Watch just 10 minutes of the new documentary TEACH, and you’ll come to the uncomfortable realization that despite having spent much of your childhood in a classroom, you probably have no idea what it takes to be a teacher. Even if your assumptions about the profession are positive, chances are much of what you assume about educators is simply incorrect.
“It’s like having an impression of what a doctor is when they give you an exam, but you don’t really know what a doctor does,” says TEACH director Davis Guggenheim, as he explains what inspired him to make this latest documentary.
“You can have a school with all the funding in the world and all the resources in the world, but if they don’t have great teachers, they’re stuck,” he says. “If there’s a school with no books, and no running water, but they’ve got great teachers, they’ll figure it out. Because teachers are at the core, the solution. They’re what works.”
Guggenheim’s latest film follows four inspiring teachers from across the country over the course of one academic year. Though all the teachers featured are unique in their skill sets and points of view, their common thread, as portrayed in the film, is their vulnerability—the painstaking work they undertake to ensure their kids absorb the material and grow from it, and the personal loss they experience in those moments when, despite their best efforts, that goal slips from their grasp.
This is familiar territory for Guggenheim. He directed the 2010 seminal film, Waiting for "Superman," which exposed the broken state of America’s education system. He explains that making TEACH was a natural and necessary next step for him.
“For Waiting for ‘Superman,’ we had hundreds of screenings, and at the end of the screenings, people would say, ‘Now what?’ ” he says. “Waiting for ‘Superman’ sort of woke people up to a crisis, but I felt like I wasn’t great at answering that question. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that for most people, the issue [of education] feels complex, confusing, overwhelming...And I thought the easiest thing to do was to focus on the one thing that works, which is great teaching.”
The hope is that the film will reframe the way the public thinks about profession, which is often erroneously characterized as old-fashioned and static. If we understood what it really entailed—that it’s dynamic, interactive, and as much of an art as it is a science—Guggenheim believes teaching would evolve into a highly desirable career, attracting more of the country’s best and brightest.
Guggenheim’s take on teaching is no reflection of a glittering academic history. “I was a terrible student,” he says. “I was the worst student at my high school...I wasn’t suspended too many times, but I was a terrible student, and it doesn’t make sense that I’d be the one making films about teachers. But for some reason, since the very beginning, I’ve been moved by teachers. Sort of in awe of them.”
Much of that awe, which can be seen bubbling up in scenes throughout TEACH, seems to have come from Guggenheim’s personal experience with his 10th-grade history teacher, Harvey LeSure. “Even though I was a terrible student, he saw something in me,” Guggenheim says. “And he refused to let me be a jackass. He refused to let me be a fool. And he challenged me to speak my mind. Twenty years after I left high school, he still sent me a birthday card.”
Davis, who won an Academy Award for the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, says the field of education still holds more stories to be told, and his next project, tangentially related, focuses on the life of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani student who was shot by the Taliban in the head and neck for refusing to give up her education.
Where Guggenheim’s work will take him after that is anyone’s guess, including his. But whatever the project, at its core there will be another story that hits home. “My father made documentaries and he always said, ‘Story comes first,’ ” he explains. “Story is the heart of a good movie; it’s what we try to do. To me, at the heart of every good story are people you want to root for, people that have big hurdles they have to overcome. But story is it.”
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.