Back to School: The Memorable Teachers of British Film

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The cast of the 2006 film "The History Boys". (Photo: Fox Searchlight)
As students everywhere return to the classroom, it seems only proper to examine the world of British academia. Last year I highlighted some humorously deficient sitcom teachers. This time around I thought I’d focus on the more serious educators, those erudite and inspirational mentors that light the fires of scholarship.

So if all the recent back to school activity has made you nostalgic for the noble pursuit of knowledge, you might want to take a look at these big screen professors and instructors. And if so inclined, you can find any of these films on Netflix DVD or Amazon Instant Video streaming.

In the History Boys (2006), a group of Yorkshire schoolboys with dreams of getting into Oxford or Cambridge are placed under the tutelage of three educators; history teacher Dorothy Lintott (Frances de la Tour), special exam coach Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) and in charge of “general studies”, the passionate and eccentric Douglas Hector (played by the late, great Richard Griffiths). 

The History Boys Movie Trailer

It’s true that each scholar in this team has a role to play in the young men’s education, but it is Hector who aspires to make them well-rounded people and not just test taking machines. While he is flawed in his personal life, Hector’s creative and enthusiastic teaching methods are a joy to behold.

Set in 1961, An Education (2009) tells the story of Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan), an intelligent student whose dream it has always been to go to Oxford. (Sound familiar?) She tolerates the vigorous advice of her father (Alfred Molina) who encourages her to pad her transcript with classes and activities that will appeal to the Oxford admissions officers. 

That is until she meets David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard) a charming older man who seduces Jenny with exciting outings to concerts, clubs and other adult activities. After experiencing sophisticated art, music and clothes, she decides to leave school to marry the man who has rescued her from boredom.

an education clip

While the Headmistress’ (Emma Thompson) condescending and ineffectual lecture does nothing to change Jenny’s mind, the truth about David is finally revealed and it is Jenny’s English teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), who is there is to pick up the pieces and get her clever young pupil back on track. Jenny finally sees firsthand what a sort of life an educated, single woman can have and is ready to try for Oxford again on her own terms.

If you’re in the mood for more classic films To Sir, with Love (1967) features Sidney Poitier as Mr. Thackeray, an unemployed engineer from America who comes to London to teach while waiting for a more palatable job offer. He temporarily takes on a class of seemingly unmanageable teens from a rough East End neighborhood and decides that best method for dealing with them is to treat them with the respect and maturity usually afforded only to adults. It takes some time, but Mr. Thackeray’s approach finally pays off with most of his students and they, in turn, earn a special place in his heart as well.

To Sir With Love - Movie Trailer

Dame Maggie Smith won an Oscar for her performance in the title role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). As a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, Miss Brodie is not a model of educational excellence though she sees herself in that light. She focuses most of her energy on the “Brodie set”, a group of girls she handpicks for special field trips and discussions about her politically fascist leanings. Jean Brodie thinks herself a maverick, a woman in her prime and quite literally untouchable since she has tenure at the school. 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Trailer

Though Miss Brodie is certainly misguided, even manipulative in many ways, she is intensely dedicated to her profession and her intention of turning out students who look at the world differently.

I’ve saved my favorite for last. Educating Rita (1983) stars Julie Walters as working class hairdresser Rita White who decides she’s not content with her unfulfilling life and doesn’t want to have children yet as the rest of her family is pestering her to do. She therefore enrolls in an Open University English course and is assigned Dr. Frank Bryant (Michael Caine) as her professor. At first Frank wonders if Rita is cut out for the rigors of college level work. 

Educating Rita clip.mp4

However, Rita’s determination to better herself is soon evident and Frank’s cynical outlook on his profession is noticeably improved. Rita’s progress rekindles Frank’s love of literature and, for a while, pupil and teacher grow and benefit from the relationship. But as is often the case, one party outgrows the other and their liaison starts to show the strain. Rita is nearly unrecognizable from the eager and naïve beautician we first met and, despite what needs to happen, I always feel a bit sad to see her go.

Do any of these teachers remind you of your own school days? Is there an educator I’ve omitted who you’d like to mention? (Like any of the professors from Harry Potter, for example?) Comment at will and share your inspiring teachers with us.