absolutely right.”
While the 1980s had more than a few inspiring teacher movies, Dangerous Minds was one of the most popular ’90s movies, and it even led to a spinoff TV series of the same name. The film was based on the autobiography of retired Marine LouAnne Johnson (played by Michelle Pfeiffer in the film), a teacher at a California school known for its criminal and drug activity.
LouAnne, who is white, begins teaching a class of at-risk Black and Hispanic students who dismiss her. But eventually, she motivates and inspires them, winning their trust. Though the film can feel dated and predictable, it’s one of the classic teacher movies that celebrates an unconventional but life-altering mentor who helps students overcome adversity through education.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Memorable quote: “I thought I heard you saying it was a pity… Pity I never had any children. But you’re wrong. I have. Thousands of them. Thousands of them. And all boys.”
Goodbye, Mr. Chips stars Robert Donat at the title character, a teacher at an all-male prep school where he served for more than 55 years. After the death of his wife and child during childbirth, Mr. Chipping (lovingly referred to by his students as Mr. Chips) threw himself into his work, guiding generations of young boys on a path to adulthood.
The film is shown in flashbacks as he becomes ill and nears the end of his life, reflecting on his life’s work and the hearts and minds he touched along the way. Donat won Best Actor at the 1940 Academy Awards for his portrayal of Mr. Chips, a character who ages in the film from his mid-20s through his 80s.
Memorable quote: “You can’t make someone want education.”
Another one of our movies based on true stories, Freedom Writers stars Hilary Swank as teacher Erin Gruwell, who taught at a Long Beach, California, high school in the early ’90s, a time when racial tension was high and many of her students were at risk. Gruwell immersed herself in her work in an effort to expose her students to racial injustice and oppression throughout history.
Inspiring them to write about their own experiences on the subject, the real Gruwell compiled her students’ stories into a nonfiction book called The Freedom Writers Diary, which she published in 1999. Though the film takes its name from the Civil Rights activists known as the Freedom Riders, it has little to do with that. But you can learn more about the subject in one of the best documentaries about race, called Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
Mona Lisa Smile
Memorable quote: “I thought that I was headed to a place that would turn out tomorrow’s leaders, not their wives.”
In 2003’s Mona Lisa Smile, Julia Roberts stars as Katherine Ann Watson, a first-year art history professor at the all-female Wellesley College in 1953. Progressive in her views and unmarried, Watson encourages her students to think outside the box and consider professions beyond becoming wives and mothers after they graduate.
Playing Watson’s students are a who’s who of young, talented actresses, including Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ginnifer Goodwin, each of whom is influenced and inspired by Watson sooner or later. Especially Dunst’s character, Betty, who initially reviled Watson for her unorthodox lifestyle and eventually realizes Watson is the only adult she’s ever received unconditional support from. Roberts has a solid streak of inspirational, feminist movies from around this time, including Mona Lisa Smile and Erin Brockovich, and this film cemented her status as the highest-paid actress in Hollywood at the time too.
Good Will Hunting
Memorable quote: “How do you like them apples?”
The funny thing about Good Will Hunting being on a list of great teacher movies is that the main character, Will Hunting (Matt Damon), doesn’t actually attend school. Hunting is a self-taught math genius who works as a janitor and has no personal or professional aspirations.
When a Harvard math professor (Stellan Skarsgard) discovers Will’s abilities, he introduces him to a psychology professor (another appearance on this list from Robin Williams) named Sean Maguire, who encourages Will to realize his true potential. The two men form a bond, with Sean helping Will realize he’s squandering his life and his talents.
As Sean Maguire, Williams, who is beloved for his funny movies, gets serious once again and gives an incredibly heartfelt, empathetic performance; he won an Oscar for the role in 1998, and Damon and co-writer Ben Affleck also won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
The Great Debaters
Memorable quote: “I and every professor on this campus are here to help you to find, take back, and keep your righteous mind … because obviously you have lost it.”
Based on an astonishing and inspirational true story, The Great Debaters takes place in the 1930s at a small, historically Black school called Wiley College, where debate team coach Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) sought to have his team compete against predominantly white colleges at a time when racial segregation and Jim Crow laws permeated the country.
Through sheer will and determination, and while staring down the blatant racism of the era, Tolson and his students would eventually go on to beat the reigning debate champions, Harvard College. It’s an underdog movie that will have you cheering, but the fact that it’s based on real events is what’s truly uplifting. If you’re looking for a great Black history movie, The Great Debaters is the perfect place to start.
The Miracle Worker
Memorable quote: “The room is a wreck but she folded her napkin!”
The story of Annie Sullivan, the teacher who empowered Helen Keller and gave her a way to communicate with the world, is legendary. After Keller became deaf and blind as a result of scarlet fever, no one, not even her own parents, saw any hope for the child. But when she met Sullivan at the age of 7, despite being a violent and uncommunicative child, she eventually learned the alphabet and began to communicate.
In 1962’s The Miracle Worker, Anne Bancroft plays Sullivan, the teacher who was herself partially blind but taught and advocated for Keller (played by Patty Duke) throughout much of Keller’s life. Both women won Oscars for their work in the film, a classic movie that brings to life the true story of these two remarkable women who defied the odds to become brilliant academics, as well as inspirational speakers and champions for those with disabilities.
Memorable quote: “I came to coach basketball players, and you became students. l came to teach boys, and you became men.”
In 1999, a high school basketball coach named Ken Carter suspended the athletes on his team when they didn’t meet the academic standards he set for them. Though Coach Carter has a strict training program in place for his student athletes, he places a higher premium on their education, going so far as forcing them to sign an academic contract and locking them out of their school gym so they can study.
The 2005 film Coach Carter , starring Samuel L. Jackson, tells the story of the coach who wouldn’t compromise when it came to his players’ educations. Though many in the community didn’t appreciate his tactics, he earned the respect of his players, who stood by him when his job was threatened as he refused to let the team play until they got their grades up. The real-life Coach Carter, still true to his ethos, even opened up a boarding school in 2009 for student athletes who seek to excel in both sports and school.
Stand and Deliver
Memorable quote: “There will be no free rides, no excuses. You already have two strikes against you: your name and your complexion. Because of those two strikes, there are some people in this world who will assume that you know less than you do.”
Stand and Deliver is yet another entry in the “inspiring inner-city teacher” category, based on the real experiences of East Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante, played by Edward James Olmos. Escalante is tough but not cruel, and he creates a curriculum for his below-average students so that they’ll eventually excel and be able to take his advanced placement calculus class.
A textbook underdog story, this classic ’80s movie uses Escalante’s passion for his subject matter, math, and an unexpected health scare to prove how important he and his class were to the students he taught, all of whom succeeded in passing the AP test in both the film and in real life.
The Bad Kids
Memorable quote: “You’re gonna go to college, and you’re gonna make somethin’, and then you can make nyah in his face.”
The Bad Kids is a documentary about Black Rock Continuation High School, located in the Mojave Desert, which teaches students who are on the verge of dropping out. These are the students who would be considered at-risk or hopeless in traditional school settings. But here, the students are empowered to break out of the cycles they find themselves in. In addition to traditional academics, the teachers and principal at the school try to reach each of their students on a personal level, providing guidance and empathy to prove there is no such thing as a lost cause. The film will give you hope and make you wish every student in need had the kind of support these students do.
Won’t Back Down
Memorable quote: “Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak and write.”
There’s a reason we have PTOs and PTAs—parents and teachers have to work together if we want our children to succeed in school and in life. In 2012’s Won’t Back Down, Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as a mom named Jamie Fitzpatrick whose daughter is being failed by her local elemantary school.
Jamie teams up with teacher Nona Alberts (Viola Davis) to fight the bureaucracy that’s failing their local school and rally the community so that changes can be made from within. Inspired by true events, this is a story of two mothers whose passion for their children’s’ education whose desire to reform their neighborhood school is proof than anyone can make a difference in their community if they fight hard enough.