In Hanan Harchol’s first year of teaching filmmaking in an inner-city public high school, a student threw a chair from one end of the classroom to the other. Others students consistently slept through class, applied eye make-up, stole equipment and cursed Harchol. Sometimes the assistant principals walked in at the most chaotic moments, taking notes. At home, he’d wake up in the middle of the night, screaming the name of a student.
He almost quit. And he later learned that he was almost fired in those first months, but one assistant principal had his back, seeing his potential.
In his first feature film, “About a Teacher,” Harchol — who is also an artist, animator, classical guitarist and creator of a website with animated films on Jewish ethical teachings (jewishfoodforthought.com) — presents the first three years of a new teacher’s experience in a school like his, from the trial-by-fire first days to ultimate success in reaching the his students and guiding them to create impressive art.
Mr. Harchol, as he is called by administrators and students, is the subject. The film is finely acted, with Dov Tifenbach as the earnest, idealistic Mr. Harchol. Viewers can sense his good intentions, watching him slip nonetheless. While a few cast members, like Tifenbach, are professional actors, most are Harchol’s former students, now graduates, and their friends — he let them improvise the gist of the lines he wrote for them. They’re naturals. Another former student, in film school, helped shoot the film. Harchol, who wrote, directed and produced the film, has a cameo role as an assistant principal, carrying a clipboard, shaking his head when he walks into Mr. Harchol’s classroom to observe.
Scenes in the classroom, the hallways and the teachers’ lounge create the world of school, in all its challenge, possibility, daily dramas and commotion. The film feels authentic, with some humor — an “Up the Down Staircase” for a new era.
This is a film for all the teachers now teaching through distance learning, and all the parents struggling to do their own part and keep their kids engaged and up-to-date. Imagine having to deal with 30 kids.
“Nothing that I’ve done is as difficult as being a public school teacher. And nothing has taught me more in life,” Harchol tells The Jewish Week in an interview.
“I want new teachers to know it gets better,” he says.
Harchol, who was born in Israel and moved to the U.S. when he was two, was making a living as a classical guitarist, playing at the Rainbow Room and other venues when the economy crashed in 2008. About to get married and wanting to start a family, he was thinking about a secure job with benefits.
He began teaching, he says, with no specific classroom training — he had an MFA in fine arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Early on, he thought his problem was that he didn’t go to a teacher’s college, but when he mentioned that to a colleague who graduated from a distinguished program, she laughed and said it’s all trial and error.
He emphasizes that the problems are not the teachers’ fault, not the kids’ fault and not the fault of the guidelines given to teachers by the administration; the problems stem from the fact that the teachers are not properly trained on how to adapt the pedagogical methodology.
He points out that in Austria, where his wife grew up, teachers have to spend two years in the classroom with a master teacher before teaching on their own.
“Here we spend billions on education, and throw teachers into the fire.”
He says that according to New York State statistics, 41 percent of new teachers leave within the first five years, and that at inner-city public schools, the rate is higher. The teacher who had his job before him quit after one day, and the teacher before that was too overwhelmed to get around to buying equipment for the class.
Over time, Harchol came to learn how to structure a class that was engaging for the students and “to make it about them,” he says. “It’s not about the teacher, it’s about the students,” he says, noting the irony of his title. In the second half of the film, Mr. Harchol begins connecting with the kids, listening to their stories — of gangs, teenage fatherhood, abuse — and helping them turn their own experience into film.
Now, after 11 years of teaching, his students have been accepted into top film schools like NYU and USC with scholarships, have had internships at HBO and been selected as Tribeca Film Fellows. They have won almost $200,000 from films they made while in high school and consistently win top NYC prizes.
“This film is really a celebration of my students coming full circle,” he says.
During his first year of teaching, Harchol did none of his own artwork at all. But when he was contacted to do an animation for a Passover project involving Jewish text study with Rabbi Leon Morris and other artists, he agreed. So at age 39, he began seriously studying the Torah and then the Talmud, with other teachers. That changed his life in many ways, leading to his animations, which were funded by the Covenant Foundation, and his solo exhibition in 2014 at the Hebrew Union College Museum.
Several times during “About a Teacher,” Mr. Harchol is seen with his father at a diner, with the elder Harchol chiding and reassuring his son about his career choice. The scenes are reminiscent of his black-and-white animations illustrating Jewish middot, or attributes, which featured pointed conversations with his parents.
He explains that these lessons play out in the feature film, like humility (“to recognize that I know nothing, that my students are my teachers”), judging others favorably (“easy to follow this when you are engaging with people like yourself, very different when you are in the minority”) and love (“You have to give and give selflessly and then something changes. You receive much more than you give”).
Filming, which took place at HUC over four weeks, had its challenges. Some of the actors walked off the set. When one actor threatened to quit, Harchol got down on his hands and knees and begged him to stay.
“The main reason I didn’t quit,” he says, “was that I’d have to go back and tell it to my students.”
In the film, Mr. Harchol writes the word “perseverance” on the blackboard and tells the kids it’s his favorite word. He tells them it’s not the smartest kids, or the most talented ones, who get ahead, but the ones with stick-to-it-ness. Some former students made him a plaque, “Mr. Harchol persevered” and he says that he often holds it up above his head.
We all could use some encouragement to persevere right now.
“About a Teacher” is available now on various online streaming platforms. For the complete list, see aboutateacherthemovie.com.