ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

This Teaching Movie is Actually Pretty Realistic

Updated on May 22, 2020
ProvocaTeach profile image

I am a high school mathematics teacher with a strong humanities background and passion for broader education issues.

Hanan Harchol (Dov Tiefenbach) seeks the advice of fellow teacher Ana Martinez (Aurora Leonard). Screenshot by author.
Hanan Harchol (Dov Tiefenbach) seeks the advice of fellow teacher Ana Martinez (Aurora Leonard). Screenshot by author. | Source

One of the pesky realities of art is that it must be produced by artists. And every artist has blind spots – often when it comes to professions outside of art, such as teaching.

So when Hanan Harchol came out of nowhere with his autobiographical film About a Teacher, I was intrigued. Here was a film about teaching… made by an actual teacher. How would this inform its content and focus?

Since Robert Pondiscio (2020) covers the film’s portrayal of the classroom quite well, this review will dive into how About a Teacher depicts teacher preparation and school bureaucracy.

Plot summary

The film opens with a statistic: that 41% of teachers left the New York City public school system in 5 years.

We then meet Hanan Harchol (played by Dov Tiefenbach), a filmmaker and guitarist who decides to take on high school teaching as a “day job” to support his art. Predictably, he instantly finds himself out of his depth – unable to control his classroom, losing school cameras, overwhelmed by paperwork, and constantly reprimanded by his administrator, Ms. Murry (Leslie Hendrix).

It takes three years and lots of mistakes, but Harchol eventually finds his bearings, and his students come into their own with a film project.

Teacher preparation

Harchol (Tiefenbach) looks up the symptoms of PTSD while talking to his dad on the phone. Screenshot by author.
Harchol (Tiefenbach) looks up the symptoms of PTSD while talking to his dad on the phone. Screenshot by author. | Source

This film really cemented the value of traditional teacher preparation, which includes education coursework and some time student teaching alongside a mentor teacher. The film strongly implies (though it’s not a central message) that Harchol is not traditionally prepared, and this leads him to suffer needlessly during his first year of teaching.

We know Harchol has a teaching license in his first year because his administrator, Ms. Murry, threatens that he could lose it. This leaves two possibilities: either the film glosses over student teaching for brevity’s sake, or the real Harchol went through an alternative preparation program. Because “student teaching” is mentioned in the film and Harchol already had a master’s degree, the alternative preparation program seems more likely.

In his first year of teaching, Harchol’s character seems to be alone in the classroom with no idea of what to do. We see him making classic teaching mistakes, such as scolding the entire class for the actions of individuals, mostly without effect. He only receives real-time assistance and feedback when his administrator, Ms. Murry, enters his room to reprimand him or collect paperwork. This is infrequent.

Had Harchol been paired with an experienced teacher, he would have had a less chaotic classroom in which to hone his teaching craft, as well as regular feedback to improve his practice.

Bureaucracy

Screenshot by author.
Screenshot by author. | Source

For me, About a Teacher truly excels in its depiction of school bureaucracy. This is primarily represented by the character of Ms. Murry – Harchol’s imperious administrator, played masterfully by Leslie Hendrix with an ice-cold stare and reprimanding tone. Throughout the film, Murry demands that teachers implement “questioning techniques”, “higher-order thinking”, and “grouping strategies” – all of which they must document in a printed lesson plan. Otherwise, the new principal will rate them “ineffective”.

There are many scenes in which, at pivotal teaching moments, Harchol is interrupted by Murry demanding his lesson plans or other documentation. Usually, he can’t deliver – often for a good reason.

The buzzwords and paperwork reminded me of the edTPA, a licensure requirement for which I prepared lessons, filmed myself teaching, and wrote 30 pages of commentary on all of it. Much like Harchol, I had to demonstrate that my lesson aligned with the latest buzzwords – in my case, “procedural fluency”, “conceptual understanding”, and “problem-solving skills”. Often, the demands can seem impossible. This is captured beautifully in an office meeting between Harchol and Murry.

“Where is your pacing calendar?” asks Murry.

“I started that,” replies Harchol, “but I needed to finish this lesson plan, so… which one’s more important?”

Murry sighs. “It’s all important.”

The film leaves it ambiguous whether the demands, on net, truly helped Harchol’s teaching. Throughout the film, it is clear that Murry’s requirements threaten serious professional consequences, take time away from his teaching, and create tremendous headaches. But near the end, Harchol thanks Murry for showing him “how to teach”.

Personally, I appreciated that ambiguity. As a teacher, I have found that bureaucracy can hinder what I see as the most innovative aspects of my teaching. It can also be a time-consuming headache and is never pleasant to deal with. Nevertheless, bureaucratic structures and procedures force me to consider possibilities I would otherwise never consider. They can be useful guardrails, and surviving them has expanded my toolbox. Whether that benefit is worth losing sleep remains unclear to me.

Grade: B

As a teacher, I am morally obligated to give this film a letter grade: A, B, C, D, or F (pluses and minuses not allowed). My personal grade is a B. It’s the best teaching film I’ve seen, and there were moments when I had to pause and breathe because of how brutally accurate it was. But I can’t give it an A, for one reason.

Despite explicitly acknowledging that it’s not all about the teacher, About a Teacher is heavily teacher-centered. I mostly feel this way because the relationships between Harchol and his students are not fully explored. Harchol seems to have made a genuine effort to explore these relationships, but he includes too many students. This causes each student’s character to appear flat, making Harchol’s character far more developed than all the others’.

I do have some sympathy; it’s hard to tell stories about your teaching and step outside your own perspective. Ben Orlin (2014) has written about how teachers self-promote because of the need to make meaning from their teaching. I know for a fact I’m guilty of this.

While I wouldn’t accuse Harchol of self-promotion (he does show the negative aspects of his teaching candidly), I would say his film displays self-overemphasis. You can see this also in his decision to include subplots irrelevant to the broader story – for example, a pregnancy subplot that ends in a miscarriage. A teacher in the film tells Harchol, “It’s not about you.” I would add that, “It is also about the students.”

Despite this one flaw, About a Teacher deserves praise for its candid portrayal of the teaching profession – especially being a new teacher and bureaucracy, which are aspects of education not often shown on the big screen. I highly recommend checking it out.

References

Orlin, B. (2014, July 29). I Lie About My Teaching. The Atlantic. Retrieved 2020 May 21 from www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/07/why-teachers-lie-about-their-classrooms/375099

Pondiscio, R. (2020). About a Teacher. Education Next. Retrieved 2020 May 21 from www.educationnext.org/about-a-teacher-film-movie-review

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://corp.maven.io/privacy-policy

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)