It seems like everyone has that one really great teacher who inspired you, challenged you, and didn’t make you feel like a geeky 15 year-old, but rather a valued person who might amount to something.
Unfortunately, those people don’t make for good movies. With the exceptions of Mr. Holland’s Opus, Stand and Deliver, and Dead Poets Society, it’s usually pretty hard to come up with a compelling storyline about an educator who was a good influence.
But a nasty teacher or principal? Now we’re talking! That’s a character you can build a real meaty story about. Here are some of my favorite movie teachers or principals I’m glad I never had.
Mr. Sugden from Kes (1969)
This is a largely forgotten but heartbreakingly wonderful English film about adolescence by Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Bread and Roses, Looking for Eric). Billy Casper is a lonely, bullied 15 year-old who finds a wounded kestrel (a type of raptor) and tries to nurse it back to health. Mr. Sugden is every horrible gym teacher you’ve ever had: physically intimidating, mocking, and always angry with the unathletic kids. As played by the delightful character actor Brian Glover, Mr. Sugden is comically mean-spirited and blustering. The scene in which he organizes and plays a soccer match for gym class is worth the price of admission for this movie. Glover started his career as a professional wrestler, working under the name of Leon Arras the Man from Paris, which is the best wrestling name I’ve heard since the late Curt Hennig’s Mr. Perfect.
Barbara Covett from Notes on a Scandal (2006)
That’s Dame Judi Dench to you, mister. And a well-earned honorific it is because she’s marvelous in everything, especially her recent stint in the James Bond pictures. In this taut psychodrama thriller, Dench plays an evil older teacher who preys on a troubled new teacher (Cate Blanchett). She ruins her life and, of course, gets away with it. Beyond director Sir Richard Eyre, the other notables involved in this outstanding film are cinematographer Chris Menges (The Boxer, North Country, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and the composer of the film’s eerie and magnificent score, Philip Glass. Nominated three times for Academy Awards for Best Original Score, Glass is one of the most influential composers of the last 50 years.
Mrs. Appleyard from Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
If you’re looking for one word to describe this film, “haunting” should fit the bill. This is an early film from the great Australian director Peter Weir. It takes us through the disappearance of several girls and their young teacher while on an outing to the mysterious Australian rock formation, Hanging Rock. Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) is the imperious and cruel headmistress of the school, and she may or may not have been involved in the unsolved mystery. Weir went on to direct a series of outstanding films you have probably already seen, including The Last Wave, Gallipoli, Witness, Dead Poets Society (more on that later), The Truman Show, and Master and Commander. Any one of these films is worth seeing over again, but definitely do not miss Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Galen Nolan from Dead Poets Society (1989)
Speaking of Dead Poets Society, they don’t get much more mean-spirited than Galen Nolan (Norman Lloyd), the headmaster of snooty New England boarding school Welton Academy. This much-loved movie (although not so much by me) marked the first serious—and much acclaimed—acting role for Robin Williams. The screenplay, which won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, is by Tom Schulman and was based on his own experiences as a student at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, TN. I found the movie a bit obvious and cloying, but, to be fair, it did make me cry. So there’s that. If you’ve been feeling a bit hard-hearted lately, time to rent Dead Poets Society. And “make your life extraordinary.”
Mr. Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
Ed Rooney is the hapless Dean of Students in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. As played by Jeffrey Jones, Mr. Rooney has the thankless task of trying to catch Ferris skipping school, a task he pursues with comic relentlessness. Jones turns Mr. Rooney into one of the most memorable comic foils in film. (It should be noted that in real life, Jones turned out to be an actual creep, having been arrested and convicted for solicitation of a minor.) The film was written and directed by John Hughes, the master of light-handed and clever comedies such as National Lampoon’s Vacation, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Home Alone, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. His death in 2009 was a terrible loss for American film. As a side note, the Southern California punk band Save Ferris was named for this movie.
Jim McAllister from Election (1999)
Matthew Broderick gets all his Ferris Bueller karma dished back to him when he plays the overwhelmed civics teacher Jim McAllister in Election (1999). When Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is approved to run for student body president, Mr. McAllister tries to do everything he can to prevent her from winning the election. Flick had an affair with Mr. McAllister’s best friend and colleague, so he decides to thwart her efforts by enlisting the slightly dopey but popular jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein). Hijinks ensue. Written and directed by Alexander Payne, who went on to make three outstanding films about American lives, About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants. If you’ve seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off too many times (how is that even possible?), then it’s time to rent Election.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.