Every few years there has to be a film about inspiring teachers. “Goodbye Mr. Chips”, “How Green was My Valley”, “The Blackboard Jungle”, “To Sir with Love” ad infinitum . 30 Years ago this month it was “Teachers”, a Nick Nolte vehicle with a lot of familiar faces in it but not quite the sort of inspiration you found in the old days. The movie could have easily been parodied with a title like “Goodbye Mr. Chips With Tits”.


This is a honest effort to portray the problems in the school system with a sincere desire to call everyone to action. The problem is that it lays it on so thick, you doubt whether it has the smell of truth to it. Everything that happens in the film happened every day in schools across the country. Much of it still happens today. It just does not all happen in the same school in the same week as is played out here. The movie is entertaining enough but it is filled with cliches and events that would spark protests and marches these days, not the kind of casual shrugging of the shoulders that seems to be standard for earlier times.

Nolte is cast as Alex, a once passionate teacher who has been ground down by the system. He is one of several teachers in the school who are being deposed in a lawsuit brought by a student who graduated without being able to read. The vice principal is his old buddy Roger played by Judd Hirsh. Roger is doing all he can to hold the school together under the leadership of a know nothing, ineffectual principal. He has to juggle warring teachers, school violence, administrative headaches and the lawsuit, all while trying to do what he sees as best for the students. The lawyers for the district are worried about what the teachers might say in their depositions.

BurnoutsEven though they are friends, Roger has his doubts about what Alex might reveal. It’s not really clear that any of this would be a surprise, after all, the attorney for the former student arrives on a busy day when all kinds of hell is breaking loose in the office and the staff room. First dayThe lawyer just happens to be a former student of the high school and had a crush on Alex ten years earlier. JoBeth Williams plays Lisa as a crusader out to expose the failures of the system. She also turns into a romantic interest for Alex and may be one of two people who can relight the spark in him. The other potential candidate for that job is a shady student with a belligerent attitude, played by the Karate Kid himself, Ralph Macchio. I’d forgotten that Macchio was in this movie, it is the second film of his on the list and it also reached the top of the box office the week it opened. Ralph Macchio Learns Something Other Than KarateEddie Pilikian, Macchio’s character, can’t read. He is another example of the failure of the system and he gives Alex a chance to show that the system can in fact work, as long as you are willing to break the rules. All of the main plot points get a little heavy handed and the social crusading would be hard to stomach if it were not tempered by some comic bits. There are three distinct humor threads in the movie to lighten things up somewhat.

An old timer at the school runs his class like a silent factory, passing out work sheets day in and out without ever really speaking to his students. They all face the opposite direction of his desk and he hides behind his newspaper. All the faculty know him as “Ditto” because of the memographes he reproduces every day. Most of you reading this will have no memory of “Ditto” machines, but before photocopies became widely used for class materials (photocopies are what were used before pdf files kids) the memo machine was ubiquitous in schools at all levels. “Ditto” gets attacked by the school psychologist who has been unable to use the machine since he stands at it all morning long before classes start. Ditto OK, that storyline ends with someone being removed from the classroom in a body bag, so maybe it is not so funny. That’s OK, we have the hijinks of a odd kid (you know he is odd by the fact he is played by Crispin Glover) who pranks the friendly math teacher. He steals his desk, and his car and he bites the guy and drags him to the floor. All Hells Breaking LooseThis scene is supposed to spark laughs over how out of control the school really is. Oh wait, this storyline also ends with a body being removed from the schools, so laugh it up kids, this is a comedy as well as a drama. Ok, there is one of the comic threads that does not end with someone dead. An out patient living in a psychiatric facility, intercepts a call for a substitute teacher, and he shows up to take over the history class.  Richard Mulligan brings his quirky smile and jerky mannerisms to the part and he turns out to be the kind of teacher that students would really like to have. He dresses up as historical figures and has his students participate in re-enactments of the subject matter they are learning. CusterThis was actually fun despite the fact that it is insulting to every teacher who spent time in school learning how to best reach students. The idea that a deranged amateur will do a better job than the professionals is probably not going to win many awards from the N.E.A.

The comic threads are alternated with the main story concerning the lawsuit. The lawyer schilling for the district is played by an incredibly young Morgan Freeman. MorganThe school board and it’s lawyer are basically conspiring to hide the truth from the plaintiff’s attorneys but the unwieldy teachers are gumming up the works. Macchio’s character needs to learn how to read, Laura Dern appears as a student who is pregnant by a teacher and needs Alex to help her get an abortion, and Lisa is disenchanted with Alex and his approach to the lawsuit. Can you see how cluttered this film is? There is a message here and it is an important one, the school system needs to be reformed. 30 years later what have we managed to accomplish?

Lets see. Well, you will never see this image in a school these days. 1984 School NurseThe school nurse, in a classroom with a cigarette! We have at least purged that horrifying element from our schools. After all, smoking is a bigger danger than drugs, bullying, failing to learn or wasting millions of dollars of taxpayers money, right? Oh by the way, my wife’s school is trying to ban the teachers from consuming soda on the school grounds. That’s the kind of reform we get in a public school system.

Here is something a little more promising. The teacher who is nailing students at the school and gets at least one of them pregnant, will not be merely lectured to by the assistant principal and moved to another school in the district. Old School JusticeWell at least if the parents hear about it. I seem to recall that the creep in the L.A.U.S.D. who inseminated the cookies he was giving the kids in his class was moved around a few times before the district finally got sued over the incidents. Admittedly, teachers having sex with their students is taken a lot more seriously now, I just don’t understand why such a thing happens in the first place. The leeches of the  world are fond in all professions but when they are teachers, expect some salacious news coverage. I don’t know about the other places in the country, but in California, a teacher who helps a student get an abortion would probably get a medal instead of being run out of their job. So that’s progress right?

The movie has to end with a dramatic moment, and the screenwriter concocts a justification for the pretty lawyer and former student to disrobe as a way of inspiring her old high school teacher. Making a PointWell I’ll tell you, it would inspire me, but not maybe the way it works out in this movie. The problems of the schools are real, the film however isn’t. I remember feeling the same way about the movie in 1984. Good themes but it pissed me off a little. I’m a bit more charitable toward the storytelling this time, but when it comes to the problems with our schools, 30 Years on, not much has changed.


12 thoughts on “Teachers

  1. I enjoyed reading your review. I’ve never seen this movie but I had heard of it. Judging by what you wrote I can see myself being annoyed by it also. It sounds more discouraging than enlightening.

    • Most of the time these movies make an effort to give you a little hope. This one does that but it is capped off with a less than realistic outcome. It has it’s entertaining elements but the over the top stuff is just a bit much. Nolte is really quite good and Macchio, he holds up his end.

  2. As a teacher, of course your review and assumption that not much has changed in schools since the 80s has me disgruntled for sure. This idiotic movie is nothing like any school I’ve ever worked in or attended. I’m so very saddened by how anti-teacher, anti-education our society is. On behalf of the hundreds of thousands of fantastic teachers and administrators out there who give 110 percent of their energy and time to inspire students on a daily basis in the most important profession out there while receiving little respect or compensation–I assure you–every character in that film would never last a school year in our school system today.

    • As a college teacher of thirty plus years, married to a 15 year veteran teacher at the elementary and middle school level, believe me I know the dedication that most teachers have. At this very moment, my wife is finishing up six hours of work she has put in on a Sunday afternoon and evening for her classes. I don’t want to defend the movie too much because it lays it on pretty thick, but major urban schools have a lot of these problems. Administrators can run the gauntlet from Amazingly supportive and capable, to criminally incompetent. I don’t know about the anti-teacher attitude that you are describing, and I don’t think anyone is anti-education. What people do oppose is the feckless nature by which the problems get addressed. The U.S ranking of education in contrast to the rest of the world has dropped for years. Kids get a raw deal in a lot of places because the program or the environment in which learning is supposed to take place is toxic. The one element in the film that I barely touched on is the fact that the dedicated math teacher, wants nothing more than to help his students learn. That the administration will not allow a kid to fail (despite not doing any work) is not the fault of the teacher. This happens, today, in schools all over the place. That character is made the target of bullying from a student who is deeply disturbed, and he can’t get the kid out of his class, that stuff happens today, all over the place. Some of the problems of the schools are eternal, some get addressed, but it is accurate to say these kinds of problems exist. The reason the movie irritated me was that it is filled with these types of cliches without a realistic story resolution. The burnouts, the incompetents and the child molesters are giving us all a bad name, and they have been doing so for a very long time.

      • Hello Richard and Mrs.R., fellow educators. It’s very nice of you to clarify your position and it’s great to hear your take on education. I’m not a polyanna, and I graduated from high school in 1981 and have been teaching for sixteen years at the middle, secondary, and college level, too. Of the three offenders you speak of (burnout/incompetent/molester), the worst kind of teacher I’ve come across is the dinosaur who unravels all the good she has done by hanging on until retirement and either bitching about the state of affairs in teaching today or by benign neglect. I’ve never known nor been in a school system where teachers sexually or emotionally abuse their students. Bullies are around. In our school and across the country, ADL and administerators have pledged to keep bullying out of schools. That’s tough with varying success. I have not worked in an inner city school and I’d hate to condemn them all as the core of burnouts, incompetents and molesters. I’d say poverty and lack of resources are two key barriers to effective teaching. There have always been miracle teachers, dedicated teachers, mediocre teachers, and I suspect there will always be the wrotten apple, but I do believe most all are weeded out. Perhaps I’m deluded. I have wisely selected good schools with good kids from Il, VA, and AZ for which to spend my career. I’m in a title-one high school right now and our students are wonderful. Maybe it’s just my attitude. I concentrate on the good and I see it everywhere. Regardless of perspective, I usually hate “teacher movies”. My favorite is ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’.

  3. Hi Richard! I haven’t heard of this before. “…incredibly young Morgan Freeman” Hmmm, he looked about 40-something here so not THAT young I guess. He’s aged quite well that he’s now in his 70s though.

  4. Pingback: Micki + Maude | 30 Years On: 1984 a Great Year for Movies

  5. While I agree not all of what happens in the movie would likely happen in one school in the same week. But thats roughly as far stretched as it gets.
    If you made a movie on a general high school day it would likely be boring.
    Movies have to entertain and condense all of what they are saying in a short amount of time.
    It sounds like it would have to be a year long documentary for you to be satisfied with it.

    Most of what happened in the movie has actually happened in real life, at real schools.

    It was very bold for the time. It was a favorite then. I still love it now.

  6. You educators should get off your high horses. Nearly all of the events in the movie were based on ones that actually occurred in the lives of the writer and one of the producers who was also a teacher. I know, I contributed one of them…

    • Which one? If I know that, I can choose an appropriate response. Like I said, these things still happen, I would not deny that. It’s mostly the lack of focus and random broadsides which are addressed oddly that I thought were problematic in the storytelling.

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