Arts & Culture

Back to school: 15 unforgettable teachers from film and television

Jack Black stars as rocker-turned-teacher Dewey Finn in "School of Rock."
Jack Black stars as rocker-turned-teacher Dewey Finn in "School of Rock."

Have you ever had a teacher who inspired you? Encouraged you? Motivated you to be better?

Here at The Tribune, we’ve learned just as much from fictional instructors as their real-life counterparts.

To celebrate the start of the school season, we’ve selected 15 of the most memorable teachers from film and television. We’ve graded each educator on how effectively they command a classroom, and shared the key lessons we’ve gleaned from each one. Now, let’s hit the books!

Gabe Kotter, ‘Welcome Back, Kotter’ (1975 to 1979)

Mr. Kotter (Gabe Kaplan) used to be a member of the Sweathogs, the unruly group of academic underachievers who rule the roost at their Brooklyn high school. Now he’s their wisecracking teacher. This sitcom taught us the immortal phrase “Up your nose with a rubber hose” and so much more. 

Lesson learned: Even the rowdiest students aren’t beyond reach.

Grade: B

Mr. Hand, ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ (1982)

It’s laidback, perpetually stoned surfer Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) versus uptight history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) in this hilarious battle for dominance. But no matter how many times Spicoli tests his teacher’s patience, Mr. Hand wins out in the end, showing up at his student’s house for an impromptu study session. 

Lesson learned: If you order pizza in class, prepare to share.

Grade: B

Jaime Escalante, ‘Stand and Deliver’ (1988)

Can inner-city kids learn calculus? Edward James Olmos earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of an East Los Angeles math whiz determined to help his students reach their full potential in this based-on-a-true-story drama, paving the way for “Dangerous Minds,” “Freedom Writers” and other inspiring tales.

Lesson learned: Believe in yourself.

Grade: A

John Keating, ‘Dead Poets Society’ (1989)

“O Captain! My Captain!” This maverick English teacher (Robin Williams) encourages his students at a conservative New England prep school to question authority and seize the day. Known for his disdain for desks and textbooks, he’s the kind of unconventional life coach whostudents love and parents and principals love to hate.

Lesson learned: “Carpe diem! Seize the day!”

Grade: A if you’re a student, C if you’re a parent hoping to send your son to law school.

John Kimble, ‘Kindergarten Cop’ (1990)

On the trail of a drug dealer’s ex-wife and young son, Los Angeles police detective John Kimble (Arnold Schwarzenegger) goes undercover as a substitute kindergarten teacher in Astoria, Ore. Although he struggles to control his classroom at first, he’s eventually able to apply his police training — and his pet ferret — to keep the little tykes in line.

Lesson learned: “It’s not a tumor!”

Grade: C

Edna Krabappel, ‘The Simpsons’ (1990 to present)

Voiced by Marcia Wallace for more than a decade before her death in 2013, Ms. Krabappel is the epitome of the grumpy, jaded, chain-smoking public school teacher. (Everyone had one of those, right?) Of course, any teacher who had to deal with wild child Bart Simpson (voiced by Nancy Cartwright) for 20-plus seasons might be a little bitter. 

Lesson learned: You can give up on your students, but don’t neglect your love life.

Grade: C

George Feeny, ‘Boy Meets World’ (1993 to 2000)

Always prepared with words of wisdom and a little tough love, veteran educator Mr. Feeny (Williams Daniels) has a sterling track record as a longtime mentor to Cory Matthews (Ben Savage) and his friends. Serving first as their sixth-grade teacher, he later becomes their high school principal and college professor. 

Lesson learned: “Believe in yourselves. Dream. Try. Do good.”

Grade: A+

Glenn Holland, ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’ (1995)

Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) spends three decades teaching students about the joys of classical music, only to lose his job when his school’s fine arts program is eliminated. His reward upon retirement? Hearing hundreds of former pupils perform the title orchestral work. 

Lesson learned: Dreams can come true, even if it takes 30 years.

Grade: A

Herbert Garrison, ‘South Park’ (1997 to present)

On an animated show known for political incorrectness, Mr. Garrison (voiced by Trey Parker) stands out as one of the most offensive characters. A cynical, spectacularly incompetent teacher with multiple personality disorder, sexual identity issues and a puppet fetish, he’s had sex in front of his students and spouted racist and homophobic slurs that would make a bigot blush. 

Lesson learned: Nothing printable in a family newspaper.

Grade: F

Jim McAllister, ‘Election’ (1999)

When he discovers that overachieving student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is running for class president unopposed, high school civics teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) persuades a kind-hearted football star (Chris Klein) to enter the race. When Jim’s plan backfires — due in part to an unfortunate run-in with a bee — it becomes clear just how far he’s willing to go to prevent Tracy from winning. 

Lesson learned: Personal vendettas against students are a no-no.

Grade: D

Dewey Finn, ‘School of Rock’ (2003)

Struggling rock musician Dewey (Jack Black) impersonates his pal Ned Schneebly (Mike White) to land a gig as a substitute at an elite private school — only to discover his true calling is teaching kids how to rock ’n’ roll. Eschewing regular lesson plans, he transforms his students into an awesome band while passing along important life lessons about “the Man.”  

Lessons learned: “You’re not hardcore unless you live hardcore.” Also, Stevie Nicks is the way into any woman’s heart.

Grade: A

Professor X, ‘X-Men’ series (2000 to present)

Played by James McAvoy as an idealistic young man and Patrick Stewart as a seasoned sage, telepath Charles Xavier might be the coolest teacher on this list. He’s smart, handsome and hangs out with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters — actually a sanctuary for young mutants — doubles as the headquarters of everyone’s favorite mutant superheroes, the X-Men.

Lesson learned: Embrace what makes you special. (Side note: If you don’t want your kid becoming a costumed crime fighter, avoid this school.)

Grade: A

Severus Snape, ‘Harry Potter’ series (2001 to 2011)

Unlike the kindly headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris and Michael Gambon), Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) is the potions professor from hell — snide, sinister and cruel. It may appear that Snape goes out of his way to make boy wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) miserable, but there’s more to this spellbinding situation than meets the eye. 

Lesson learned: What doesn’t fail you makes you stronger.

Grade: B

Will Schuester, ‘Glee’ (2009 to present)

Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison) teaches Spanish at McKinley High School, but you won’t catch him in the classroom very often. Instead, he spends most of his time running the glee club, ruminating over his messy romantic relationships and sparring with his nemesis, Cheerios cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch).

Lesson learned: Follow your passion, but keep your personal life out of the classroom.

Grade: C

Walter White, ‘Breaking Bad’ (2008 to 2013)

When he’s diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, this high school science teacher (Bryan Cranston) decides to put his chemistry skills to the test by becoming a meth cook. With former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) by his side, Walt transforms himself from khaki-clad loser to criminal mastermind.

Lesson learned: Teaching doesn’t pay. Crime does. 

Grade: D