Here are 24 movies and TV shows to inspire back-to-school spirit
School will soon be back in session, or maybe it will, or it will for some students and not for others, and don’t even get us started on who will be wearing masks and who will not.
It’s confusing, is what it is. And when we get confused, we like to do what Americans always do when they don’t know how to behave in certain circumstances: We watch how characters handle the same issues in the movies and on TV.
It was in just that spirit that we compiled this collection of some of our favorite movies and television shows about school. We limited ourselves to high school films and shows because no one really makes them about elementary school, and college just doesn’t have that same back-to-school feel.
In addition, there are so many great shows and films about high school sports that we decided not to include them here.
These shows entertain, enlighten and inform us. They can make us nostalgic for our old school days — or make us glad we’re finished with them. For people still in school, the films can serve as a kind of guide through their turbulent teenage years.
We still don’t know what to do about masks, but we’ll bet they will be a prominent feature in the films and shows to come in the next few years.
“Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1939): It’s one of the all-time great feel-good tearjerker movies. Robert Donat stars as a teacher who, over the decades, changes from awkward and unliked to universally beloved, all because of the love of his wife, the sublime Greer Garson in her first role.
“Blackboard Jungle” (1955): Perhaps the best of the genre of films showing an idealistic new teacher coming to an inner-city school and being severely tested by the street-tough students, eventually helping at least a few of them. Glenn Ford stars as the teacher, with a not-young Sidney Poitier as the student who is the most rebellious but also the most promising.
“To Sir, With Love” (1967): Twelve years after playing the troubled student in “Blackboard Jungle,” Poitier stars as the innovative teacher dealing with troubled students and molding their minds and their lives. Poitier is at his most Poitierish here — it was the same year as “In the Heat of the Night” — but perhaps the film is most remembered for its popular theme song.
“Carrie” (1976): Maybe it was a bad idea to make fun of the shy and late-developing Carrie after all. Sissy Spacek became a star in the role of a bullied teen with unsuspected talents. The film is based on Stephen King’s first published novel, so the vengeful climax is bloody, violent and somehow richly satisfying.
“Grease” (1978): The longest-running (at the time) Broadway musical was turned into a megahit movie. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s characters and their friends may have been caricatures, but they were highly entertaining caricatures. And that soundtrack, including a couple of songs written specifically for the film, had the whole country singing along.
“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986): This lighthearted comedy is less about school than the joys of not being in school. Matthew Broderick is charming as a student who decides to take the day off with his girlfriend and enjoy all the fun that Chicago has to offer. The John Hughes film also features a cherry-red Ferrari and the most boring economics lecture ever given.
“Dead Poets Society” (1989): This time it’s Robin Williams in the role of the noble teacher with the unorthodox style who makes a difference in the lives of his students. The story here is touched by tragedy, but perhaps the film is most notable for introducing a whole generation to the term carpe diem and the Walt Whitman poem “O Captain! My Captain!”
“Heathers” (1989): The filmmakers invented an entirely new language of slang for this pitch-black comedy about a rebellious girl (Winona Ryder) who falls for the school’s baddest of bad boys (Christian Slater). Together, they take revenge on the school’s ruling clique, but he is more into it than she. It’s a cynical comedy and cheerfully nihilistic.
“House Party” (1990): Now considered a cult film, it’s a blast and a half. Written and directed by East St. Louis’ own Reginald Hudlin, the comedy features early hip-hop stars Kid n’ Play as likably goofball teens who keep getting into trouble when they try to go to a big party. The impressive supporting cast includes big names in comedy (Martin Lawrence, John Witherspoon) and music (Full Force, George Clinton).
“Clueless” (1995): Jane Austen’s “Emma” is updated to mid-’90s Beverly Hills. Alicia Silverstone is adorable as Cher, a teenager whose effort to bring together two teachers makes her think she is a born matchmaker. She is wrong. But eventually she learns that she is less superficial than she thinks — and also that Paul Rudd is surprisingly cute.
“Mean Girls” (2004): It’s a comedy, but it’s deeper than it first appears. Lindsay Lohan stars as a new student in a new school in a new country, and she is shocked to find her class is ruled by a powerful three-girl clique. She joins the clique to spy on them, but — and this is the deep part — learns almost too late that we become what we pretend to be. The extra-witty script is by Tina Fey.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012): Somehow, this tale of depression, PTSD, repressed memories of sexual assault, unhappily closeted homosexuality, friendlessness, suicide and violence turns out to be kind of … sweet. Logan Lerman stars as an awkward, damaged boy who finds acceptance and love from his two new friends, Emma Watson and her stepbrother, Ezra Miller.
“Our Miss Brooks” (1952-56): Eve Arden stars as a wisecracking English teacher who gleefully fights with her pompous principal while trying to attract the attention of a certain biology teacher and guiding the education of her students, especially Richard Crenna. The series began as a radio show, and it remained on the radio even while separate episodes aired on TV.
“Room 222” (1969-74): One of the first TV shows with a Black central character, this genial sitcom did not hesitate to discuss the issues of the day. Lloyd Haynes stars as a history teacher, beloved by students and faculty alike, who sagely makes a difference in the lives of all around him, most notably a young teacher played by Karen Valentine. The curiously unforgettable theme song is by Jerry Goldsmith.
“Welcome Back, Kotter” (1975-79): The noble-teacher-inspiring-his-students genre is turned into a sitcom, with a big twist: The teacher has returned to his own high school. Gabe Kaplan plays the wise and lovable social studies teacher who sees potential in a class full of slackers and losers, most notably including John Travolta. The theme song, also unforgettable, was a No. 1 hit for John Sebastian.
“Saved By the Bell” (1989-93): Set almost entirely inside a high school, this generationally popular sitcom focuses on the friendship of a group of clearly defined character types: the charismatic schemer, the nerd, the feminist, the All-American girl, the jock and the rich girl. A sympathetic principal helps them through their teen mini-crises.
“My So-Called Life” (1994-95): Widely considered the first show to depict high school as a place that is difficult for teens to navigate, this critical favorite remarkably lasted just one season. The show marked the debut of star Claire Danes and was Jared Leto’s first big role. Twenty-five years later, we still think Danes’ character, Angela, wound up with the wrong guy. #TeamBrian
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003): All poor Buffy wants is to lead a normal teenage life. But she has been chosen, and given certain gifts, to fight the supernatural forces of evil: vampires, of course, but also werewolves, zombies and assorted evil humans. Sarah Michelle Gellar stars; the strong supporting cast includes Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendan and David Boreanaz.
“Dawson’s Creek” (1998-2003): Two gorgeous teen boys and one gorgeous teen girl are all friends — what could possibly go wrong? James Van Der Beek, Katie Holmes and Joshua Jackson were the immediate stars, but it is Michelle Williams as their sadly doomed best friend who has had the most substantial, lasting career.
“Freaks and Geeks” (1999-2000): Like “My So-Called Life,” this massively influential comedy-drama only ran for one season, just 18 episodes. It follows members of the two least-popular cliques in school, with star pupil Linda Cardellini trying to dumb herself down to fit in with her new friends. Executive producer Judd Apatow used much of the cast in many of his later projects.
“Gilmore Girls” (2000-07): Though this comedy-drama’s main focus is on the close relationship between mother and teenage daughter, most of the daughter’s issues and concerns are related to her school and her friends. Never a big hit, the show has developed a sterling reputation since it left the air. With Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel.
“Smallville” (2001-11): Focusing on Superman’s teenage (and later) years, this surprisingly long-lived drama initially uses Clark Kent’s burgeoning superpowers as a metaphor for the physical and emotional changes of adolescence. Later, its focus changes to the not-yet-superhero’s newfound desire to fight for truth, justice and the American Way.
“Glee” (2009-15): Be honest: If someone in 2008 told you that there would be a hit TV show centered on a high school glee club, you would have thought they were crazy. The large cast learns that there are few adolescent problems, romantic and otherwise, that can’t be solved by belting out a good song.
“Never Have I Ever” (2020-present): Funnier than most high-school shows — or most any shows, for that matter. In this half-hour comedy, the lead character is an outsider, naturally, but this time she is of Indian descent. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan stars as Devi; though smart and driven in her studies, she is well-meaning but clueless and has a knack for saying and doing just the wrong thing.