Scott Thornbury’s Six great films about teaching

It’s time for another voice here, and what a treat! I’m honoured that Scott Thornbury has agreed to do another of my “guest lists”. Scott Thornbury is an award-winning author and probably one of the most influential voices in ELT today. Here he shares six good films about teaching (or is it six films about good teaching?). It’s a perfect list for now, as this is the season of the Golden Globes, Oscars and other film awards. 

Scott Thornbury

Scott Thornbury


Good films about teaching are rare. Hollywood tends either to caricature or to sentimentalise classroom interaction, and teachers are typically portrayed as charismatic misfits (as in Dead Poets’ Society or The History Boys) or tragic has-beens (The Browning Version; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). However, occasionally a teaching film breaks the mould: this is my pick of the best.


1. Italian for Beginners: This is a dogme film in every sense: it as an early example (and the first by a woman: Lone Scherfig) of the Dogme 95 film movement, whose followers shun high-tech, and instead pledge allegiance to ten “vows”, such as: “Shooting must be done on location…. The camera must be hand-held” etc. It is also a film about a language class (in a small town in Denmark), and as such the teaching is consistent with Dogme ELT principles as there are no materials, the content of each lesson being based firmly on the needs, interests and desires of the people in the room. The film interleaves the classroom experience with scenes from the lives of the (adult) students, who all end up using their halting Italian on holiday in Venice, the language being both the motivation and the medium of each individual’s self-realisation.  All teaching should be like this!


2. Blackboards: Another film directed by a woman (Samira Makhmalbaf of Iran), this charming film narrates the vicissitudes of a group of dispossessed teachers who wander the mountains of Kurdistan looking for students, their enormous blackboards strapped to their backs. These blackboards also serve as tables, shelter, even a bier, and as such are symbolic of the teachers’ ingenuity as well as their fortitude. The fact that the blackboards are the only aid the teachers need (and that they are of the non-interactive variety) is also consistent with the notion of minimal technology, a core principle of dogme thinking.


3. Etre et Avoir (To Be and To Have) : Directed by Nicolas Philibert, this beautifully filmed documentary chronicles a year in the life of a small, one-teacher school in rural France. Nearing the end of his career, the teacher is the antithesis of the Robin Williams school of teaching: with calm, unobtrusive assurance, he welds the disparate mix of ages and learning styles into a tight-knit, mutually-supportive community, who are in turn the youthful embodiment of the wider community in which the school is nested. This is probably one of the best films about teaching ever made. And again: there’s not a computer in sight!


4. The Class: another French film, just released and which (I have to confess) I haven’t seen yet. But it looks like being a winner (and in fact it won last year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes). Set in a multi-cultural high school in Paris, the film is directed by Laurent Cantet, and stars an actual teacher, François Bégaudeau, on whose book about the school where he teaches French the film is based. This is one not to miss.


5. Confidential Agent: Made in 1945, starring Charles Boyer and Lauren Bacall,  this is not really a film about teaching at all.  But part of the plot (based on a Graham Greene novel) revolves around a language school in London, modelled on the typical Berlitz school of its time, and which happens to be a front for pre-World War 2 espionage. One of the teachers, played by the inimitable Peter Lorre, gives direct method one-to-one lessons as a pretext for passing on state secrets. The lessons (in a fictitious language) are surprisingly plausible, as is the insidious presence, on the other side of the classroom door, of the school director, eavesdropping to make sure that the method is being observed. Needless to say Peter Lorre gets his come-uppance, a lesson to all teachers who mix teaching and politics!


6. Two Loves. Another one I haven’t seen, but not through want of trying. This 1961 movie, starring Shirley MacLaine, is based on the novel, Spinster, by Sylvia Ashton-Warner, the visionary educational reformer. It purports to tell the story of how a remarkable teacher brings innovative classroom methods to a rural New Zealand primary school, winning over the headmaster (played by Jack Hawkins) and the local Maori community. Pedagogy gives way to melodrama, however, and it all ends in tears.  A curiosity, but worth hunting out, if only because it indirectly celebrates the work of Ashton-Warner, whose rejection of coursebooks elevates her to the topmost rung of the dogme pantheon.


Published in: on January 14, 2009 at 8:33 am  Comments (19)  
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  1. I would add another category to Scott’s Hollywood film genres of teachers: that of the teacher “kicking butt” in a tough school, a sub-genre perhaps of action film. Examples could include Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer, The Substitue with Tom Berenger, Stand and Deliver with Edward James Olmos. To sum up the style of this genre here is one of the taglines from The Principal with James Belushi – He’s teaching the students of Brandel High two words: NO MORE.

  2. Well noted, Lindsay. In fact, just two nights ago I caught a film on TV which has Whoopi Goldberg kicking ass as a music teaching nun. (I think it is the follow up to “Sister Act”). In her “training” for the job, the head of the school simply utters one word: “Discipline”. I wonder how many wannabes are motivated to become teachers by this feisty, all-singing, all-dancing social-worker representation of teachers – and are disappointed or not by the reality?

  3. I love “School of Rock”….. although I`m not sure where that leaves qualified teachers….

  4. I love Italian for beginners. The Class definitely worth seeing methinks, but how about Dead Poets’ society?

  5. Sorry, two more: 1. Educating Rita, loosely based on Pygmalion, with Michael Caine as a disillusioned uni lecturer and an extraordinary Julie Walters an unschooled hairdresser whom, at 26, decides to get an education because she wants to ‘discover herself’ and ‘find better songs to sing’.

    2. Ahead of the Class, also starring Julie Walters. This is on leadership, persistence and sheer dedication. A yes we can ante litteram, kind of.

  6. Italian for Beginners is a great movie but not, I think, a great model for what your classes should be like!

  7. I think you’ve all missed the definitive one – “Mind Your Language”! The not-so-legendary 1970s sitcom, based around a local authority’s ESL classroom, was notable for never featuring a single bit of teaching, which was quite a feat I suppose, for a programme based so squarely around its students and their teacher. Sadly the guy who played the teacher ended up minicabbing for a living, before committing suicide, as his career had run into a wall (not the cab, though).

    Parallels with EFL teachers?

  8. Yes, I remember “Mind your Language” although I wonder how it shapes up nowadays: I seem to recall that the students were portrayed as comic national sterotypes – e.g. as blonde and busty Swedes (the women) or phonologically-challenged Asians. Also, like many films that portray non-native speakers, there was no sense of what interlanguage is like, the students alternating between pidgin of the “me Tarzan you Jane” type, to fluent third conditionals, in the same sentence!

  9. Yes, that’s true Scott; but there were some (sadly too few) interesting uses – or rather abuses – of the English language.

    The Asian chap who would exclaim “Oh, bloody!” at least once every programme has made his mark – I now incorporate it into my daily speech patterns. And what about the teacherly joke “What’s the opposite of disappointment, class?” – “I know, Sir – Dat appointment!”

    Like I said, far too few…

  10. Can’t say that I have a movie to add, but I can say that after reading this post, I ‘came across’ Blackboards on the net and it is fantastic. Simply the image of these guys with typical baggy Kurdish trousers hiking up mountains with blackboards strapped to their backs makes my pre-teen class tomorrow seem at least bearable.

  11. Être et avoir…. what a film. Thanks for helping me find it (and the title). p.s: I found your site by googling for “great french teaching film” or sommat like that :o)

  12. thanks again… a beautiful film

  13. […] and actor – Despite Scott Thornbury’s comments about Dead Poet’s Society (see them here), I still have a soft spot for Robin Williams as an English teacher. He would get the intermediate […]

  14. […] Scott Thornbury’s Six Great Films about Teaching […]

  15. My personal favorite of all time is The Emperor’s Club by Kevin Kline. It’s an inspiring movie which tackles moral issues like cheating. The movie has a lot of quotable quotes on success, failure and contribution.

  16. I hope that this post is still open for commenting, but my personal favourite has to be “To Sir, with Love” with Sidney Poitier. To quote the Wikipedia entry, and without scruples:

    “Thackeray (Poitier) (…) will treat them as adults, and allow them to decide what topics they wish to study. He emphasizes this by throwing out all the textbooks, (…).”

    I have not seen the film for decades, and I DO know that it is a film, but I would love Thackery to be MY teacher trainer – even after 18 years of teaching.

    • Never too late. Thanks for dropping by, and the comment! I have never seen To Sir with Love. The throwing out the textbooks though does seem to be a recurring feature in films about teachers and teaching!

  17. Does anyone remember a 1974 film called ‘Conrack’? It starred Jon Voight and was directed by Martin Ritt.
    I remember being knocked out when I saw it on TV, but that was also a long time ago and I’m not sure what I’d think now. All the performances were worth it though – and based on real events.

  18. “Etre et Avoir” – that’s the first film I watched in the cinema with my partner! (We were studying French cinema at the time…not really a first date kind of film!)

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