The Portrayal of the Teacher as Mentor in Popular Film: Inspirational, Supportive and Life-Changing?




Mentoring, teachers, mentorship,

How to Cite

Ambrosetti, A. (2016). The Portrayal of the Teacher as Mentor in Popular Film: Inspirational, Supportive and Life-Changing?. M/C Journal, 19(2).
Vol. 19 No. 2 (2016): mentor
Published 2016-05-04

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. — William Arthur Ward


The first documented use of the term Mentor can be traced back to the 8th century BC poem by Homer entitled Odyssey (Hay, Gerber and Minichiello). Although this original representation of Mentor is contested in the literature (Colley), historically the term mentor has evolved to imply a wise and trusted other who advises, teaches, protects and supports someone younger who is inexperienced and not so knowledgeable with the ways of the world. The mentor within a 21st century construct still aligns to this historical portrayal, however the evolution of society, the influence of technology, the growth of entrepreneurship, and a greater understanding of the impact of our interactions with others has forced us to consider mentoring in contemporary ways. As such, popular culture, through books, film and images, provide many impressions of the mentor and what it means to mentor in both historical and contemporary circumstances. 

Similarly, popular culture provides us with a variety of impressions of the teacher. Throughout old and new history, teaching is considered to be a honourable profession, one that is complex and involves specific skills and knowledge to be effective (Marsh). Society has high expectations of teachers as they are entrusted with shaping the future generation (Parkay). Although the levels of respect and trust of teachers changes within different cultural circumstances, society allows teachers to be one of the most influential figures in a child’s life. Popular film often picks up on this theme and portrays teachers as inspirational figures, pillars of society and those that can have a major influence over the development of the student’s in their care. Within the brief story that a film provides, teachers are more often than not, positioned as a ‘mentor type’ figure to the students entrusted in their care, who guides and supports them to become who they want to be. 

This paper explores the constructs of the mentor and mentorship through a popular culture lens. Culture is broadly described as the “bricks and mortar of our most commonplace understandings” (Willis 185) and our understandings are shaped by what we see, hear and do. The paper is framed by and seeks to answer the following question: To what extent is the teacher as mentor portrayed in popular film a realistic image? Accordingly this paper will examine the rise of the teacher as mentor and determine what images are portrayed through the medium of film. In order to answer the question, the paper will briefly examine current literature for the characteristics and roles of mentors and teachers. The paper will then delve into the way that teachers are portrayed in film and will be followed by an examination of a selection of films that portray teachers as mentors. A comparison will be made between the characteristics of mentors and the characteristics that the movie teachers display. Analysis through the use of reader-response theory will provide insight into the extent of the reality of the teacher as mentor that are portrayed. 

Mentors and Teachers: A Review of Selected Literature 

Mentoring consists of a series of interactions that can be of a social, intellectual or emotional nature (Lentz and Allen). Mentoring can be described as a helping relationship whereby two or more people work together in order to achieve personal and professional goals (Johnson and Ridley). Effective mentoring is also known to be mutually beneficial to all participants (Ambrosetti, Knight and Dekkers). When scanning the literature there are a number of common descriptors that are used consistently to situate the interactions a mentor undertakes: supporter, guide, advisor, teacher, protector and counselor (Sundli; Hall et al.). Such descriptors indicate that a mentor performs a series of roles that change according to the needs of those being mentored (Ambrosetti and Dekkers). If the mentor has a series of roles to perform, then it is logical that the mentee also will also have a number of roles to play, however these are lnot well documented in the literature. The roles that both mentors and mentees play during a relationship can be identified and underpinned through the three dimensions of mentoring: the relationship itself, the developmental needs of the participants and the integration of the context in which the mentoring is situated (Ambrosetti, Knight and Dekkers). The interactions that a mentor engages in with a mentee span over a number of dimensions and are often reactive in nature.  The three dimensions of mentoring can assist in describing a mentor and the roles they play. The relational dimension includes such roles as supporter, protector, friend and counselor. The roles of guide, teacher/trainer, collaborator, facilitator and reflector can be classified as developmental whereas being a role model can be both a developmental role and contextual role (230). 

There are a number of characteristics that are common to a mentor. Johnson and Ridley summarize them to include the following traits: exuding warmth, listening actively, showing unconditional regard, tolerating idealization, embracing humor, not expecting perfection, being trustworthy, having interpersonal competence, respecting another’s values and not being jealous of the mentee (43-62).  The above list of traits are personal and often linked to personality, thus can be connected explicitly to the relational dimension of mentoring. The possession (or non-possession) of such traits can impact on the interactions that occur within mentorship. Accordingly it can be assumed that the characteristics, in conjunction with the roles that mentors play, that not everyone is suited to the role of mentor. 

Most people have experienced schooling at some stage in their life and is therefore familiar with the role of a teacher. Teaching is one most well known professions and can be described as a “creative act in which teachers continually shape and reshape lessons, events and the experiences of their students”(Parkay 45). The role of a teacher is to teach both knowledge and skills to their learners in order to prepare them as citizens for the future. More specifically, the role of the teacher is to design and deliver learning experiences that cater for and challenge the learners, that develop skills and knowledge both inside and outside of the classroom, and help them become confident, creative and responsible citizens. Despite this important role, the image of teachers is split between two types: one that is bitter, spiteful and egocentric, and the other being caring, accepting and reflective (Connell). We remember teachers according to such categories. The types of characteristics that teachers hold are extensive, however the following encompasses those that are key within the literature. Teachers generally have compassion, empathy and a caring nature. They can be flexible, creative, personable, humorous, positive, knowledgeable, motivational and dependable. Teachers are often well organised people, fair minded and resourceful (Howell). When examining the characteristics of teachers and the traits of mentors, similarities can be seen indicating that a particular type of person may be more suited to being a teacher and/or mentor. 

Teachers as Mentors in Film 

Teachers seem to be a popular subject of feature films. Films such as Goodbye Mr Chips (1939), Blackboard Jungle (1955) and To Sir with Love (1967) provide us with insight into the way teachers are portrayed in society and the role they play. Film however, has the specific ability to shape the cultural understanding we develop and allows us to make comparisons to our own experiences and those that are played out in fictional circumstances (Delamarter).  While there are some films that provide a negative portrayal of teachers, generally they provide a view that teachers are positive influences on the students in their care.

A search of the World Wide Web about the teacher as mentor brings up a treasure trove of film titles that span from the 1930s to the present day. Despite such a choice of titles, the following films have been selected to examine in this paper: Dead Poets Society (1989), Dangerous Minds (1995), Freedom Writers (2007) and the Harry Potter series of films (2001-2011). Selection of these films was based on the following two criteria: 1) they occurred within in a school setting and 2) are embedded within a contemporary theme of struggle where rebellion and/or other teenage angst are highlighted. 

Reader-response theory will underpin the analysis of the teachers in each of the films selected, so that an answer to the earlier posed question can be illuminated. Broadly speaking, reader-response theory is concerned with how readers, or in this case viewers, “make meaning from their experience with the text” (Beach 1). There are many perspectives on reader-response theory and how one might focus upon when responding to a text. In this instance the author will highlight the transaction that occurs between the reader, the text and the context. The transactions will include the social, cultural, experiential, psychological and textual viewpoints (Beach 8).  Firstly, each film will be briefly described. This will be followed by an analysis of the teachers portrayed in the films. 

Dead Poets Society (1989) is set at a conservative secondary boys academy in the late 1950s and focuses on a group of students completing their senior year. Mr Keating is a new English teacher who uses unconventional teaching methods in the classroom. He inspires his students to ‘seize the day’ and ‘make your lives extraordinary’ and does this through the teaching of poetry.  He encourages them to stand on desks during his lessons and to throw out tradition. It is Keating’s messages to his students to question what they believe that permeates the film and inspires his students to pursue what they want to do and become. 

The film Dangerous Minds (1995) is set in a low socio-economic area, where un-privilege and protecting yourself is a way of life. The teacher in this film is new and young, but is an ex US Marine. The class the film centres on is a difficult one to teach. This teacher uses unorthodox methods to gain the attention and trust of her students. The film makes a point to show us that she makes particular effort to relate the curriculum to the students’ interests in order to engage them in learning.  Emphasis is also on the fact that she takes an interest in the students and many become her ‘personal projects’ and helping them to realize who they can become. 

Freedom Writers (2007) is set in the years directly following the Los Angeles riots of 1992 whereby issues of racism, segregation and inequality along with the changing view of the world is the focus. The students in the classrooms of this film are from diverse backgrounds and un-trusting of the education system.  Their teacher is new and young and her first attempts to earn their trust fail until she begins to get to know the students and make links between what is being taught to their own lives. She inspires her class to learn tolerance, apply themselves and pursue further education. 

In the Harry Potter (2001-2011) series of films, there are several teachers who make an impact upon the young wizards.  Although set in a fantasy world, the audience is treated to both inspirational teachers looking to nurture, protect and develop their charges, and teachers who are painted as egocentric and suspicious. Inspirational teachers include Dumbledore and McGonagall who offer subtle life lessons, specific skills and knowledge and protect the young wizards from danger. Egocentric and somewhat suspicious teachers include Snape and Quirrell who look to thwart the wizard’s time at school, however they too offer subtle life lessons to their students. The theme of good versus evil is paramount throughout the film series and the teachers are aligned with this theme.

Teachers as Mentors – An Analysis

Although only a brief description of each film has been offered, the teachers as mentors to their students is the focus. Mr Keating (Dead Poets Society) and LouAnne Johnson (Dangerous Minds) are both described as unorthodox as they each use teaching methods that are frowned upon by others. However their purposeful and different teaching methods draw their students into their lessons so that life learning can occur. In each film, the unorthodox teaching touches the students in ways unknown to them before and in both cases the students demonstrate intellectual and personal growth. The unorthodox methods provide an avenue for a different relationship that is far from the traditional. In some scenes friendship is hinted at where guiding and supporting the students towards their hopes and dreams is highlighted. Aspects of mentoring can be seen through relational, developmental and contextual domains as the students are supported, guided and provided explicit role modeling. 

The young teacher in Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell, uses a teaching approach that includes taking time to get to know her students. This approach, like Keating and Johnson, provides the opportunity to tweak the curriculum to the interests of the students and thus engage them in academic learning. They teach skills and knowledge in ways which relate to the students’ lives and interests. They guide, support the students towards the unfamiliar and facilitate opportunities for success. They help them to set goals and make them realise that they have a future and can be successful in their lives.  The transformations that occur due to the teaching approaches used by the teachers cause their students admire and want to be like them. 

In Harry Potter, teachers Dumbledore and McGonagall are wise in years and life experience. They offer wisdom, protection and guidance to the young wizards throughout the series. These teachers, like Keating, Johnson and Gruwell, are role models in that they represent what life can be like and how best to achieve that life.  Snape and Quirell also take an interest in their students, but represent an alternative view of life and learning. The difference between the four Harry Potter teachers can be drilled down to the traits of effective teachers. Two of which emulate the traits and two whom do not readily display any of the traits. Dumbledore and McGonagall can be considered as teacher mentors whereas Snape and Quirell cannot. 

In each film the student can be seen as central to the teacher as mentor and this in turn influences the way in which they behave. The teachers in these films pass on life lessons through their teaching. Throughout the films the teachers are guiding, supporting, befriending, protecting and training their charges. Interactions that occur between the teachers and the students are followed by a reflective phase by the teachers, whereby solutions to problems are sought or self-realisation occurs. In many instances the films show the teacher learning from the student and thus learning their own life lessons through reflection. 

From a social and cultural perspective, what is portrayed within the storylines are often close to the reality of what is expected from teachers. In many instances these lead towards a stereotyping of who teachers are and how they behave.  However, from an experiential point of view, our expectations of the actions that teachers undertake do not usually take such form. In reality, teachers are busy people with a complex job to do (Connell) and often do not have time to take personal interest in all of their students individually. The teachers within the films chosen seem to have one class to prepare for, whereas in reality, a school teacher will have many classes to consider. Psychologically, some teachers and the style they embrace appeal to a particular a type of student or group of students. In the case of Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers, the storyline painted the students as those needing a particular type of teacher, someone who would save them from their circumstance and visa versa. The textual perspective was well highlighted by the teachers in the Harry Potter films as the viewer expects to see teachers with rather unusual but interesting teaching styles. However the text (within all films) included insight into mentor characteristics such as warmth, humour, tolerance, respect and unconditional regards. 

Generally, the films examined highlight two different types of teachers, challenging the categories written about by Connell. The first type of teacher highlighted was one who was seen as being more contemporary. One who is individual, unorthodox, and maybe a little rebellious; this teacher highlights that you need to be ‘different’ to make a difference. The second type was one who aligns to the traditional form of teacher; one who uses their knowledge, wisdom and life experience to break through to their student. Each of the films were underpinned by the relationship, the developmental needs and the context in which the narrative was played out, however the relationship between the students and the teacher was highlighted as being central to the storyline. Thus films of this nature often portray teachers as those who help their students in the emotional sense rather than the intellectual sense (Delamarter). 


Several understandings about the teacher as mentor have been brought to light through the examination of the teacher as mentor in film. Firstly, in revisiting the mentoring definitions offered within this paper, it can be said that the teachers highlighted in the discussed films were mentoring their students in a way unique to the relationship developed between teacher and student. In each instance the teacher worked with their students to identify teaching approaches that would be successful in the context in which they were situated. Each film demonstrated that the teachers were committed to creating a relationship that met the developmental needs of their students. Interestingly, it was observed that the relationships were mutually beneficial in that the teachers grew along with the students with many coming to realisations about themselves through reflection and self thought.  

Secondly, the teachers within the films were portrayed as playing several important roles within their students’ lives.  The teachers were role models inside and outside of the classroom. Each film’s storyline positioned the teacher as an influential other, whether they be portrayed as rebellious and unorthodox, evil and suspicious or inspirational and wise.  The teachers in these films can be considered as mentors as they were supporting, guiding, protecting and nurturing the students to become better versions of themselves. 

However, the question that this article sought to answer was: to what extent is the teacher as mentor portrayed in popular film a realistic image?  In looking back at the image the teacher in society and the role that they play in developing citizens of the future, it can be said the image presented has slivers of realism. In the real world, teachers must conform to society’s expectations, educational policies and codes of professionalism. Professional relationships with students do not encompass them in behave a student as a ‘personal project’, although catering to their needs is encouraged within the curriculum.  It would be thought that if teachers did not encourage their students to be the best they can be, then they would not be doing their job. 

Many figures throughout our cultural history have been viewed as a mentor due to the role they play and how these roles align to societal beliefs and values.  Thus, the portrayal of mentors and mentorship through a popular culture lens provides insight into our understanding about what mentorship is and how this may develop in the future. Both in the past and present, teachers are seen as inspirational figures and pillars of society, and are often considered a mentor by default. Films portray teachers in a variety of fashions, however there are many films that subtly position the teacher as a mentor to their students and it is this that this article has focused on. 


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Author Biography

Angelina Ambrosetti, Central Queensland University

Dr Angelina Ambrosetti is a lecturer in the School of Education and the Arts at Central Queensland University. She works in teacher education and her research interests include mentoring and mentoring pedagogy. In particular she researches the relationship that occurs between classroom teachers (mentors) and pre-service teachers (mentees), the roles they play and how professional development can interact within the relationship.