What To Watch: ‘About a Teacher’ Explores the Struggles of a Public School Instructor & His Students

Eleanor Bader Apr 6, 2020

For decades, teaching has been considered the fallback of the inept. After all, the old chestnut, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach,” continues to make the rounds and teachers continue to be blamed for every social ill plaguing society.

Filmmaker Hanan Harchol, a New York City public school teacher for the past 11 years, hopes to overturn this idea and once-and-for-all show the world what it is like to be an urban educator. His first feature, About A Teacher, is by turns cringe-inducing, gut-wrenching, funny, and touching.

Dov Tiefenbach and Cedric Preval in About a Teacher.

Its opening gambit features Dov Tiefenbach as Harchol, an idealistic white guy who recently completed his Master of Fine Arts degree at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. On day one he expects his students — all of them Black and Brown — to sit in rapt attention, eager to absorb his wisdom. Not surprisingly, he fails — miserably.

Indeed, Harchol’s students are blatantly disrespectful, applying make-up, talking, sleeping or staring at their phones as he pontificates. This continues for months, with the 36-year-old blathering at his students and doing nothing to engage or get to know them. The resultant chaos is both painful and predictable and Harchol’s cluelessness is hard to watch.

At the same time, the film suggests that Harchol was not completely at fault since he was expected to manage eight classes a day without as much as an in-service training to help him anticipate the challenges he’d face. 

“Nobody prepared me for this,” he whines to a colleague. “It’s trial by fire.”

Still, he persists, night-after-night bolting awake following a school-related nightmare. He also obsesses, over time cornering seasoned teachers and watching what they do in the classroom. He asks questions and thankfully, eventually speaks to math teacher Ana Martinez. Her advice: Give the kids structure and learn about their lives.

One question she poses is particularly unsettling to Harchol: “Do you even like your students?” It seems like a straightforward query, but it sends Harchol into a tailspin of self-doubt. “Have you ever talked to them? What do you say?” Martinez asks. “Have you asked Mateo why he sleeps in class? Teaching is not about you, it’s about your students.”

Slowly, by year two, Harchol begins to see his students as individuals. Mateo, he learns, recently became a father and is working two jobs to support his family.

“But you’re 17,” Harchol sputters as if it never occurred to him that a teenager might also be a parent.

This reality check — one of many — gives Harchol insight and perspective, and while his transformation seems almost magically quick, we ultimately see him become a terrific instructor, one who listens to his students and builds lessons that are simultaneously relevant and instructive. 

He also becomes a model of compassion, giving thoughtful counsel to students grappling with poverty, parental illness, incarceration, neighborhood gangs, and sexual violence. It’s a heartwarming transition. Harchol also opens up, revealing small tidbits about his own life and dreams to interested students.

That said, scenes between Harchol and his wife and father seem extraneous and add little to the narrative.

Nonetheless, the film offers a meaningful look at urban education and juxtaposes intense classroom dynamics with the Department of Education’s constant statistical reporting requirements. These dual demands highlight all that is wrong with a bureaucracy that cares more about numbers than it does about human beings. And it goes even further, perhaps explaining why approximately 40 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years of being on the job.

That Harchol did not run from his students is a testament to perseverance. Above all else, however, About a Teacher is about more than stick-to-it-ness. It‘s a showcase for improbable connections, resilience, and the desire to make a difference, one person to another, in any way possible.

About A Teacher
Directed by Hanan Harchol
Available on Amazon Prime beginning April 7

Eleanor Bader teaches English at Kingsborough Community College-CUNY. Her first years as a teacher were a disaster because she had no idea what she was doing. Now 16 years in, she is better prepared — enough so that she can juggle the job with freelance writing.

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