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When Dr. Napier came to me offering this job, I saw the lightning flash. I heard the thunder roll... I cried, "My God, why has thou forsaken me?" And the Lord said, "Joe, you're no damn good." ...you're no earthly good at all, unless you take this opportunity and do whatever you have to... transform and transmogrify this school into a special place... where the hearts and souls and minds of the young can rise.
—Joe Clark, Lean On Me
Nobody's school system is perfect, but some are really bad. Whether it's a single class that's lost the will to learn, or an entire school that would be "better off as a parking lot", the students that go here are only an inch from completely giving up on themselves -- if they haven't already. And just when all is darkest, here comes a new teacher...
They may be a Trickster Mentor, or a Magical Negro, or a Zen Survivor. They may be a former student who came back to salvage their once-proud alma mater, or they might not be an actual teacher. They might not even want to do it. But whoever they are, they'll take these kids, and show them that they don't have to give up, and that the magic was inside them all along.
The students will be inspired to ace their SATs, or finally graduate from the 10th grade, or not join that gang, or even get a passing grade on a single test. Sometimes they win some competition. Often, at the end, the teacher will leave again for one reason or another, but not without the class thanking him in a deep, heartfelt manner, even the Jerk with a Heart of Gold.
Often, though not always, has a racial/class element to it, with either a white, sheltered teacher in a gun-ridden Inner-City School, or a black, fought-his-way-to-the-top teacher among privileged-but-bored upper-class white kids. Also has a strong tendency toward Glurge. Naturally, The Onion went after this one but good.
Anime & Manga
- Great Teacher Onizuka subverts this. He doesn't teach them how to do well in school and ace all their tests or whatever, but rather teaches them about the moral principles necessary to live a good life. And usually by accident, at that.
- Gokusen's Yankumi literally saves the school from being closed, in one episode.
- Episode 11 of Excel Saga is a merciless parody of this, though more focused on being a better baseball team than students.
- Another one is the movie Ultimate Teacher.
- Done in the beginning of Mahou Sensei Negima. Negi's class happens to be the worst on campus. Under Negi's leadership, they manage to hit the #1 rank. Then after the resident Mad Scientist (and smartest person in the whole school) transfers out, they promptly drop to second-to-last.
- Spider-Man: Peter Parker briefly turned into one of these. And of course, he was much better as a superhero than as a teacher.
- One of the classic examples would be To Sir With Love, starring Sidney Poitier. In what might seem Hilarious in Hindsight to people who grew up with the modern version of this trope (white teachers, minority students), the film has an educated black teacher helping out inner-city white youths.
- About a decade earlier Poitier was on the other side of this, playing the ringleader of a classroom full of delinquents that Glenn Ford tries to reach in Blackboard Jungle.
- Up the Down Staircase is another classic example, and one of the first to feature a female teacher.
- Lean on Me, starring Morgan Freeman. However, Freeman's Joe Clark turns the school around by kicking all the troublemakers off campus and applying no-nonsense "Tough Love" to the rest. The movie is claimed to be based on a true story, but it takes some liberties. Essentially, everything in the movie except the main character's name... is a liberty.
- Stand and Deliver is similarly based on a true story, though a much more idealistic one.
- The Principal also takes the Tough Love approach, straight to a climactic fistfight pitting the titular principal against the leader of one of the gangs that ravage the school.
- Sister Act 2 fits the formula quite well, and it allows the sequel to be different from the first film. Your Mileage May Vary.
- Subverted in the 1987 movie Summer School, where a clueless gym teacher is forced to teach a remedial English class during the summer, and will be fired if his students don't pass the end of the term test. So,instead of applying the Trickster Mentor method, he promises to do each kid a favor if they study.
- Dangerous Minds is a more recent example.
- Dead Poets Society is an example and a subversion: one student ends up dead, and another gets expelled. The remaining students learn, though. Those two students had bad "endings" because one had an oppressive father and the son couldn't handle the constant verbal abuse and over-the-top expectations so he committed suicide. The second student was pretty much a dumbass who didn't listen to the new teacher.
- Les Choristes has a failed musician who becomes a supervisor, and turns his class into a Cherubic Choir, transforming the mischievous children's lives in the process.
- Simultaneously parodied and played straight in High School High.
- Wonderfully parodied in Hamlet 2, when the teacher thinks of himself as saving both the drama program and his gangbanger students, but it turns out that the kids are pretty well-off and get good grades, and they end up being the ones to save the teacher and his stuck-up pet students.
- Also parodied in that the 'teacher' is a struggling ex-actor who, much to the bemusement and derision of his students, gets all his ideas on how to teach from these kinds of movies.
- A variation was used as the main plot in the film Lambada, not dancing as the plot, this trope was used as the plot.
- Done in the movie Only The Strong. The protagonist teaches his proteges how to use Capoeira, which somehow reforms them into better people using team mentality to go against the local gang.
- One of the earliest film cases is Blackboard Jungle. It's still one of the best, partly because the progress is slower and harder than in most of these examples. The end is only the beginning of victory.
- The Ron Clark Story, with Matthew Perry as the titular teacher who goes to teach inner-city middle schoolers.
- School of Rock may be one of the best deconstructions of this type of movie in recent memory. Of course, the students didn't need saving in the first place...
- Inverted in the HBO movie Cheaters. The teacher comes in to coach the Academic Decathalon Team which is a Super Bowl for nerds (this writer was a member of said team in high school). Intimidated by the school team that had won the competition every year, the team members stumble upon a copy of the test. When said teacher finds out, he encourages the team to cheat.
- Coach Carter is based on the real story of Kenneth Carter. This story is a variant where the teacher is actually a High School basketball coach who enforces a strict regime and code of conduct for his players, including getting good grades. To enforce it, he is perfectly free to tackle his players since he is not a teacher. When too many of his players are slacking off seriously on their studies, he suspends all team activities until he sees some real improvement and must fight for his decision with the school board and the public.
- Played straight in Freedom Writers, based on "The Freedom Writers Diary," which is a non-fiction book. The Los Angeles riots have split the school apart. Fights break out, gangs are formed, racism and abuse abound. Teacher Erin Gruwell takes on the task of teaching an integrated classroom of at-risk students, also known as "unteachables".
- Played equally straight in 1999's Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep as Roberta Guaspari, the teacher who started the Harlem Schools Violin Program. And yes, it was also based on a true story.
- The deplorable and jingoistic The Substitute movies. A white man tries to find a gang leader by going to the worst Inner-City School he can find, which only has Hispanic and African-American pupils.
- The Emperor's Club applies this to rich kids. Kevin Kline is the Roman History teacher at a prestigious boarding school, and is trying to get through to an arrogant problem student, played by Emile Hersch. In the end, he fails: the kid grows up to be financially successful but morally bankrupt. Kline feels better, though, when he sees that all of his other former students are happy, well-adjusted and respectable.
- This trope is applied in a military school in Major Payne.
- Conrack. See Literature
- Deconstructed in The History Boys. Irwin is hired by the principal in order to get the pupils to pass the Oxbridge examinations, and he succeeds. Specifically, he succeeds through his encouragement of lies and pretense, the sort of thing that the inspirational Cool Teacher was trying to steer them away from. And the Cool Teacher gropes his pupils. And the principal doesn't really care about the students as much as the school's ranking.
- Brutally deconstructed in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The title character fulfills all expectations at first, but it slowly becomes clear that she's having a very harmful effect on her students, which she remains completely unapologetic about.
- The children's book Miss Nelson Is Missing! is arguably a parody. A classroom of rowdy grade school kids is scared straight when their normal kindly teacher, the titular Miss Nelson, is replaced by a mean and strict substitute, Miss Viola Swamp. They're all too glad to have Miss Nelson back, and never suspect Miss Swamp was Miss Nelson in disguise, aiming to teach her class a lesson.
- Another book, aimed at the 10- to 14-year-old-crowd, is called They're Torturing Teachers in Room 104. It's about a group of kids who drive out every teacher they have, most within less than one day, until a magical teacher named Miss Merriweather comes. She makes all the kid's pranks backfire on them (a gum bubble grows to the size of a weather balloon and pops on the girl who's blowing it; a boy who mocks one of the girl's concerns about her hair gets his turned blue and curly, with an irremovable big pink bow) and eventually turns them into respectful, self-motivated students through Applied Phlebotinum.
- Teacher v. Unruly class; both learn lessons.
- Push by Sapphire: Precious' basic reading/writing class is a mild example. The average age in the class was around 19. What makes it mild is this is not the main thrust of the book.
- Don't Care High may qualify, in that the entire student body doesn't care about much of anything, with the epitome of this being the student who ends up being used to help turn the school around. The one actually behind the reversal is a newly-transferred freshman from Saskatchewan.
- The book Shut Up And Let The Lady Teach, by Emily Sachar, is about a (white) education newspaper reporter who taught in a (primarily black) New York school for one year, teaching a subject she wasn't really authorized to teach about.
- The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy, adapted as a theatrical film (Conrack) as well as a TV movie (see Live Action TV, below).
- The Water Is Wide, a Made for TV Movie, and one of few examples of this trope that is not set in the city. The idealistic young teacher in this film worked in a run-down school located on Yamacraw Island in South Carolina. See Real Life.
- The 1990 Made for TV Movie, Gryphon.
- The series Boston Public dipped into this territory at times.
- The BBC drama Hope And Glory was all about maverick head teacher Ian George (played by Lenny Henry in a rare non-comedy role) turning around an inner-city comprehensive. Based on the then-current "Superheads" phenomenon (see Real Life, below).
- Seven Periods With Mr Gormsby is a comedic example.
- Something of an inversion in that Gormsby is old fashioned to the point of parody.
- Welcome Back, Kotter
- Kotter doesn't exactly revolutionize the school. He becomes reasonably popular with his students, but they remain solidly mediocre.
- However, since the principal fully expected them to drop out without the skills to survive, the fact that Kotter kept them in school alone with some enthusiasm is a worthwhile feat.
- The '80s sitcom Head of the Class inverted this by giving Howard Hesseman's Mr. Moore a classful of academically gifted students who were so singularly focused on achievement and grades that their social and emotional development was lacking.
- The Cold Case episode "True Calling" plays this one painfully straight and Strictly Formula. Except for the teacher getting murdered, but this is a Crime and Punishment Series, and we still see that she Made A Difference(TM).
- I disagree that it was played straight. It comes off as more of a Deconstructed Trope, since the teacher is killed by another teacher who's basically a jaded, older version of her, when she tries to get him to confess to drug use to save the future of the student he forced to carry for him. The student in question feels so responsible for her death that he descends into the life of crime he would've had without her intervention, despite his obvious talent as a writer. Ouch.
- Also brutally subverted in the episode "8.03AM", when the white teacher at an inner-city school has a black pupil who is genuinely trying his best (it's not his fault that his education so far has been so bad he can barely read), but instead of encouraging him, she mocks and insults him in front of the class.
- This is The Greatest American Hero's day job.
- Parodied in Mad TV's Nice White Lady sketch, one of their better, and better-known, efforts.
- Parodied in a few Armstrong and Miller sketches where the apparently earnest teacher has the ability to engage his students in a matter of moments and gets them really interested in learning. Then the bell rings, and he stops in mid-sentence and tells them to fuck off because it's his time now.
- Heartbreakingly, cruelly, yet honestly subverted on the fourth and fifth seasons of The Wire with several characters, notably three of the main kids meeting ends ranging from Michael taking up Omar's mantle after his death to Dukie's and Randy's being downright tragic. And the teachers are usually pretty helpless, against both the violence pervading the school as well as the looming threat from superiors in the school system of losing their jobs and their funding unless they either bring test scores up or "juke the stats". It seems as though only the "stoop kids" and the "corner kids" from Bunny Colvin's experimental class have any sort of a happy ending.
- "Lambs to the slaughter here." - Marcia Donnelly
- The last couple seasons of Happy Days occasionally delved into this, with Fonzie teaching auto shop at Jefferson High.
- Disgaea 3 Absence of Justice does this on occasion, with Evil Academy having various difficulties after the former dean died ...sort of..., and his immediate heir didn't exactly take care of the academy in his stead. With the administrators almost entirely being demons, very little stands in the way of the academy falling apart. Then again, with the students almost entirely being demons, nobody really cares. (They're a bit more interested with Tyrant Overlord Baal swiping their stuff.) Despite all this, Mr. Champloo still has his teaching integrity. Helps that he had direct orders from the former Overlord to keep the academy from falling into an even deeper level of hell.
- In the Cracked parody "A Trailer for Every Academy Award Winning Movie Ever":
Wealthy, Succesful Protagonist: I've got to use tough love to help this Latin American teenager to believe in himself.
- Dangerous Wands, a College Humor parody of Dangerous Minds, puts an adult Hermione Granger in charge of a class of inner-city magic students.
- Parodied in an episode of Family Guy, in which Brian gets a job as a teacher and tries to inspire his students. He soon grows frustrated and apathetic. In the end, he only manages to inspire his students to be the best prostitutes and janitors (and ditch diggers) they can be. This is complete with a Shout-Out to Dead Poets Society.
- Also parodied in Pinky and The Brain, where the Brain becomes a teacher to earn money for his latest plot. Pinky joins his class ... but despite being a parody, the trope itself plays straight, including a fight breaking out when the miracle teacher is absent.
- Stand and Deliver (see Movies) is parodied mercilessly in a South Park episode, where Cartman is sent to teach at an inner city high school. He takes on the pseudonym 'Mr Cartmenez' out of fear the pupils would outright murder a WASP teacher, and teaches the kids to cheat their way to the top, including talking one girl into getting an abortion because it's the ultimate form of cheating.
- "How do I reach these keeeds?"
- American Dad:
- In "Iced, Iced Babies", Roger dress up as a professor and spout "inspirational" nonsense which convinces one of his students to kill his father.
- In "Stan-Dan Deliver", Roger teaches the at-risk students, whom everyone has given up on, and becomes an inspiration to them to the point that they hold a serenade for him. Using this faith, he sells them off to the Chinese Army for World of Warcraft gold.
- Bob's Burgers had the episode "Bob and Deliver," which actually subverted many of the usual tropes. Bob was hired as a home ec teacher and taught the kids how to become excellent chefs, only being threatened with shutdown because the students would rather eat in the home ec classroom than in the lackluster cafeteria. Bob and the students win the day in the end through their own hard work and true grit rather than a series of inspirational speeches.
- As noted above, Freedom Writers is non-fiction.
- Similarly, Dangerous Minds was based on an autobiographical account: My Posse Don't Do Homework.
- The high profile "Superheads" assigned to failing British comprehensives by local authorities in the early 2000s were supposed to be Truth in Television examples of the trope. The jury is still out as to how effective they were.
- You're thinking of Jaime Escalante.
- See Stand and Deliver (also listed above).
- The Teach For America program hopes to inspire this, using people who who wouldn't normally be teachers.
- It has a UK equivalent called Teach First
- The solution-du-jour lately to save inner city students from themselves has been to create "charter schools": basically privatized institutions that rely on private funding and tuition to operate, like a cheaper version of a prep school.
- Pat Conroy was a teacher before he sold his first book. His memoir of this, The Water is Wide got adapted twice.