What Makes A Good Teacher

As Davis Guggenheim's new documentary TEACH shows, it really shouldn't be such a mystery

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Don Holtz

Shelby Harris, a seventh-grade math teacher at Kuna Middle School, Idaho, from Davis Guggenheim's new documentary TEACH.

Fourth-grader Emmely is a bright and curious girl with big dreams of becoming a lawyer. But like many low-income students, by the time she arrives in the class of second-year teacher Matt Johnson, she’s already a year and a half behind in reading. Emmely and her family are looking to Johnson, who himself was raised in the Chicago projects by a single mother, to help her overcome the odds and fulfill her obvious potential.

TEACH, a new documentary airing tonight on CBS, shows the enormous expectations placed on young teachers as it follows Johnson and three other relative newcomers to the classroom. Few things are more important to our country’s future than recruiting and keeping great teachers in our schools. Yet their daily experience – their struggles and victories – are rarely examined and poorly understood. Just in time for the beginning of the school year, Academy Award-winning director Davis Guggenheim draws back the curtain on the people responsible for preparing our children to succeed.

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Davis is best known for blockbusters like An Inconvenient Truth and the controversial 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman. With TEACH, he is trying to do something very different: to show the human relationships at the heart of the learning experience — the hopes and fears of teachers, students and parents. It’s a worthy tribute precisely because it’s so honest. Unlike most movies about teaching, where the triumph of the dedicated teacher is guaranteed in two hours flat, in TEACH the success of new teachers and their students is anything but assured.

The four protagonists — Joel Laguna, Lindsay Chinn, Matt Johnson and Shelby Harris—are keenly aware that their students need an excellent education to have real options in life. They face immense pressure to transform pressures inside the classroom and help students navigate the enormous obstacles outside of it. But for all the challenges, there are plenty of uplifting moments. These teachers bring passion, joy and creativity to their classrooms, and progress is all the sweeter because it was hard-won.

By chronicling their journeys, TEACH demystifies what it takes to be a good teacher. Joel Laguna works in the same East Los Angeles high school where twenty years ago Jaime Escalante became famous for coaching his class to pass the AP Calculus exam. Back then, the rare educators like Escalante who put their students on a different path were considered magicians. Today we know more than ever about the qualities that distinguish the best teachers. Lindsay, Joel, Matt and Shelby show us that it’s hard work, but it’s not magic. They have high expectations for themselves and their students, and they constantly push to get better. Gradually, through persistence, creativity and the help of supportive principals and mentors, they turn patterns of defeat into patterns of empowerment.

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Laguna, who teaches 10th grade Advanced Placement World History, sums it up: “Take risks and know there are going to be good and bad days. If you give it your all and your students see that you care, it will definitely come back to you.”

TEACH is not just an engrossing portrait of teaching, it’s also a call to action. The documentary kicks off a yearlong campaign by the nonprofit TEACH and its allies to elevate the profession and encourage more college graduates to become teachers.

It couldn’t come at a more important time. We’ll need two million new teachers in the next decade as much of the current teaching force retires. Where will we find the next generation of teachers? How will we spread the practices of effective educators and provide new teachers with the rigorous support and continuous professional development they need to thrive? The answer to those questions will shape the future of American education.

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