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Warm and fuzzy, “Teach” offers more sentiment than insight

September 8, 2013

Thanks to the technology of the DVR, I was able to watch “Teach” a day later than most viewers, and by the time I finished it, I’d already seen other people’s reactions online, and even in my Facebook feed. Nancy Flanagan’s post at EdWeek was online pretty quickly too. I think Nancy was a bit crankier than I was (her word, not mine), but I can’t offer more than a half-hearted endorsement of the film.

First reaction: relief. I went into the viewing of “Teach” with some doubts; what could we expect in a Davis Guggenheim film, supported by the Gates Foundation and with ties to Khan Academy and the charter school-promoting J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation? It could have been worse, but the film really steered clear of the hot-button issues – not a single mention of evaluation, unions, seniority, performance pay, charter schools, vouchers, etc. Maybe to a fault, as I felt a retort rising within me when host/narrator Queen Latifah told viewers that great teachers do whatever it takes for their students to learn; meanwhile, thousands of teachers are having their judgment and initiative systemically undercut by scripted curriculum and highly constraining evaluation checklists (see: IMPACT).


Sal Khan at Sequoia HS, Redwood City, CA (2012) – photo by the author.

The only moderately overt agenda in the film was to promote Khan Academy (KA). Math teacher Shelby Harris used KA with her students, and thanks the Khan training, even had access to someone who advised her that students working in groups might be able to help each other (!). One student, Brooke, made some tremendous progress using KA, and we hear the interviewer ask her if she’d rather be on the computer doing math, or listen to One Direction. Khan Academy! What about listening to Lady Gaga? Khan Academy! What about feeding your horse? Well, she likes KA almost as much as her horse! From this student testimonial, we go into another segment where it’s implied that Khan Academy represents nothing less than the future of education. Direct instruction from teacher to all students at once will be replaced by direct instruction to students individually? Want to impress me? Show me some students creating their own videos, their own assessments, and linking their learning to other subjects and real life examples.

Student rocketry; photo courtesy of Tom Collett.

Student rocketry; photo courtesy of Tom Collett.

And then, there was the Khan Academy commercial, courtesy of the Albertson Foundation, showing image after image of really cool, active, hands-on learning! Rockets! Pottery! Electronics! Construction! Ballet! Flames! Because nothing ignites the mind like… sitting at the computer watching videos and doing exercises to earn badges. To be clear, I’m critizing the jarring disconnect between the images and the product being sold. The effectiveness and limitations of KA can be the topic of another post.

Overall, the film respected its subjects and showed that the human relationship between teachers and students are the driving force in the classroom. The film showed humor, heart, and some of the complexity of teaching, and allowed that, as teacher Shelby Harris put it, “When you’re not in the classroom it’s easy to tell people what it should look like.”  While Khan Academy is featured at time, the voice over narration also advises us that technological “silver bullets” come and go, revealing that people matter more. I think it was honorable and brave of the students, parents, teachers and administrators in the film to share their lives and their work.

The film was effective, if predictable, in crafting a narrative arc to hold our attention for two hours. It’s a familiar formula: get to know the players, and some reasons to root for them, show some early reason for optimism, followed by setbacks and maybe a crisis of faith, uncover a solution, conquer the final challenge, and end on a high note. To be honest, many school years have that feeling. But an even more honest film might note that sometimes the wheels really come off the wagon in May. Some classes limp to the finish line. Some good teachers can’t do anything to prevent a student’s mental health crisis from hitting in the spring time, and we have no control over the comings and goings of students who move during the school year. It’s worthwhile to show a teacher working with one class, but most secondary teachers have five or six classes, and in California right now, that means student loads well over 150, sometimes over 200.

The editing and the pace of the film may have been good for television, but not for much deeper engagement. We saw so many ten and twenty second glimpses of teachers and students, never enough time to really understand what’s going on. Every teacher has a certain style, a certain rapport, and ways of communicating both verbally and non-verbally. What it means and how it works cannot be understood in such small bites.

In other cases, the editing leaves a question hanging. We hear that it’s really hard to teach writing, for example. Yes, it is. We see teacher Joel Laguna working his way through piles of papers that cover his living room furniture, only to find that 42 of 43 students in his A.P. history class end up failing the assignment. (And just let that sink in for a moment: 43 students in a classroom).


Jack Weinstein being interviewed by a student; interviews can be effective at engaging students with their curriculum and their community (photo by the author).

The film does return to the question of writing instruction, quite a bit later, as teacher Joel Laguna dispatches his students into their community to do some research interviews. It’s a fine idea, helping students establish a connection and purpose, a sense of ownership to motivate harder work and more revisions. But one essential element in a great teacher goes entirely without notice and without comment: reflection. Laguna analyzed his students’ work, reflected on his practice, and made an adjustment. Teachers who can do that well and consistently grow into increasingly effective teachers, while those who don’t form that reflective habit continue to struggle.

Jumping ahead a bit, Joel’s students do improve their writing, and perform quite well on the A.P. test. We learn that Joel taught extra lessons after schools and on Saturdays to get these results. However, we never saw another teacher at his school, never a tutor, or student mentor? Is he the only one? Is the lesson here that you have to nearly bury yourself in student work, give more and more of your hours, and do it all by yourself to be an effective teacher for high-need students? Now that I think about it, every time a teacher is shown in collaboration outside the classroom, it involves a non-teacher. Kind of odd, to glimpse only one teacher in each of the schools in the film.

While there’s some lip service to the idea that the test scores shouldn’t be the sole determination of good teaching, the entire arc of the narrative hinges on test results or data in each classroom. There’s even a rather artificial moment where math teacher Shelby Harris receives an envelope on camera, with the results of her students’ final math test inside. Cut to commercial, and stay tuned to see the big reveal after a word from our sponsors. Another math teacher, Lindsay Chinn, sits by her assistant principal as he crows about test results that beat the district average handily. Anyone with some experience in education data would know that, deprived of context, we can’t conclude too much from such comparisons; we don’t actually know anything about the district or how this school compares to others. Maybe outscoring other schools was rather predictable and unremarkable, or maybe this was the finest teaching in the history of Colorado.

Maybe I’m too cynical, but it sure seems like the test scores are the justification for letting us indulge in the scenes where the kids and some of the parents talk about caring relationship, shed some tears, and then lead to the genuinely nice closing shot of each teacher with their students running out to surround them in exuberant slow-motion. Yes, it left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling, but nothing more useful.

Was it worth watching? I guess so, moreso for people who don’t work in education. Will the film succeed in leading people to consider a career in teaching? Several celebrities contributed short clips to the film, celebrating their favorite teachers and each ending with the invitiation, “Teach.” I hope it works, of course. But for the vast majority of viewers who won’t become educators, I wish “Teach” had done more teaching about teaching.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jane Fung permalink
    September 8, 2013 3:43 pm

    I have not seen the first hour. I came in late. I was wondering if they showed any of the teachers collaborating with other colleagues? (Besides mentors and administrators). Teaching can be and should be as much about collaboration as it is about reflecting on your lessons.

  2. September 8, 2013 6:12 pm

    In answer to Jane’s question: Nope. Of course, there was lots left out: personal lives, meltdowns, tedium, fire drills. They highlighted (sometime, IMHO, w/ too-personal data) the dire futures of individual kids. But colleagial support and idea-sharing seems like a pretty big thing to be missing. Especially with brand-new, second-year teachers. Where are their mentors? The veteran teacher-to-novice-teacher thing isn’t really part of the Gates agenda, which is more about video evaluation (MET) and using data to drive instruction.

    Steering clear of hot-button issues was an obvious good choice. Guggenheim won himself lots of fans with a feel-good movie storyline and lead characters.

    I took the 43 kids in one class w/out comment as the promotion of another Gates-funded idea: doesn’t matter how many kids you have in a class, if the teacher is top-notch.

    Good review. I think we’re on the same page. And I like being cranky.


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