3 Lessons from 3 1980s Educator Films

With the Oscars in our rear vision mirror I thought it would be a great moment to blog-ify one of our popular podcast episodes. 

Check out “Educate This: A Podcast for Teachers, Trainers, Coaches, Mentors & Learners to hear the audio version.

Lean on Me (1989)


The late 80s/early 90s was truly a time for inspirational educator films. There were plenty in competition but Lean on Me stands shoulder to shoulder with the best and is in the running for dux. This one is about a tough-love educator. 


 I remember talking to a principal of a low-socio-economic demographic High School near me which has come along in leaps and bounds academically, behaviourally and in other markers since he took over about a decade ago. He told me that after his first day on the job he was near broken. Fights, kids telling him to “F” off now coz he wasn’t going to last long anyway etc. Exhaustedly he spoke to his wife. She said to him “You’ve got 3 options. 1 quit. 2. Just go in, keep your nose down and ride it out until you’re transferred or get a better offer, or 3. Go back in there carrying a big stick.”


 He said, “metaphorically I took the big stick approach. I showed tough love but made sure it came with respect and lenience for the things that didn’t matter. A kid is wearing a non-regulation hat? Who cares? A kid disrespects a teacher or fellow student. Get in my office I’m about to lay down the law.” 


 Morgan Freeman is Joe Clark, a “take no crap” ex-teacher who is brought in by a school superintendent to take on the role of principal in the worst school in New Jersey. Joe immediately sets himself up as an unlikable guy. Like the local principal I mentioned (who was an extremely likeable guy,) he started with the big picture issues. Drugs, gangs “get the hell out of here! I run the school now.” He also did all of this with passion and the passion came because he had a vision. It wasn’t pride, delusions of grandeur or power tripping. He wanted to make the school a better place for the students and for the wider community.


LESSON: Strong leadership requires a strong vision


The leader, in this case the principal, needs to also sell that vision in order to get others on board. Many are averse to change especially if it pushes them out of a comfortable, couch groove existence. There can be push-back when bold leadership steps on to the scene but the quicker the leader can show and prove respect, the quicker they will get it in return with vital support from others. 


Educators are not just classroom leaders; they are leaders and builders of leaders for the community beyond the classroom. 


Stand and Deliver (1988)


This one is based on a true story, 


 Directed by Ramon Menendez’s S&D is a 1988 drama that tells the story of Jaime Escalante, played by Edward James Olmos, a science wiz who gave up a well-paying and upward moving career in electronics to teach math at a low-socio-economic East L.A. barrio school called Garfield High. A barrio is basically a neighbourhood or ‘quarter’ where Spanish is the predominant language.


Olmos was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor at the 61st Academy Awards. He would have been a worthy winner but That was taken out by Dustin Hoffman’s for his Rainman character ‘Raymond Babbit’ 


This is a super inspiring true story that feels almost too good to be true.


Olmos performs with great energy and does justice to the story of Escalante who motivated through unorthodox techniques, a group of Latino students who were dragging academically, and turned them into high achieving performers.


A young Lou Diamond Phillips plays one of the lead troublemaker students called Angel. 


The story goes that the change in the kids was so incredible that the SAT board didn’t believe it could have happened and accused the teacher and students of cheating on their tests. There is more to tell from that part of the story alone but suffice to say the students repeated their exams and proved themselves by acing the testing.


This is a beautiful film telling a beautiful story of underdog triumph and how the power of 1 person’s attitude and energy can transform lives.


LESSON: Expectations Matter. 


 The head of the maths department in this film had low expectations set for the teens. Until Escalante came along those expectations were being met. High or low expectations are both self-fulfilling prophesies.


High expectations can feel like a demotivator to some, particularly during a learning curve but if high expectations are coupled with high level support, the student can push through the pain.


 Imagine if a Personal Trainer set low expectations for a client who wanted to get into shape. Or a house builder told his apprentice to aim for birdhouses rather than mansions.


Very rarely is the hill to climb a constant, smooth walk. There will be dips, there will be falls. Our outwardly displayed confidence that a student can do it is crucial. Even if we are not feeling it and are doubting. Until a student becomes independently confident a teacher’s confidence can help support them and stop them from giving up. The critical reason that confidence is a must is because without it, students will avoid anything challenging and they won’t progress. 


Dead Poets Society (1989)


“O Captain My Captain” has become such an iconic scene that it is now the stuff of parodies. That’s how you know you’ve made something memorable.


 Directed by Peter Weir, who hasn’t done much lately but has a slew of awesome films including Gallipoli, Master & Commander, The Truman Show… this best-picture nominee is a high benchmark for inspirational movies about educators. Robin Williams starred as John Keating, a prep-school English teacher who stirred the hearts and minds of his students with his passion for literature. Unlike the barrio raised kids from Stand and Deliver these kids were from well-to-do families but had their own mental battles that their inspirational teacher helped them to rise above. These kids led dictated lives. Every choice was not theirs to consider. From the path they had taken to that point to what was expected of their future. Keating encouraged them by saying, 


“Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!”


Set in the conformity loving 1950s where status quo was all the rage Keating was able to break the lockstep monotony of his students and get them to discover and embrace their true colours.


There’s a great scene where Ethan Hawke’s character hasn’t done his assignment of writing and sharing poetry. Keating knows this kid and this type of kid and understands that it’s his reservations, his fear of looking stupid, his lack of belief in his own imagination that is holding him back, so he forces him to the front of the class to create poetry on the spot. What he comes out with is gutsy, imaginative and deeply emotional.


 LESSON: To encourage fearless learning, we must become fearless educators


 Sometimes all a student needs to fly, is for someone to shove them over the edge.


 It’s not about encouraging the loss of inhibitory control. There will always be those students who will run and jump off a cliff before they’ve sprouted wings. It’s about encouraging those students who are holding back their potential. Why do they hold back? Individually these are all points we can cover in future episodes but in a nutshell, as multiple studies have shown, these are some of the main reasons why students, or anybody really, keeps potential bottled up.


  1. Fear of failure
  2. Fear of looking stupid
  3. Fear of humiliation
  4. Fear of society’s criticism
  5. Fear of the unknown
  6. Fear of inadequacy 


 FEAR is what keeps potential incarcerated. FEAR disables a student from releasing their true potential on the world. How can we as educators help our students to release their true potential? 


 One way that Keating did it was by putting himself in positions where he could come off looking foolish, or vulnerable, or setting himself up for societal criticism. He led by example and faced and fought the fear right there in front of his students. 


 To recap!


  1. We are not just educators; we are leaders and as leaders we must have a vision. 
  2.  We set expectations that must be reached up for not reached sideways or down for.
  3. We can show students how to be fearless learners by being fearless educators.


We are not just teachers, we are students. We are not just coaches, we are participants in life. Engage in a way that can be reciprocated. Teach in a way that can be felt, not just heard. 


Have you ever felt inspired by movies portraying great educators and thought “I’d love to inspire people myself? I’d love to help, guide, mentor and train eager minds.” You may be perfect as a vocational trainer. The best part is that you can take your life experience, workplace education, knowledge and any qualifications and tap into the world of vocational training.

What you will need is a Certificate 4 in Training and Assessment (TAE40116) and Qualify Now can help you to get that. They are currently giving away a free TAE unit as a no strings attached, no risk, “try before you buy” opportunity. Check out qualifynow.com.au for more details.