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Encore: What the movies taught us about teaching

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

With students heading back to school, it's a great moment to celebrate educators. And to do that, movie critic Bob Mondello is here with what Hollywood has taught us about teaching.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAND AND DELIVER")

EDWARD JAMES OLMOS: (As Jaime Escalante) Will everyone please try to find a seat?

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Teachers are a type in Hollywood, as bound by convention as the guys who wear white hats in Westerns. They're mostly young, they're always energetic, and they answer to honorifics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Mr. Chips.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Miss Brodie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Miss Moffat.

RALPH MACCHIO: (As Daniel LaRusso) Mr. Miyagi.

MONDELLO: Or just plain...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TO SIR, WITH LOVE")

SIDNEY POITIER: (As Mark Thackeray) Sir or Mr. Thackeray.

MONDELLO: ...Sir, with love, of course. Also, if need be...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HALF NELSON")

ANTHONY MACKIE: (As Frank) Hey. What's up, teach?

MONDELLO: ...If that's what it takes to get their students to stand and deliver, to be great debaters, or to form dead poet societies while heading up the down staircase in a blackboard jungle. You know the type - hardworking, earnest and, most of all, inspirational, all while confronting - because Hollywood never does anything halfway - the sort of challenge that would give pause to a miracle worker. "The Miracle Worker's" Annie Sullivan, for instance, had to get through to a kicking, biting, almost feral Helen Keller, who had been deaf and blind since infancy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIRACLE WORKER")

PATTY DUKE: (As Helen Keller, grunting).

MONDELLO: With only a few gestures to signal what she wants, 7-year-old Helen has no way to communicate with those around her and initially no concept of language itself. Her breakthrough comes in what amounts to a ferocious battle with Annie at a backyard water pump, where she suddenly realizes that the motions her teacher's been making in the palm of her hand connect to the movement of Annie's lips...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIRACLE WORKER")

ANNE BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) W-A-T-E-R - water. It has a name. W-A-T...

MONDELLO: ...And that they symbolize an idea - the wetness she's feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIRACLE WORKER")

DUKE: (As Helen Keller, vocalizing).

BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) Yes.

MONDELLO: She mimics Annie's hand movements, spelling it back.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIRACLE WORKER")

BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) Yes. Oh, my dear.

MONDELLO: And immediately, Helen wants other words, pounding on the earth beneath her feet.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIRACLE WORKER")

BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) Ground.

MONDELLO: Annie spells it out, and Helen spells it back.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIRACLE WORKER")

BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) Yes.

MONDELLO: And as powerfully as it ever has on film, a whole world of knowledge opens up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIRACLE WORKER")

BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) Pump.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: Most on-screen teachers confront more conventional students and forge bonds with them over more conventional problems - kids who don't think they want to learn, who mistrust authority, who are bored and who inspire teachers like Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society" to find unorthodox ways to enliven classwork.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEAD POETS SOCIETY")

ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As John Keating) I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way. See? The world looks very different from up here. You don't believe me? Come see for yourselves. Come on. Come on. Even though it may seem silly or wrong...

MONDELLO: This gets him in trouble with the headmaster, and that's pretty much a standard Hollywood plot development. Teachers who care - and you wouldn't make a film about them if they didn't - must not only relate to students, but must also shield them from their own parents, from school administrators, from the police and from social forces that lead them to not value education in the first place - "Stand And Deliver's" math teacher, Jaime Escalante, for instance, helping Latino students to overcome, first, their own resistance to authority...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAND AND DELIVER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Can we talk about sex?

(CROSSTALK)

OLMOS: (As Jaime Escalante) If we discuss sex, I have to give sex for homework.

(CHEERING)

MONDELLO: And then when they start to succeed, he helps them overcome the unfair perceptions of administrators wielding standardized tests.

Denzel Washington is up against even stronger forces in "The Great Debaters," a film set in the segregated south of 1935. When his Black college debate team is told it cannot compete in a national tournament, he lets them know his stake in their struggle is personal.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GREAT DEBATERS")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Melvin B. Tolson) You are my students. I am your teacher. I think that's a sacred trust. So what do I say to you now? Quit because the dean says so? Because the sheriff says so? Because the Texas Rangers say so? No. I am diametrically opposed to that. My message to you is to never quit.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) We are not quitting.

WASHINTON: (As Melvin B. Tolson) Good.

MONDELLO: The rebel with a class, as it were, is a relatively recent development in Hollywood. On-screen teachers were long pictured in gentler terms, as protective and nurturing rather than crusading. Movies tended to subscribe to the "King And I's" true but sappy thought that, if you become a teacher, by your pupils you'll be taught.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KING AND I")

MARNI NIXON: (As Anna Leonowens, singing) As a teacher, I've been learning. You'll forgive me if I boast. And I've now become an expert on the subject I like most - getting to know you.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (As characters) Ah.

NIXON: (As Anna Leonowens, singing) Getting to know you...

MONDELLO: No tough assignments in her class.

But the year that movie came out, the rougher side of that getting-to-know-students equation was already on display in "Blackboard Jungle," set in an inner-city school where teacher Glenn Ford sparred with rebellious student Sidney Poitier.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACKBOARD JUNGLE")

GLENN FORD: (As Richard Dadier) There was no racial issue till you made one.

POITIER: (As Gregory W. Miller) Why you've got the knife out for me?

FORD: (As Richard Dadier) Oh, man. There's a real switch. I mean, after all the trouble you caused.

POITIER: (As Gregory W. Miller) Boy, you really got it bad.

FORD: (As Richard Dadier) You deny it?

POITIER: (As Gregory W. Miller) You're going to hit me? I'd really like that. That'll really wash you up around here.

MONDELLO: A few years later, teacher Poitier got his comeuppance in "To Sir, With Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TO SIR, WITH LOVE")

POITIER: (As Mark Thackeray) I lost my temper - the one thing I swore I would never, never do. Those kids are devils. Nothing I've tried...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POITIER: (As Mark Thackeray) They're kids.

SUZY KENDALL: (As Gillian Blanchard) What?

POITIER: (As Mark Thackeray) Kids - that's it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POITIER: (As Mark Thackeray) Kids.

MONDELLO: And that became the new template - teachers wading into issues of race, class, generational conflict to help kids with good intentions and reliably conventional wisdom. More recently, the wisdom's been less conventional, say, in the comedy "School Of Rock," where the teacher is almost inadvertently successful at winning over his charges.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCHOOL OF ROCK")

JACK BLACK: (As Dewey Finn) If you want to rock, you got to get mad at the man. And right now, I'm the man. And who's got the guts to tell me off, huh?

MIRANDA COSGROVE: (As Summer Hathaway) You're a joke. You're the worst teacher I've ever had.

BLACK: (As Dewey Finn) Summer, that is great. I liked the delivery because I felt your anger.

COSGROVE: (As Summer Hathaway) Thank you.

MONDELLO: A tougher approach to music instruction is "Whiplash," where the jazz instructor seems fine until his auditioning drummer gets the tempo wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHIPLASH")

J K SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Why do you suppose I just hurled a chair at your head, Neiman?

MILES TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) The tempo?

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Were you rushing or were you dragging?

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) I don't know.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Start counting.

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) One, two, three.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLETCHER SLAPPING NIEMAN)

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) One, two, three.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLETCHER SLAPPING NIEMAN)

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) One, two, three.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Now, was I rushing or was I dragging?

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) I don't know.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Count again.

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) One, two, three.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLETCHER SLAPPING NIEMAN)

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) One, two, three.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLETCHER SLAPPING NIEMAN)

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) One, two, three, four.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Rushing or dragging?

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) Rushing.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) So you do know the difference.

MONDELLO: Inspiration through fear - a definite outlier.

Far more frequently, movies reinforce the notion that, in secular society, teaching is the closest thing we have to a religious vocation. You don't decide to teach. You're called to teaching as a profession. And as with religion, this calling is one in which the basic job hasn't changed in a thousand years. You stand in front of your flock, which expects you to be above reproach both on and off the job. Your authority comes from on high. You need the patience of a saint, the wisdom of a rabbi and the endurance of a martyr. And at day's end, the rewards are largely spiritual, as when Helen Keller, having pretty much worn out Annie Sullivan, demanding the name of every object around them, finally points to Annie herself. And Annie, choking back tears, spells out T-E-A-C-H-E-R.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIRACLE WORKER")

BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) Teacher.

MONDELLO: And Helen spells it back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: And the lesson begins.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIRACLE WORKER")

BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) Teacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.