Even if you’ve never been a teacher, chances are you still have strong opinions about what makes someone successful at it. Teaching can look like such a simple process: Devise a lesson plan, explain it to students, test them on it, and enjoy having your summers off.
But in the real world, the act of educating kids just isn’t that easy. Every child learns differently, and that may be the biggest challenge teachers face. What works for one student may be the downfall of another. That means teachers have to know far more than the lesson plan—they need to understand who all their dozens of students are as people and how best to reach them.
They have to feel like they’re a part of your world, that you’re all in it together.That’s the issue at the heart of Participant Media’s new documentary TEACH, which follows four determined teachers from across the country maneuvering through a school year and fighting to support the children whose futures depend upon them.
Lindsay Chinn is one of those teachers. After receiving her masters in social work, she was inspired to try teaching during an internship at a high school. Eventually she landed a job as a ninth-grade algebra teacher. In the film she’s shown as someone who adeptly balances the individual learning needs of her kids even while struggling to meet district demands for test scores.
She says, “There’s so much work that goes into it, but there’s so much heart that goes into it, not just with the kids, but with that struggle. Every teacher has hit that wall, where they’re like, ‘My kids aren’t where they need to be so what do I do?’ There’s no answer. There’s no ‘Read this line in this book and it will solve your problem.’ Regardless of grade level or content, every teacher is going through that.”
The other teachers profiled in the film agree. Matt Johnson, a fourth-grade teacher from Montebello, CO, just finished his third year of teaching, a career he chose after spending most of his adult professional life in retail.
But his style in the classroom is no hard-sell. Instead, Johnson is notably warm but firm with his students. And like the other teachers profiled in the documentary, he’s constantly investigating new ways to reach them. His ability to connect with his kids is evident—in the film, a number of them openly weep when saying goodbye to him at the close of the school year.
“I was kind of surprised at how much you have to figure out on your own,” Johnson says. “I thought, ‘Well, they’ve been teaching algebra for however long, somebody should have figured out already the best way to teach it, the most efficient way to teach it.’ And it’s so not like that.”
Instead, the relatively new teacher says his work in the classroom is an always-evolving process. “I can’t be rigid or stuck in my ways...and try to make them learn the way I want them to learn,” he says. “You have to be flexible, be open-minded to their needs, be child-centered, and not try to force them into a box.”
A teacher’s success seems to depend largely on not just getting to know more than a student’s academic strengths and weaknesses, but also understanding and appreciating their unique personalities.
Shelby Harris is an Idaho-based elementary school teacher who’s been in the profession for 13 years. She takes a sensitive approach to her work, a tactic that she says comes from her own experience as a student who struggled with problems of abuse at home. “If you don’t have a relationship with a kid, then you have nothing,” she says. “They have to feel like they’re a part of your world, that you’re all in it together. And so I work really hard at being connected to my kids.”
Lindsay Chinn works by the same philosophy. “It’s so important for me every year to get to know each student and meet them where they’re at,” she says. “The better I know them, the better they do in my class.”
That’s why it’s particularly frustrating for teachers who often find themselves battling the misconception that declining test scores are the result of a lack of care.
“It does take a lot of soul searching and a lot of gut wrenching,” says Joel Laguna, an AP world history teacher from East Los Angeles, who is also featured in TEACH.
A charismatic and excitable presence in the classroom, Laguna’s passion sometimes masks his personal feelings of defeat when his students just aren’t grasping the material.
“I’m glad [the film] showed that,” he says. “Because you run into that—‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ And you get very close, and you say, ‘I don’t know if I’m capable.’ But then you realize what’s at stake, and you think about your kids, and you have to refocus.”
Between the high stakes, the district demands for higher test scores, and the politics of working in a school, teaching can seem like one long, uphill battle. But the moments of success, when a child finally “gets it,” and when that child is changed because of it, are the moments that make the struggle so meaningful.
Chinn explains, “It’s a lot about being a part of an amazing time in somebody’s life...and getting to be a part of their growing experience, and provide them opportunity.”
Despite the inherent difficulties, none of the teachers in the film has any plans to give it up. Shelby Harris says she already tried that once.
“I got a job offer in fashion and I told my boss I was done,” she says. “[Teaching] is such a hard job. So I spent the summer in New York. But August came, and the school supplies came out, and I went home and cried, and called my boss and said, ‘Please, please take me back.’ ”
Watch the TEACH trailer and interviews with the teachers:
This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.