For anyone whose real-life, non-magic school bus barely had four wheels and an engine, Ms. Frizzle's class sounds like a pretty sweet deal. If you end up assigned to her homeroom this is apparently a free ticket to faster-than-light travel through the solar system and a psychedelic shrunken sight-seeing tour of the digestive tract and basal ganglia of your most awkward classmate. No, you cannot outgrow loving these books. Where did the magic school bus COME from? Did Ms. Frizzle BUILD the magic school bus? Or is it just a regular bus that becomes magical once a red-haired sorceress-slash-primary-school-educator takes the helm? This lady could be reading a page from the study guide for the South Dakota accounting certification exam -- but you know that if she's dressed as Ms. Frizzle, you are darn well going to listen to every word she says.
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In a strange way, Noriyuki "Pat" Morita (1932-2005) was neither as aged nor as youthful as he seemed when he played Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid (1984). As nimble as a young warrior, as wise as an ancient master, Mr. Miyagi was the ultimate karate instructor and the perfect foil to the mercy-hating Ubermensch instructor of the Cobra Kai school. And we all know from the movie what kind of difference an instructor can make. In the words of Mr. Miyagi himself, "No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher. Teacher say, student do."
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Do you know what it looks like when a work-a-day high school science teacher goes bad? No, no, we don't mean just cutting in line at the cafeteria, or even posting his students' most hilariously wrong answers on his secret #ChemistryFAIL blog, but bad, as in, really, truly exceeding normal levels of badness. Well anyway, if you don't know, this is exactly what it looks like. Drug deals, murder, rampant deception of everyone he loves -- Walter White from AMC's Breaking Bad (played by Bryan Cranston) has done it all. And to boot, he almost always manages to work a delightful chemistry lesson into each iteration of the nightmarish Mandelbrot set of calamity that is his life. Plus, no one else has ever, EVER looked so menacing in a pork pie hat.
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With Albus Dumbledore, it's a trade-off. On one hand, he is unquestionably a superb educator, with confidence in his students, a respect for their independence, and a direct and effective stewardship of Harry Potter's burgeoning talent for magic. On the other hand, if most principals ran their schools the way he ran Hogwarts, just making it to 3 p.m. alive every day would be a miracle. Seriously, there are curses on everything -- flush the wrong toilet, and BAM! Your hair is turned into kelp. Not to mention he hires at least one sadistic evil wizard every year, has failed to purge the school grounds of countless monsters that sincerely want to kill and eat his students, and the list goes on. So: great mentor, great role model, but … perhaps less-than-perfect administrator.
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Embeth Davidtz (above) played Miss Honey in Matilda (1996), the film adaptation of Roald Dahl's now-classic children's novel of the same name. In the story, Matilda is a precociously brilliant telekinetic child who finds no encouragement from the rude, petty and ignorant adults in her life -- including her parents. That is, until she forms a relationship with the nurturing elementary school teacher Jennifer Honey. No child who sees this movie can forget the relief Matilda felt spending time with Miss Honey in her peaceful cottage, where she gained the confidence to … well, apparently to use her telekinetic powers to deceive and terrorize the heck out of a school headmistress (admittedly, an evil one). But nevertheless, Miss Honey is the kind of teacher any kid with an unrealized talent dreams about.
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The creators of the prematurely cancelled and retrospectively adored TV series Freaks and Geeks had an uphill climb to make Coach Ben Fredricks, played by actor Thomas F. Wilson, a sympathetic adult character on the show. There were at least two serious obstacles: 1.) At the time, most people knew Tom Wilson for playing Biff Tannen, the sadistic bully from the Back to the Future series who referred to everyone else as "Butthead," and 2.) Well, high school gym teacher characters do not fare particularly well in the annals of TV history. Contrary to expectations, however, Wilson's Coach Fredricks was largely seen as helpful, understanding, relatable and human. And considering the context, that's a true accomplishment of character molding. Head over to the next page to see one of Wilson's cast-mates from the show.
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OK, so if Coach Fredricks showed us how human a TV gym teacher could be, the Freaks and Geeks character Jeff Rosso (played by Dave Allen, right) showed us how much a high school guidance counselor could resemble a cross between a mad scientist and a member of the Allman Brothers. Mr. Rosso was an enigma: Was he the geekiest adult character on the show, or the coolest? Of course it's possible he was both. Sure, his painful, trying-way-too-hard attempts to relate to his teenage students produced some of the most memorably awkward moments in the series, but he did seem motivated by a genuine concern for their fate -- plus, he fronted an ear-splitting local rock and roll band, and how many members of the William McKinley High School faculty could claim that?
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If you're about to ponder something, you might as well skip it, because Sir Alec Guinness has already pondered it five to six times harder and more sincerely than any of us non-Jedi ever could. Or maybe he's not pondering at all -- he could be trying to convince someone slightly out of the frame that these are not, in fact, the droids he is looking for. The name of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the character immortalized by Guinness in Star Wars (1977), has become a stand-in for any sagacious mentor figure appearing in fiction. And with good reason! Obi-Wan is brave but prudent, comforting but intellectual -- in many ways, he's the ideal teacher. Though there is one caveat here: At least one of his previous students has ended up with a, well … less-than-spectacular public service record.
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Here they are, father and son: both scholars, both Joneses, and both searchers on the dangerous trail of long-lost religious artifacts. So much of the time we spend with Indiana Jones is at least related to Nazi-fighting or supernatural adventures, it's easy to forget that Indy probably has to teach a daunting load of "Intro to Archaeology" courses in order to pay the bills. Despite the relative drudgery his teaching career must represent when compared to bullwhip battles and mine-cart rides, Indy still manages to dole out some important motes of wisdom about the nature of science and knowledge in his classes, "Archaeology is the search for 'fact,' not 'truth.' If it's truth you're interested in, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall."
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But of course Henry Jones Sr., played by the Scottish actor Sean Connery, was the teacher who taught the teacher. The elder Jones is portrayed as an obsessive scholar who was always too absorbed in his Holy Grail research to be a proper father, but we see in the prologue of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) that the older man had actually taught the young Indy quite a bit of his subject when he was still a child -- did your dad teach you how to count to 10 in Classical Greek?
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In this BBC production, the title character of Charlotte Brontë's haunting, gothic bildungsroman Jane Eyre (1847) was played by actress Ann Bell. In Brontë's novel, Jane begins as a poor orphan who is terrified by the many controlling adults in her life, but as she grows up, it is clear she possesses both intelligence and moral intuition. By profession, Jane Eyre is a teacher and a governess, and by inner passion, she pursues the love of Mr. Edward Rochester of Thornfield Manor -- a willful Byronic hero with a horrifying secret.
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Michael Ironside doesn't look much like an educator or a nurturer of any kind. And even people who have seen Paul Verhoeven's gruesome, satiric film adaptation of Robert Heinlein's space marine adventure Starship Troopers (1997) might forget that the grim Lt. Jean Rasczak (Ironside's character) is first introduced to the audience as a high school civics teacher, lecturing his students on the philosophical principles behind the militaristic dystopia in which the movie takes place, "Naked force has resolved more issues throughout history than any other factor. The contrary opinion that violence never solved anything is wishful thinking at its worst." So why include him? What little we see of his class might be a perfect primer on the ways even the most violent propaganda can take on a reasonable, Socratic tone in the hands of a good teacher. It's all in the presentation!
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Laurence Fishburne, "Morpheus," The Matrix (1999), boom. He taught us to free our minds, and meanwhile he taught a pale and hairless Keanu Reeves all there is to know about kung fu -- or perhaps more accurately you might say he designed the apparatus by which Keanu Reeves would end up being taught all there is to know about kung fu in about six seconds via digital knowledge-cramming through a hole in the back of Keanu's head, but all of that would be a rather pedantic correction … whoops. Anyway, the real question here is: Does Instructor Morpheus deduct points for every instance of "Whoa"?
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Tina Fey wrote the screenplay for Mean Girls (2004), the story of a smart, good-natured homeschool student named Cady (Lindsay Lohan) who clashes with the savage world of the modern American teenager when she first enrolls in a public high school. In addition to her writing credit, Fey also plays Ms. Norbury, the film's most sympathetic teacher, who recognizes Cady's intelligence well enough to know when Cady is intentionally turning off her own math skills in order to capture the attention of the dreamboat who sits one desk ahead of her. In Ms. Norbury's words, "I know having a boyfriend might seem like the only thing important to you right now, but you don't have to dumb yourself down in order for a guy to like you." Sound advice, coming from a math teacher -- if you believe someone will only love you for being less than you really are, what kind of future could you really have with this person?
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It's time to hear again from the Hogwarts constituency, where in truth there are so many admirable witches and wizards it can be hard to choose. While Professor Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith, above), Head of Gryffindor House, may often be cold, strict and almost viciously formal, she is also strong, fair, honest, truthful and kind-hearted when it matters most, making her one of the most dependable moral centers of the Hogwarts faculty. In terms of her actual teaching, she's the kind of old-fashioned pedagogue many students secretly crave in the subjects that matter most: rigorous and serious, with a no-nonsense approach to the substance of the course -- which is, of course, transfiguration -- which is, of course, probably one of the more difficult subjects to approach with seriousness. Can you turn a pair of tweezers into a scorpion without laughing?
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To whom did the knights of King Arthur's court turn when they needed intellectual guidance? In Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), it was Sir Bedevere, of course! Terry Jones' Bedevere earns his spot on King Arthur's quest by proving himself, in Arthur's own words, "wise in the ways of science" when he devises an experiment to detect witches by counterweighing potential witch candidates against ducks. If you're saying, "Huh?" you've got good reason! See, Arthur's quote of praise is a bit anachronistic. The word "science" is not documented in the English language until sometime around the 1300s, and even then, it was used with a different meaning than the empirical-testing-based way we understand it today. Arthurian legends describe events that supposedly happened in the earliest phase of the European medieval period, from the fifth century A.D. to the sixth, meaning Arthur wouldn't have used or even known this word. Oh, is that not the part you were objecting to? Well what then?
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Have you seen Richard Dreyfuss's performance as the reluctant-turned-dedicated-turned-die-hard high school music teacher Mr. Holland's Opus (1995)? Have you? No? Then go watch it. Hope you enjoy uncontrollable weeping!
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Anthony Stewart (above) played the role of Rupert Giles in Joss Whedon's cult TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Conventionally a librarian and in truth a formidable demonologist, Giles acts as mentor to Buffy Summers' prodigious skills with a stake.
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The Sci-Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica (2004) revival provided a host of characters who were each powerful leaders in their own way, but only one of these leaders was, as some disloyal subordinates derisively referred to her, "a schoolteacher." Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell, above) began the series as the planet Caprica's Secretary of Education, but through being, by chance, the only member in the executive chain of command to survive the devastating initial attack of the sentient machines known as Cylons, Roslin rose to the ranks of President and commander-in-chief of the remaining armed forces. Anyone who criticizes the tough-as-nails Roslin as "just a schoolteacher" is an embarrassing drag for failing to realize that not only is she a heroically good executive, many of the skills one learns as a schoolteacher (patience, conflict resolution, and the ability to bring order to chaos, which is crucial in a classroom or a hunted fleet of starships) are exactly some of the most important traits she brings to bear in the presidency. So say we all: Four more years!
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This is the Chinese actor Gordon Liu, who played the kung fu instructor Pai Mei in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004). All ye need know is that Pai Mei holds the single deadliest secret in the world of martial arts: the execution of the "Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique" -- a single attack so devastating it causes the victim's heart to, well, explode, right inside the victim's chest, after he or she takes a total of five steps. So he has this important knowledge, sure, but if you've seen the movie, you'll understand another crucial distinction that makes Pai Mei a good instructor: He knows which students to share the technique with, and even more importantly, he knows which students not to teach the deadly trick.
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Robin Williams knows a thing or two about sounding barbaric yawps, which may be why director Peter Weir chose him for the role of English teacher John Keating in his 1989 film Dead Poets Society, which tells the story of how Keating showed a group of prep school boys the power and joy of poetry. Unconventional, funny, dedicated and inspiring, John Keating holds a special place in the heart of teachers and poetry-lovers everywhere.
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HBO's The Wire, which focused on a range of systemic social and political problems in Baltimore, Md., found itself addressing the city's struggling, funding-starved public school system. And in the same way that a show that had previously focused mostly on law enforcement turned its gaze to city politics and education, a character who was once a Baltimore city cop moved on to become a Baltimore city math teacher. Roland Pryzbylewski (played by Jim True-Frost, above) has one of the strongest arcs in the series, transforming from a reckless, dim and mean-spirited cop who survived only on nepotism-by-marriage, into a genuine and hard-working teacher and caregiver for his students.
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Ray Walston (above) is known for his memorable role as the history teacher Mr. Hand in Cameron Crowe's Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). Though he is somewhat redeemed by the end of the film, Mr. Hand spends much of the movie depicted as the strict, merciless antagonist of loveable slacker student Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn), who sometimes wants nothing more than to enjoy a fresh, hot, delivery pizza while he listens to Mr. Hand's American history lecture (and let's be honest -- the scene where he confiscates Spicoli's pizza truly is pure heartbreak). Of course, Mr. Hand might have been seen throughout the film in a totally different light -- say, perhaps as a tough-but-fair Minerva McGonagall type -- if only through the eyes of a higher-achieving group of students. This shows the kind of difference a student's attitude can make in the education process.
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And speaking of tough teachers, who can forget Alan Rickman (above) as Severus Snape -- the last entry in our Hogwarts catalog. How to describe his impact? On one hand, Snape is a horrible teacher, playing favorites with his students, bullying the ones he doesn't like, holding grudges against children for things their parents did. On the other hand, by the time one reaches the end of the Harry Potter series, it's hard not to be fascinated by Snape, both as a person and as a teacher. After all, the man knows his potions, and in spite of his bullying, he holds all of his students to a high standard of excellence that helps them become better wizards in the long run. So, with a mixed record like this, what do we give him? An 'O' for "Outstanding"? A 'T' for "Troll"? Or something in between?
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Obi-Wan Kenobi was thoughtful and encouraging, sure, but his master Yoda is downright luminous. Practically every line spoken by this miniscule green puppet is a fully quotable sermon on education, life and the universe. So just remember, next time you think about trying to go back to college or trying to take up that hobby you've always considered, "Do, or do not -- there is no try."
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