More than any other movie teacher that I have found, Glenn Holland exemplifies the journey of being a teacher in name only to becoming an authentic teacher. When the movie first begins we learn two things about him. One, he is a musician who loves music almost more than anything else in the world. And two, he got his teaching license as a fall back.
The movie opens in the fall of 1964 as Glenn Holland heads out for his first day of teaching high school music. He is taking a break from playing music on the road and is hoping the steady paycheque of teaching will assist him in the ability to compose full time. He learns quickly that teaching may not be the easy street he is imagining. He begins teaching with a tone of authority and uses a lecture style, projecting music theory to the glazed eyes of his teenage students.
As the day wears on he becomes bogged down in disappointment. The students are unresponsive. The school band sounds terrible. He finds some light when he is befriended by the school phys. ed. teacher, Coach Bill Meister, but even that light is shadowed by Bill laughing at the notion of free time, he can’t remember the last time he had any.
That first year hobbles along for Mr. Holland. He shows up, he teaches and he sprints home. His way of teaching music is to lecture the students with none of the love he has for the subject coming across. He appears more like a music tyrant than a teacher. He is noticed by Principal Jacobs a few months in. She approaches him as he is leaving for home at the end of the day, asking if he would assist with a textbook committee. The exchange that follows is the first challenge he has on the road of becoming more than just someone at the front of a music classroom.
Principal Jacobs: Mr. Holland! Just the man I was looking for. We’re forming a textbook committee for next year’s curriculum. And I would like to have your ideas and suggestions. We meet next Tuesday night in the library.
Glenn Holland: Oh, I’m sorry, Mrs. Jacobs. I’m… I’m very busy on Tuesday night.
Principal Jacobs: Uh-huh. You know, for a good four or five months now, I’ve been watching you, Mr. Holland. I’ve never seen a teacher sprint for the parking lot after last period with more speed and enthusiasm than his students. Perhaps you should be our track coach.
Glenn Holland: Mrs. Jacobs, I get here on time every morning, don’t I? I’m doing my job the best I can.
Principal Jacobs: A teacher is two jobs. Fill young minds with knowledge, yes. But more important, give those minds a compass so that that knowledge doesn’t go to waste. Now, I don’t know what you’re doing with the knowledge, Mr. Holland, but as a compass, you’re stuck.
The next challenge Mr. Holland has concerns a student of his. Gertrude Lang is a clarinet player in his orchestra who really struggles. It is not for lack of trying. She earnestly wants to do well, she just doesn’t. She becomes the first student that Mr. Holland takes an interest in and begins to give her some of his free time, tutoring her. As he gets to know her he learns more of why she wants to take music, the family she lives in and what may inspire her. Her character is an important aspect of becoming an authentic teacher. A teacher does not just teach a subject matter, a teacher teaches students. Relationship is an important aspect of teaching. It is an essential piece.
Although Mr. Holland still dreams of one day leaving teaching to be a full time composer and musician, life still gets in his way. The next challenge he faces is one of joy and disappointment. His wife becomes pregnant. The disappointment piece sounds terrible, but it is a reality of life that keeps him off of his own pursuits. He will have to continue to teach in order to support his family. His dream will have to be postponed yet again. He does find joy in the news as well, he looks forward to becoming a father and sharing his love of music with his child.
As all of these messages come forward to him he begins to open his eyes that there is more to this ‘teaching gig’ than meets the eye. He sees that his students are doing a terrible job at picking up the course material that he has delivered to them. They are failing and their answers on his quizzes make no sense. He discovers that perhaps it isn’t the students who are unteachable, it is he who is not a very good teacher. And so he tries something new. He uses their love of popular music (rock and roll) to connect the history that he is teaching to them. He starts to play the Toys’ Lovers Concerto, which is a take on Bach’s Sonata in G. This is a defining moment for Mr. Holland. He loves music, his students do to, he just needs to connect with them in a meaningful way. Knowing your class and your community is a huge aspect of becoming an authentic teacher. It allows you to relate at a much more approachable, effective way. He has an opportunity to address this unconventional way of teaching when confronted by the school administration (remembering that this is a time when rock and roll music was somewhat controversial for parents and teachers).
Glenn Holland: Mrs. Jacobs, you tell them that I am teaching music, and that I will use anything from Beethoven to Billie Holiday to rock and roll, if I think it’ll help me teach a student to love music.
Her response is a smile and a comment that that is an answer she can take to the board.
The final push that solidifies Mr. Holland as being on the road to becoming an authentic teacher is the challenge of Louis Russ. Mr. Holland takes on the marching band. His friend, Coach Meister agrees to teach the band to march if Mr. Holland will teach Louis music for an academic credit. Louis is a star athlete who has been suspended from sport until his grades are pulled up. Louis doesn’t play any instrument. But he has the heart to try. They agree to try the drum. And it is a challenge. Louis can’t seem to get it right. And Mr. Holland persists with him until finally, one day Louis finds the beat. It is a time of celebration. Here is proof that Mr. Holland can actually teach. He can reach a student with no knowledge or experience in a subject and that student becomes successful at playing his instrument.
There are many other challenges that Mr. Holland faces throughout this film. As he gets more involved in his school and his students, he begins to pull away from his home life. His son, Cole, is born deaf. Mr. Holland largely ignores him for many years, dismissing him because he cannot hear the music that Mr. Holland so loves. His wife becomes frustrated that Glenn spends more time and energy on the kids he teaches, leaving them with not much. This is a very real struggle for many teachers (and other professionals), finding a balance between their work and home life. There is a danger of using work as an escape from reality. One can get so caught up in doing good work, important work that they forget the number one priority of their own family. It can be easy to defend work like teaching because it is an important, meaningful job. But it is still a job. It is part of you, not all of you.
Another challenge Mr. Holland faces around the same time his home life is exploding is that of a student named Rowena Morgan. Rowena is a beautiful and talented singer who takes a part in the senior show, a Gershwin Review. Mr. Holland is inspired by her and begins to write music again, this time a melody for Rowena. There is a very careful line here between Rowena and Mr. Holland. She represents everything that he has given up to become a teacher full time. She is young and ready to take on the world, heading out to New York to try to make it. She implores him to join her and he is tempted. His final decision to send her off on her own solidifies the end of his own original dream of being a musician to becoming an authentic teacher. Finally, his authenticity is complete.
The movie continues with highlights of Mr. Holland’s life. He is able to resolve his two lives of teacher and husband/father. He is able to continue on in the classroom, becoming an effective teacher. He becomes a beloved fixture at Kennedy High. That is, until budget cuts close his program down. Mr. Holland has a few choice words about this to Principal Wolters (who has replaced the much loved Principal Jacobs) including:
Vice Principal Wolters: I care about these kids just as much as you do. And if I’m forced to choose between Mozart and reading and writing and long division, I choose long division.
Glenn Holland: Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.
Glenn Holland: You work for 30 years because you think that what you do makes a difference, you think it matters to people, but then you wake up one morning and find out, well no, you’ve made a little error there, you’re expendable. I should be laughing.
The finale of the movie is a tribute from the school. Current and former students of the school gather together to play Mr. Holland’s American Symphony at a ‘retirement’ celebration. It is a surprise that touches him greatly. Gertrude Lang is the MC, now grown and the governor of the state. She pays him a beautiful tribute:
Gertrude Lang: Mr. Holland had a profound influence on my life and on a lot of lives I know. But I have a feeling that he considers a great part of his own life misspent. Rumor had it he was always working on this symphony of his. And this was going to make him famous, rich, probably both. But Mr. Holland isn’t rich and he isn’t famous, at least not outside of our little town. So it might be easy for him to think himself a failure. But he would be wrong, because I think that he’s achieved a success far beyond riches and fame. Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.
While Glenn Holland may not have gone into the teaching gig for more than a way to make money, he retires in the knowledge that his life has mattered, he has fulfilled his whole dream, he has become and lived the life of an authentic teacher.