In Defense Of The Magical Teacher Movie

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When an English, history, or math teacher was out at my middle school, my classmates and I might have been subjected to any number of educational films. But if the music teacher was home sick, there were only two possible movies we'd spend the period pretending to watch — Music of the Heart or Mr. Holland's Opus. Both follow music teachers (one based on a real person, one completely fictional) as they beat the odds and fight school boards that are so hell-bent on depriving their students of an arts education that they all but burn recorders at a school assembly. They were a little corny — and maybe not the best representation of how to fix the troubled American public school system — but as a sub-genre, the magical teacher movie doesn't get nearly enough credit.
Possibly one of the most famous magical teacher movies (and most favorably reviewed) is 1989's Dead Poet's Society. A large part of its power is wrapped up in Robin William's performance, who created a character with an infectious enthusiasm for literature and an obvious passion for passing on that love of lit. But what makes these films an important part of the larger coming of age canon are the teacher's abilities to pull things out of the students that were already there. The moral of an effective magical teacher film isn't "this teacher was so great he changed these lousy kids" but instead, "this teacher was able to bring out what was already wonderful about his students."
A valid criticism that can be leveled against films like Music of the Heart and Freedom Writers is that they feed into the film cliché of the white savior. Watch as the white woman goes into the poor, minority school and rescues students of color. Music of the Heart tries to address the problem in a scene when the mother of one of the black students want to pull her son out of violin class, saying he doesn't need to learn "dead white men's music." The teacher (played by Meryl Streep) points out she's teaching so she can support her children as a single mother and that the woman's son should be allowed to learn about whatever he's passionate about. It seems like Streep's character could definitely use a class in intersectionality. And though violins are not going to save the entire inner city school system, the real-life teacher that inspired the film did help hundreds of students.

Not every magical teacher movie has to get heavy. Sister Act II fits into the sub-genre, with the kids refreshingly depicted as bored, not troubled. With just a little guidance and encouragement, they're able to create what I still hold to be the best music video of the '90s (and yet the question remains unanswered, how did they intend to do those flips if they were planning on wearing their robes?).
Like so many film genres, you have to be in the mood to truly enjoy a magical teacher film. If you're coming off a breaking news bender or just dealt with a comment troll, you might not be ready to be moved by Mr. Holland's students surprising him with his own symphony, showing him just how much of an impact he had over the course of his career. But maybe after flipping through some of your high school Facebook photos, remembering just how amazing your old drama teacher was, you'll be able to appreciate Morgan Freeman inspiring an impromptu bathroom a cappella performance.

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