‘TEACH’ Documentary Finds Budding Superheroes in the Classroom

By Mark Walsh — September 04, 2013 4 min read
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Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim’s last education documentary, “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” sparked major debates over school reform, charter schools, and teachers’ unions in 2010. Some critics said it celebrated charter schools as a panacea and made teachers and their unions the culprits for a broken system.

The film grossed $6.4 million in worldwide box office—respectable, but nothing like the $50 million worldwide take for Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning 2006 environmental doc, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Still, the education film drove the debate for months.

Guggenheim’s new documentary is called “TEACH,” and it is heading straight to broadcast television this week. The film airs in a two-hour time slot on CBS this Friday, Sept. 6, at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific times. (Check local listings.)

In the new film, there are no charter schools, no teachers’ union politics, no major education debates. The film just focuses on the efforts of four young teachers in the classroom.

The teachers of “TEACH” are: Matt Johnson, a 4th grade teacher at McGlone Elementary School in Denver, who managed a Radio Shack outlet before turning to teaching; Shelby Harris, a 7th- and 8th grade mathematics teacher at Kuna Middle School in Kuna, Idaho; Lindsay Chinn, a 9th grade algebra teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in Denver, who sports a nose ring; and Joel Laguna, the Advanced Placement World History teacher at Garfield High School in Los Angeles.

When I mentioned this film to a couple of people, they suggested Guggenheim was perhaps “atoning” for “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” A few online comments have suggested something similar.

That’s not a view the director seems to accept. He said in a recent interview that “Superman” screenings led people to ask him, “Now what?” In other words, what should be done to fix the broken system depicted in the 2010 film? Guggenheim said in the interview with TakePart, the digital division of movie production company Participant Media, that he decided “to focus on the one thing that works, which is great teaching.”

Laguna is the most energetic of the four teachers in the film. He rides the city bus and even the subway to work to Garfield High in East Los Angeles. He wears shorts and a hip blazer in the classroom. Students seem to trust and connect to him.

Laguna notes that Garfield High is where the renowned Jaime Escalante guided his East L.A. students to success on the AP Calculus exam, later made famous in the movie “Stand and Deliver.” But he is quick to add that there is no Hollywood ending guaranteed for his students and their AP tests.

“I’m not Edward James Olmos [who played Escalante], and they’re not Lou Diamond Phillips [who played one of the Latino students],” Laguna says in “TEACH.”

Several education trends underlie the four teachers’ classrooms, though Guggenheim doesn’t dwell much on them, if at all.

Johnson’s school, McGlone Elementary, is undergoing a “turnaround,” an intensive intervention bringing greater flexibility in school operations, a fact not even mentioned in the film.

Harris’ school, Kuna Middle, has embraced Khan Academy, the online not-for-profit web site that allows students to learn math at their own pace.

In Chinn’s classroom at MLK Early College, she has embraced something promoted by her assistant principal: 360-degree math, they call it. Whiteboards (not the electronic kind) are installed on all four walls of the classroom, so students can be working on math problems while Chinn watches from the middle, intervening when necessary.

I wasn’t sure what to think when CBS announced last week that Hollywood celebrities such as Jon Cryer, Rashida Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Allison Janney were “joining” the special. I had visions of a strange hybrid of a Davis Guggenheim documentary with a glitzy TV variety hour.

But the celebrity moments are short, unobtrusive, and inspiring. Before each commercial break, one of the stars appears in a school hallway and briefly discusses a teacher who inspired him or her. The actress and entertainer Queen Latifah, whose mother was a teacher, has a bigger role. She introduces the film and narrates it effectively.

Guggenheim also makes good, though sparing, use of archival educational footage and hip animation. For example, roughly halfway through the film, each of the teachers has run into a major obstacle, and has turned to a mentor—the principal or a teacher-educator—for help.

Laguna’s education professor from the University of California, Los Angeles, shows up at his Garfield High classroom one day to observe a lesson. Laguna is struggling with a lecture on French history. The professor tells Laguna he’s engaging too much in “direct instruction.” Guggenheim then shows some classic footage of 1950s-era teachers standing at the front of the class lecturing to their students.

Laguna experiences a breakthrough when he lets his 43 AP World History students work in teams to develop their own theses for a project.

The other three teachers experience similar roadblocks, followed by breakthroughs. The story inevitably builds toward the end of the school year and test season. I won’t give any spoilers, but test results present an organically dramatic way to conclude things.

This film, to be broadcast on a Friday night (traditionally a low-viewership night) in early September, isn’t likely to provoke the controversy of “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” But it is a poignant reminder that amid all the debate over school funding, governance, unions, standards, and curriculum, the most important work is going on in the classroom.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.