As a high school teacher with an enduring interest in film, I’ve often thought of writing a “teacher movie” that really tells it like it is. Following is the advice I recently received from Stanley Motss, Producer of Wag the Chalk Ltd. in Hollywood.
Thank you for the opportunity to review your screenplay Secondary School Daze. Your effort, although obviously informed by your direct classroom background, does not meet our production needs. However, your turn of phrase shows some promise. I offer you, based on 25 years in the business, the following tried-and-true themes and scenes from the teacher-film genre. Stay within this template and someday you’ll be a screenwriting star.
If you rent the following films, you’ll see the patterns I describe: Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Blackboard Jungle (1955), To Sir, With Love (1967), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), Teachers(1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), The Principal (1987), Stand and Deliver (1988), Lean on Me (1989), Dead Poets Society (1989), Kindergarten Cop (1990), Dangerous Minds (1995), Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995), The Substitute (1996), and 187 (1997). Collectively, these 16 films have garnered 21 Academy Award nominations (five wins) and have grossed over $760 million in the United States. Nine were among the top 20 money-makers during their release year.
- Screen teachers begin as youthful and idealistic.
Most teacher films are variations on the same story: beginning teachers launched feet first into the harsh reality of the new school. They are naive, idealistic, and completely unprepared for what faces them. As Rick Dadier (Glenn Ford, BlackboardJungle) states, “I want to teach, most of us want to do something creative, a painter, writer, or engineer. But I thought if I could help to shape young minds, sort of sculpt young lives, that would be something.” After being hired to teach a class of kids that had already dispatched five substitutes, Dangerous Minds’ Michelle Pfeiffer states, “I guess Ms. Shephard’s lesson plans will be in her desk.” Their dreams may even include innocent ambitions like Mr. Chips, “It means everything to be here, headmaster at Brookwood, that’s something to work for.”
- Screen teachers get cynical advice instead of professional mentorship from their colleagues.
This fact is revealed in the staff room or first staff meeting scene. Mr Chips is told that “the boys are excited by fresh blood… mustn’t let them rag you … look out for drawing pins and tacks on your desk.” A good model for the staff room cynic is Jim Murdock (Blackboard Jungle) who is introduced working out on a punching bag as he is “getting into shape to defend myself for the fall term,” because his school is “the garbage can of the education system.” In Stand and Deliver, one teacher advises, “You can’t teach logarithms to illiterates.” Mr. Dadier (Blackboard Jungle) nicely spells out the most common other staffroom archetypes: “the clubber” (uses violence), “the slumberer” (ignoring or indifferent), “the veteran” or “slobberer” (begs for student sympathy) and “the fumbler” (the novice). Even where friends teach next door — like Hal Griffith (George Dzundza, Dangerous Minds) who states, “I’ll be right next door” — they only buy the first round at the bar after school. They never really help by investigating the clammer and clatter next door.
- Screen teachers always get the worst class.
This truism is timeless from the balls of paper flying (MrChips, 1939), through leather jacket boppers (Blackboard Jungle, 1955), twisters and swingers (ToSir,WithLove, 1967), to gangsta rappers (Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, The Substitute, The Principal). The desk are broken and vandalized and the students are out of control. They go through the file cabinets and teacher’s desk (The Substitute); there aren’t enough seats (Stand and Deliver) which only partially explains why couples are sharing their desks (Blackboard Jungle, Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Teachers, The Principal). Any attempt to teach the first class is shouted down by the students who throw baseballs (Blackboard Jungle), beer cans (The Substitute), or books (To Sir, With Love; Stand and Deliver). The bell to end classes always rings a few minutes after the one to begin, leaving class and lesson in tatters.
- Screen teachers can count on little or no support from the principal.
Principals are insulated within their office from the reality of the classroom and are either incompetent, indifferent, or intimidating. Principal Eugene Horne (Teachers) runs back into his office when he sees two teachers fighting over the mimeograph machine, and does not know who does the school’s filing or where the files are kept. A death threat against a teacher is swept under the carpet by Principal Claude Rolle (The Substitute) because without proof of a direct threat he’d “have a lawsuit on his hands.” Where screen principals use discipline, they go to almost sociopathic extremes. Headmaster Weatherby canes Mr. Chips’ entire class after the first day but says he will dismiss him if there’s any further trouble. Principals Joe Clark (Lean on Me) and Rick Latimer (The Principal) patrol their hallways with baseball bats that they are called upon to use, as well as verbal intimidation and threats to students and staff alike. They sport slogans like “no more” (The Principal), or “devastation or education,” or “power perceived is power achieved” (The Substitute). It is not an accident that Rick Latimer is promoted to principal of his inner-city school after taking a baseball bat to his ex-wife’s sports car.
- Screen teachers teach best when they teach least and when they are trained least.
“I never thought I’d be here. Like most people I only got my teaching certificate so I’d have something to fall back on, and now I have,” says teacher Mr. Holland ( Richard Dreyfuss, Mr. Holland’s Opus) who’d rather be composing. Other screen teachers are failed engineers (Sidney Portier, To Sir, With Love), computer programmers (Edward Olmos, Stand and Deliver), ex-marines (Michelle Pfeiffer, Dangerous Minds), undercover cops (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kindergarten Cop), escaped mental patients (Richard Mulligan, Teachers), and mercenaries (Tom Berenger, The Substitute). Teaching is a job with no professional requirement, and even the most difficult class can be won over with a simple gimmick. For Dreyfuss it’s adding some rock ‘n’ roll to the repertoire; for Olmos it’s mumbling to himself and street-wise word problems; for Pfieffer it’s karate demos and Bob Dylan lyrics. Sidney Portier teaches his class how to make a great salad, while outpatient Mulligan’s split-personalities of famous people bring Social Studies alive.
- Screen teachers will have to sacrifice and suffer to succeed.
Attempting to balance his composing with his teaching, Mr Holland is chastised by Principal Jacobs (Olympia Dukakis, Mr. Holland’s Opus) for beating his kids to the parking lot, and lacking a moral compass and commitment to the school. It’s not long before he is going in early to tutor, staying late to work on productions, and is unable to do much else. Louanne Smith (Michelle Pfeiffer, Dangerous Minds) treats her whole class to everything at the fun fair, takes them out for dinner at the most expensive restaurant in town, and even gives one student $200 to pay for a jacket he stole for the event. Mr. Chips goes through 226 rock and ice cakes a year on a fixed salary, giving out Sunday tea to his students, new and former. To get his students to pass the advanced placement exams, teacher Escalante (Stand and Deliver) works 60 hour weeks, every weekend and every holiday with his students (as well as teaching English to adults at night and helping out at the junior secondaries). His mild heart attack shows how much truly committed teachers must sacrifice.
Oops, got to go. Just got a call that Spielberg might do a prequel to Saving Private Ryan—Tom Hanks back in that English class of his in Pennsylvania or wherever. Anyhow, here’s the rest of my advice. I think you get the picture.
- Screen teachers will have to face indifferent or hostile educational organizations, like school boards and teacher unions.
- Screen teachers will burn-out and either quit or be fired.
- Screen teachers face an increasingly violent school environment that requires them to become violent to succeed.
- Screen teachers will be the last to recognize their success and will need to find their redemption through others.
Regards, and best of luck,
Stanley Motss, Producer, Wag the Chalk Ltd. Hollywood, CA.