Inspiring and Beloved Teachers in Film Guide – American Film Institute


Inspiring and Beloved Teachers in Film Guide

It’s September and the school year is in full swing! Join us in celebrating a selection of inspiring educators, coaches and mentors featured in films from AFI’s Top 100 lists, AFI AWARDS or AFI Movie Club.

AKEELAH AND THE BEE – Dr. Joshua Larabee

AKEELAH AND THE BEE (2006) co-stars Laurence Fishburne as prickly English teacher Dr. Joshua Larabee who recognizes the untapped potential of 11-year-old underdog Akeelah who possesses an incredible knack for spelling. Todd Wagner, a director on the AFI Board of Trustees, helped produce the film, which co-stars AFI Honorary degree recipient Angela Bassett. Watch the star of the film Keke Palmer introduce the film and learn more about AFI Movie Club selection AKEELAH AND THE BEE.

CLUELESS – Mr. Hall and Miss Geist

In this clever reimagining of Jane Austen’s “Emma” set against the backdrop of Beverly Hills, meddling teenager Cher Horowitz devises a plan to play matchmaker between two of her teachers – the unyielding Mr. Hall and sweet, bookish Miss Geist – all in an attempt to raise her lackluster grade point average. Watch director and AFI Alum Amy Heckerling (AFI Class of 1974) talk about casting AFI Movie Club selection CLUELESS (1995).

CODA – Bernardo Villalobos

CODA’s (2021) Ruby Rossi flourishes under the enthusiastic, yet exacting, teacher Bernardo Villalobos. With his encouragement, Ruby applies to the prestigious Berklee College of Music and leans on “Mr. V” as she prepares for her high-stakes audition. Written and directed by Siân Heder (AFI DWW Class of 2005) and shot by cinematographer Paula Huidobro (AFI Class of 2004), this touching coming-of-age tale took home three Oscars®, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Heder. It was also honored at 2021 AFI AWARDS.


Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” With those rousing words, English teacher John Keating inspires the students of Welton Academy, an all-male boarding school, to buck the institution’s rigid rules and, instead, pursue their passions, embrace the art of poetry and resist the status quo. DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989) was named to AFI’s list of the most inspiring films of all time as well as the greatest movie quotes in cinematic history. Learn more about DEAD POETS SOCIETY in the AFI Catalog.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS – Coach Gary Gaines 

Director Peter Berg scores a touchdown – and an AFI AWARD – with FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (2004), which takes audiences to the small town of Odessa, Texas, that is obsessed with their intrepid high school football team. The squad is led by Coach Gary Gaines, who counsels his young players and helps them navigate the intense pressure of having their entire community’s hopes and dreams resting on their shoulders. Read more about FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS at AFI AWARDS 2004.

THE GREAT DEBATERS – Melvin B. Tolson  

Set during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation, THE GREAT DEBATERS (2007) follows English professor and poet Melvin B. Tolson who established an elite debate club at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas – the first all-Black team to ultimately win the national university championships. Portrayed by AFI Life Achievement Award recipient Denzel Washington – who also directs, Tolson inspires his four bright charges to challenge Harvard’s reigning champions, depicting the power of words to change minds, tackle injustice and counter the nefarious forces of racism and discrimination. Learn more about AFI Movie Club selection THE GREAT DEBATERS.

HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE – Albus Dumbledore and Minerva McGonagall

Throughout HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (2001), professors Albus Dumbledore and Minerva McGonagall serve as moral compasses for Harry, Ron and Hermione as they navigate Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as well as the growing perils of the outside world. Read more about the AFI Movie Club selection HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, which features the bewitching score of AFI Life Achievement Award recipient John Williams.

HOOSIERS – Norman Dale

Starring Gene Hackman as college coach Norman Dale, HOOSIERS (1986) is a classic tale of redemption which ultimately leaves audiences believing in not only the ability to make a comeback on the basketball court but in life as well. The film was named by AFI as one of the most inspiring movies in cinematic history as well as one of the 10 Top 10 sports films. Learn more about HOOSIERS in the AFI Catalog.

LEAN ON ME – Joe Clark

In this stirring drama based on a true story, AFI Life Achievement recipient Morgan Freeman stars as “Crazy” Joe Clark, the maverick principal of a troubled New Jersey high school who is tasked with making sure 75% of his students pass the minimum basic skills test or else risk Eastside High shutting down. Employing highly unorthodox and controversial methods to keep crime and drug activity at bay, he encounters both success and setbacks as he strives to uplift the student body by installing a system of firm discipline and a sense of school pride. Watch Morgan Freeman at the AFI Life Achievement Award Tribute. Learn more about LEAN ON ME (1989), an AFI Movie Club selection.


Desperate for a solution, Helen Keller’s parents enlist the help of Annie Sullivan from the Perkins School for the Blind, who is also visually impaired. Using both tough love and compassion, Sullivan slowly but surely succeeds in teaching Helen sign language, earning her trust and offering companionship to what was once an isolated existence. The film, which stars Anne Bancroft (AFI DWW Class of 1975) as the tenacious Sullivan, is ranked by AFI as one of the most inspiring films of all time. Learn more about THE MIRACLE WORKER (1962) in the AFI Catalog.


From AFI AWARDS 2009, “[PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL ‘PUSH’ BY SAPPHIRE (2009)] offers no false hope or happy ending, but instead commands us to look in the mirror and celebrate the image that smiles back, because in that reflection, we are all precious.” A survivor of paternal incest as well as violent abuse by her mother, 16-year-old Claireece “Precious” Jones encounters compassionate teacher Ms. Rain who helps her improve her literacy, increase her sense of self-worth and envision a brighter future. This unflinching drama was honored with an AFI AWARD in 2009, which recognizes the best film and TV series of the year. Learn more about PRECIOUS in the AFI Catalog.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones, Jr.

When not on one of his globetrotting adventures recovering the Ark of the Covenant ahead of the Nazis, Indiana Jones is a well-respected archeology professor who ignites the imaginations of his students. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) features the contributions of four AFI Life Achievement Award recipients – director Steven Spielberg, producer George Lucas, star Harrison Ford and composer John Williams – as well as an early credit for AFI Board of Trustees Chair Kathleen Kennedy. The film was named to AFI’s lists of the greatest American films as well as the most thrilling movies ever – with the character of Indiana Jones ranked as one of the greatest screen heroes of all time. Learn more about RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK in the AFI Catalog.

STAND AND DELIVER – Jaime Escalante  

Based on the true story of an East Los Angeles math class who beat the odds to conquer the AP calculus test, STAND AND DELIVER (1988) was written/directed by AFI Alum Ramon Menendez (AFI Class of 1979) and stars AFI Trustee Edward James Olmos as Garfield High School teacher Jaime Escalante who inspires his class to have ganas (“desire”) and perseverance as they prepare for the daunting exam. The film earned a place on AFI’s 100 Year…100 Cheers, AFI’s list of the art form’s most inspiring stories. Learn more about STAND AND DELIVER in the AFI Catalog.

STAR WARS –  Obi-Wan Kenobi

“May the Force be with you.” Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi takes his place in cinematic history as mentor to Luke Skywalker, guiding him in the ways of the Force. This iconic adventure set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away has appeared on AFI’s accounting of the greatest films of all time and its list of cinema’s greatest thrills and cheers. The film also boasts contributions by three AFI Life Achievement Award recipients – writer/director George Lucas, star Harrison Ford and composer John Williams – as well as AFI Honorary Degree recipient James Earl Jones as Darth Vader. Learn more about STAR WARS (1977) in the AFI Catalog.

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Comments (2)

Julie Janata

Stand and Deliver was also written and directed by AFI Directing alum Ramon Menendez. An enduring true story. Congratulations, Ramon!
#AFIAlums #TeachersinFilm


As a retired teacher, I always felt that Mr. Holland’s Opus was one of the best and most realistic portrayals of a teacher’s career. I’m disappointed you left if off this list, in favor of the “hero” teacher movies which apparently appeal to you.

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