Why I like The Emperor’s Club

Most “teacher” movies are about how a teacher, usually young, usually in their first year, idealistic, bucks “the system” and inspires a group of kids.  They’re usually inspiring and cool… and total bullshit.

Even the ones based on a true story are usually 9/10ths hogwash.  Jaime Escalante didn’t succeed with all his students, just one group–and when he came from LA to Sacramento, he failed, and claimed that he couldn’t work well with anyone but the latino students.  Erin Gruwell did a great job with the students portrayed in her movie, but she isn’t teaching high school anymore; she left to teach at University and then founded the Freedom Writers Foundation, which has laudable goals, but isn’t really that big a force in Education at all.

These movies always portray the older teachers as burned-out, obstructionist, jerks who want the new teacher to fail and want to just ride a cushy wave of “good kids” until they retire.  While there may in fact be teachers like that, I don’t know any.  I know good teachers, and I know bad teachers, but I’ve never seen an older teacher act like as big a jerk as the movies make them seem.  I think these films do more to destroy the public’s attitude towards teachers than even the politicians.

Which is why I love The Emperor’s Club.  Kevin Kline’s Mr. Hundert doesn’t change the world.  He doesn’t turn a ne’er-do-well into a class act (in fact, he fails utterly in the attempt to do so, and hurts another along the way).  What he does is his job–teaching, and by doing that, inspiring, his charges.  He is lost when he resigns in a fit of pique, and only really finds himself again when he realizes he made a mistake and goes back to the classroom.

Now, granted, Mr. Hundert teaches the creme de le creme of students, rich kids whose parents pay a lot to send them to a boarding school.  Most teachers don’t work in that kind of rarefied environment, and the somewhat patriarchal tone of the school Mr. Hundert teaches in is alien to most of us.  But he’s still the epitome of a teacher–a man who does the best he can, and tries to inspire his students’ moral development, not just fill them with information.  And while we rarely see anything approaching modern teaching methods (which is a whole other post/rant I may engage in some day), we do see him interacting with his students, and not always in an authoritarian way.  He is inspiring, to his students and to me, as well.

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About Michael Johnston

Father of a fifth grader, high school English teacher, writer. Forty-six years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA
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