I spent this past summer thinking about school — and loving it. This Friday night, CBS will premiere Teach — a new documentary by Davis Guggenheim hosted by Queen Latifah. I was deeply honored to co-write Teach with Davis. Because I worked on Teach, I won’t tell you here that it’s fantastic — though it is. Teach follows four public school teachers — Matt Johnson, Shelby Harris, Joel Laguna and Lindsay Chinn — through the past school year. Because I cannot be journalistic objective here, I also won’t tell you that the result is two hours of prime time television that are dramatic, inspiring, uplifting and both educational and emotional. Instead, I will simply agree with the review I’ve read by Verne Gay in Newsday who wrote that Teach is “terrific” and not only “a tribute to the profession” but assuming it inspires some viewers to teach, a “tribute to the power of TV, too.” Best of all, for a show about teachers, Verne graded us and gave us an “A.” There was no mention of a Gold Star, but fair enough.
You can all see Teach for yourselves on CBS at 8 p.m. Friday — or in the weeks to come on the new Pivot Network. As you can see Davis, his excellent team of producers and editors, the entire team at Participant Media and, of course, our royally charismatic host Queen Latifah all did fantastic jobs. So I hereby encourage everyone to tune in on CBS Friday night for the best kind of teachable moment. In the meantime, here’s my brutally harsh interrogation of my better writing half whose work includes the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting For Superman and It Might Get Loud.
Davis, what did you learn making “Teach” — beyond how wonderful I am to write with?
Besides that, I learned that the lives of teachers are fascinating to witness. It’s a cliché, but these men and women are warriors battling all the forces that can affect us and our children, and they do it everyday. Filming this movie, I was in a prime position to see great teachers are performing miracles for our kids on a daily basis.
You tend to make movies for reasons beyond just making money – which may be a questionable choice in Hollywood, but I admire you for it anyway. Why did you want to make “Teach”?
You mean I’m not going to make a lot of money on this? The truth is that I was on the big Hollywood feature director path and I got fired off of “Training Day” and life sent me in a different direction. After that, I started directing an earlier documentary about teachers, and it makes no sense but I am drawn inextricably to stories about people who try to make a difference.
What do you make of a political climate that has in recent years seen some anti-teacher sentiment?
Well, some people thought “Waiting For Superman” was anti-teacher because it criticized their union in some ways.
Are you now — or have you ever been — anti-teacher?
Absolutely not. I think people who are angry about problems in our educational system should focus on something we know for sure works — and that’s great teachers. The strange thing I found is that very few people can tell you what makes great teaching. We know it’s what works, but we don’t really look at what goes into making a great teacher. That’s why we start “Teach” with that simple premise of “What is a teacher, and what do they do?” — a line you wrote with me, by the way, Mr. Wild. In a way, it sounds as if we were writing an instructional manual there, but in fact it serves an important purpose. That’s because it’s actually a question that every American should ask.
I’m happy that we were able to bring in fine folks like Rashida Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jon Cryer into “Teach” to talk about teachers who changed their lives. Few people in this life shape us more than our best teachers.
That’s true. A lot of us look back on our school days and our memories are like: That teacher was mean. That teacher was cool. That teacher was like a rock star. Those area all legitimate things we heard from many people, but it doesn’t begin to describe the actual job of teaching and how teachers really do it. That’s what this movie is about. You see the teachers doing what they do, and you see how much it means to the students in their classrooms. If we’re going to help improve our schools, we better have a more informed understanding of the job that teachers do.
I feel blessed to have a lot of teachers in my life. My mom Carol Wild taught public school. My aunt Linda Klasfeld taught public school for decades. My mother-in-law Carol Turk was a teacher, and my sister-in-law Susan Wild is teaching right now. That’s not to mention all my great women and men who taught me in Tenafly, New Jersey public schools, at the Loomis Chaffee School, and at Cornell University. Many of them changed my life for the better. What teacher changed your life?
My 10th grade history teacher Harvey LeSure was the one for me. I was absolutely the worst in school and in my class for sure. I was convinced that I was a loser with zero potential. And Harvey LeSure disagreed. He saw potential in me that I refused to see in myself. And it’s a cliché, but he lit a spark. So I saw firsthand how a teacher could transform a life. It’s not as easy as it looks in a Hollywood movie. It doesn’t happen in 90 minutes. But thankfully, it happens.
We’re both parents, and we discussed a lot of this documentary from that point of view when we were working together. So how would you feel if your own kids came to you and said that they want to grow up and be a teacher?
That would be the happiest day of my life.
And how will you feel if non-relatives sees “Teach” Friday on CBS, or on Pivot in the weeks ahead, and it inspires them to go into teaching?
It would feel fantastic. I think this emerging next generation craves meaning in their life. Even with all that’s going on and all the confusing headlines, they yearn for a sense of purpose. And when they meet Joel, Matt, Shelby and Lindsay, they’re seeing people whose professional lives have great purpose and meaning. I hope young people will be drawn to that feeling and that path.
Finally, Davis, who do you want to see “Teach”?
Well, David, I’d like to narrow it down to everybody. Everyone is welcome. I’m not suggesting people watch because it’s good for them. I think a teacher’s job is full of drama and the human comedy too. This is a very entertaining and human story, and that’s because of our teachers and the kids they teach. Some studies show in the next ten years we could lose half of our teaching force. A generation of teachers is retiring, and we have to do what we can to bring our best and brightest into education. That would go a long way to improving our schools. And if we help do that with “Teach,” that would mean we did a good and important job — just like our teachers.