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Critic's Choice: Teacher Features

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Good morning, class. To ring in the new school year, here’s a pop-quiz question: What can video movies teach us about teachers, and about being taught? If your mind draws a blank, feel free to consult the following crib sheet.

The Blackboard Jungle
Time has diluted its shock value, but this tale of an idealistic young teacher (Glenn Ford) who learns hard lessons at the hands of his rebellious students remains a fascinating social document. Although writer-director Richard Brooks tries to examine the phenomenon of teen delinquency with a sober eye, the whole work is permeated with hysteria, and the script’s rigid middle-class mentality can’t begin to articulate what’s troubling these kids. B+

To Sir, With Love
Twelve years after his turn as a delinquent in The Blackboard Jungle, Sidney Poitier moves to the other side of the desk. The setting has shifted to London’s East End, but writer-director-producer James Clavell otherwise covers the same thematic territory as the previous picture. Poitier plays West Indian teacher Mark Thackeray with such quiet conviction and intelligence that it’s easy to swallow the movie’s hippy-drippy message about the need to relate the curriculum to the students rather than vice versa. B+

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
In her Oscar-winning portrayal of a madcap schoolmarm at an Edinburgh girls’ school in the ’30s, Maggie Smith skips across the screen like a prima ballerina dancing to her own peculiar melody. While most films present their teacher protagonists as models of wisdom, Jean Brodie stands for all that’s silly and subversive in the world. A-

The Paper Chase
In this slyly funny film directed by James Bridges (The China Syndrome), John Houseman gets third billing, but he’s the true star. As the imperious Professor Kingsfield, he shapes the minds of his uptight first-year students at Harvard Law School, but his intellectual despotism threatens to overwhelm their wills as well. Timothy Bottoms plays a pupil in his thrall, learning that while wisdom is a virtue, so is a little irreverence. B+

Stand and Deliver
As the real-life East L.A. miracle math teacher Jaime Escalante, Edward James Olmos (Miami Vice) sidles around the classroom, cajoling his students in half-whispered asides, nimbly sidestepping their resistance and then coming at them from a new angle. His spirited performance almost compensates for the fact that once he wins the battle of hearts and minds, the plot proceeds predictably. B

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