An inner-city teacher reveals how he survived his first years in the classroom
Hanon Harchol's inspiring drama is featured in a new film on Amazon called 'About a Teacher.'
Hanan Harchol's high school film class is, like most schools in America, now meeting remotely. Each weekday, they gather virtually in a Google Meet room to discuss the film projects they are working on. Improvisations had to be made. Tripods and high-end cameras available on campus have been replaced with smartphones in quarantine. "My classes are going very well," Harchol told From The Grapevine from his home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. "We're still having daily discussions and analyses, and I have nearly 100% attendance rate."
The social distance hasn't stopped Harchol from reaching his students. Which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows the 50-year-old. Overcoming pedagogic adversity is a common theme for Harchol, as is evident in a new movie based on his career called "About a Teacher." The film – which had a brief theater run before the coronavirus outbreak – will land on Amazon on Apr. 7.
Harchol's life was ripe for the big screen. He was born in Israel on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, and moved with his family to the U.S. when he was just a child. His dad was a nuclear physicist, his mom a nurse. He attended Rutgers in his adopted home state of New Jersey and then got an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He became a classically trained guitarist, selling more than 50,000 CDs. He performed at fancy Manhattan eateries like the Rainbow Room and Tavern on the Green. But then came the financial crash of 2008 and his gigs dried up.
"So I asked myself: What's a really easy job that I can do and get health insurance and be secure? I decided I would become a high school teacher and at 2 p.m. I'll get out everyday and make my own artwork until 10 p.m.," he said. Things didn't turn out as rosy as he expected. He got a job at an inner-city school in Manhattan, teaching mostly underprivileged students from minority populations. As much as he tried, Harchol could not figure out a way to reach his students. In turn, they acted out and barely paid attention. Those first few months, he recalled, "was like going through post-traumatic stress, like I was going through a war."
In the film, the role of Harchol is played by actor Dov Tiefenbach whose meek, wiry frame belies a person with little confidence in himself. The students walk all over him. Harchol thought about quitting. Indeed, according to a recent report, 41% of all New York City public school teachers hired in the 2012-2013 academic year left the system within five years.
But Harchol persevered. The film tells his journey – from a deer in headlights to a teacher inspiring his students – with grace and compassion. "One of the reasons that I made the movie was because I felt that none of the teacher movies that I was watching was showing an accurate reflection of what I was experiencing in the classroom as a new teacher," he told us. "Either they showed a teacher with their feet up reading the newspaper, being a lazy slob, or they would show something like 'Dangerous Minds,' where she goes in and teaches them karate, and they go from being in gangs to suddenly being really successful kids."
Harchol's experience, as shown in the fictionalized film, is more nuanced. "I had to learn two things," he admitted. "I had to learn how to to structure the class in a way that is engaging for the kids, and allows me to talk less, and have the kids doing more. And the second thing that I had to learn is that it's about the kids. So instead of thinking that they need to listen to me, I had to figure out a way to really listen to them and be curious, genuinely curious about who they are. And I needed to be humble, and I needed to show that I'm interested in them and curious about them and connect with them and empower them."
Mr. Harchol's students – who began not knowing much about microphones and film theory – eventually went on to win nearly $200,000 in prizes for their movies and were accepted into some of the finest film programs across the country.
Around 2015, Harchol started working on the movie version of his life's story. He spent summers and winter breaks working on the film, and finally filmed it on location at Hebrew Union College in Manhattan. Sarah Bloom, a founder of a series of charter schools, was an early investor and served as a producer. "She thought what I was trying to do in terms of showing an authentic experience of what teachers are going through was an important message."
Many of his former students came back to act in the film and were part of the crew. "It was the most heartwarming, fulfilling thing to see how kids came back and supported my work. It was just so amazing," Harchol said.
Looking out the window of his New York City apartment at the empty streets below, Harchol becomes contemplative. "Maybe the title – 'About a Teacher' – is meant ironically because I had to actually learn that it's not about me," he said. "It's very easy for people to look at this and say, 'Oh, look at how wild and crazy the students are acting.' That's not the message of the movie at all. The students have the disadvantage that they are in an environment where they're in a classroom with a teacher who doesn't know what the hell he's doing. He might know about filmmaking, but he knows nothing about teaching."
He hopes the movie will not only shine a light on the problem that exists in public schools across the country, but also show a solution. "It's not the students fault. It's the system that needs to prepare teachers better," Harchol said. "And the teachers should be seen as heroes."
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