Celebrate a Teacher: 5 Movies About Inspiring Educators

Teachers do more than just teach. They counsel. They plan. They set up the foundation for student success in the classroom — and the rest of life.

To honor this year’s National Teacher Day on May 5, we’re recommending five movies featuring teachers who inspired students to defy the odds and succeed.

Whether you buy, rent, download or borrow, make sure to put these encouraging and motivating movies in your queue.

Stand and Deliver

Rated PG
103 minutes

This 1988 movie was one of the first films to seriously address students within Southern California Hispanic and Latino communities. On a broad level, “Stand and Deliver” appealed to students with Mexican heritage and those from South and Central America, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean islands. The movie accurately portrays their culture and the discrimination many still face throughout society.

The movie is based on a true story about math teacher Jaime Escalante, played by Edward James Olmos. “Stand and Deliver” examines cultural stereotypes, beginning with the portrayal of a Bolivian-born math teacher who faced discrimination within the education profession.

In the movie, Escalante uses unconventional methods to interest gang members in learning math by inspiring them to pass their Advanced Placement calculus exams. With today’s focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning, it is evident Escalante was ahead of his time. Today, he is credited with inspiring hundreds of Hispanic and Latino students to enroll in algebra and calculus courses.

Freedom Writers

Rated PG-13
123 minutes

The movie is based on a book by Erin Gruwell, who was assigned to teach underperforming students facing discrimination and low expectations. She inspired her students to reach beyond high school.


Released in 2007, “Freedom Writers” is considered a realistic portrayal of what it was like to teach students in a racially divided school in Long Beach, California, during the early 1990s. The movie addresses racial segregation, gangs and drive-by shootings.

English teacher Gruwell must earn the trust and respect of her students, who initially dislike her immensely. She reportedly received death threats from a transfer student with a history of gang participation.

The content is realistic and timely, given today’s controversies surrounding gun violence in schools. Hilary Swank’s acting chops and name recognition, combined with the legitimacy of Gruwell’s story, make it a great choice for teachers facing similar challenges in their schools. Her story should make teachers proud of their profession as they celebrate National Teacher Day.

October Sky

Rated PG
108 minutes

Based on the true story of Homer Hickam, “October Sky” is a well-written movie about young boys growing up in a coal-mining town. Homer, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is inspired by his science teacher to prove he has the mettle and mental agility to do more with his life than follow his father into the hazardous mines of Coalwood.

The plot centers on a national science contest. “October Sky,” released in 1999, weaves themes about the importance of teachers, family relationships and insurmountable obstacles against mortality.

Inspired by America’s challenge to enter the space race during the age of Sputnik, Homer is encouraged by his science teacher, Miss Riley, superbly played by Laura Dern. After many failed attempts to launch their rockets, the boys persevere through relentless — and sometimes reckless — efforts. Hickam, a Vietnam veteran, NASA engineer and author, owes much of his success to his supportive science teacher, whose fate adds to the ever-present tension in this film.

Dangerous Minds

Rated R
99 minutes

This 20-year-old stylized film about a Marine veteran who becomes a teacher asks the question: Does she have the right stuff to teach unruly students?

LouAnne Johnson, played convincingly by Michelle Pfeiffer, must adjust to the combat-like antics that take place in an inner-city school. “Dangerous Minds” is particularly relevant for contemporary U.S. vets who may be considering teaching as a career option.

Regardless of whether they’ve served in the military, many teachers face similar challenges coping with troubled kids. The students depicted in “Dangerous Minds” remain familiar today. They are often from broken homes, which hardens them — makes them distrustful of authority. Naturally, the students test their teacher’s resolve, making it difficult to help them learn.

To Sir with Love

105 minutes

The “Citizen Kane” of movies about teachers, “To Sir with Love” is a classic. The 1967 film dealt with issues of racism — both within the classroom and the faculty lounge — at a time when equality was at the forefront of America’s conscience.

The fact that Mark Thackeray, played by Sidney Poitier, teaches in a British school does not diminish its inspiring message. “To Sir with Love” showcased an intelligent black man in a position of authority during the 1960s. Like his students, Thackeray cops an attitude. He doesn’t really want the job any more than the students want to learn. Unable to break into his chosen profession of engineering, Thackeray initially expects instant respect. When he discovers he must earn respect by proving that he cares, he changes his entire approach to teaching.

This timeless message is appropriate for many of today’s teachers, as they struggle to prove their abilities in classrooms where students constantly test adults. “To Sir with Love” was a cultural phenomenon when it was released, in part because of Poitier’s sterling performance, but also because it featured the hit single by Lulu, which shared the movie’s title.

In honor of teachers

Teacher Appreciation Week is May 4-8. Celebrate these inspiring teachers — and all of the wonderful teachers around you — with a movie each day. And give thanks to teachers all year-round.