This Teaching Movie is Actually Pretty Realistic
Hanan Harchol’s new film About a Teacher isn’t perfect, but it shows some aspects of teaching that don’t often make it to the big screen.
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. About a Teacher is getting attention among not only movie critics but also educators for its realistic portrayal of the day-to-day struggles of teaching.
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.
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.
For me, 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 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.
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.
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.
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