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PBS documentary eyes teacher shortage

Sunday, September 02, 2001

By Jane Elizabeth, Post-Gazette Education Writer

In the next 10 years, the United States will need 2 million new teachers. Who will they be?

Documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim's latest venture, "The First Year," ends with precisely that question. It's not a question that begs an answer, but rather a challenge in search of a positive response.

TV Review
"The First Year"
When: 9 p.m. Thursday on WQED/WQEX.

"The First Year," part of the PBS "Celebrate Education Week" programming that begins tomorrow, follows the professional lives of several new teachers in the behemoth Los Angeles Unified School District.

The 90-minute documentary was directed by Guggenheim, who also secured initial funding for the $1 million project through a grant from the J. Paul Getty Trust. Guggenheim, married to actress Elisabeth Shue and the father of two young children, said he has become concerned about the increasing shortage of quality teachers, a situation particularly intense in California.

"There's tremendous need for people who care," said Guggenheim. The documentary, along with a shorter version called "TEACH" and a Web site, has been developed with assistance from California State University - all with the purpose of recruiting skilled young men and women into the teaching profession.

Because of the documentary format of "The First Year," there is no well-paid news anchor telling the viewer about the large number of teachers who leave the profession after their first year; there is no smooth moderator blaming students' bad behavior on attachment disorders or poor nutrition or fetal alcohol syndrome.

More education programming

In addition to "The First Year," PBS dedicates its prime-time hours tomorrow and Tuesday to "School: The Story of American Public Education" (9 to 11 p.m., WQED/WQEX).

Narrated by actress Meryl Streep, "School" examines the history of public education in this country, beginning in 1770 and continuing to the present.

"All the questions that are present in public education today have existed at some point before," Streep said at a PBS press conference in January. "And alternative solutions have been experimented with and played out in our history, and we should just know a lot more about that and how things succeeded and what failed and why. That's what this does."

WQED also will air a block of programs called "Only a Teacher" from 3 to 6 p.m. on Sept. 23.

-- Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor


Instead, the film is quietly chaotic, full of black and white frames of lonely school corridors and footage of the tense and even tearful faces of very young teachers. There is one overriding message: Teaching isn't for the faint of heart and weak of spirit.

The "few good men" approach might have worked for the Marines. But will it work for the often underpaid, under-appreciated profession of public schoolteaching? Even Guggenheim acknowledges that the documentary is risky.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he expressed concern that "The First Year" might be "too dark." But the director of other true-career projects including episodes of "ER" and "NYPD Blue" said his goal was to be honest about the teachers' experiences.

"Teachers who go in with a fantasy of what it's about disappear anyway," he said.

He acknowledged that only a handful of teachers who were followed by the film crew for 110 days - about two-thirds of the school year - made the final version of the film.

Those who made the cut include Maurice Rabb from Illinois, who moved to California to teach kindergarten; Nate Monley, a native Californian who speaks excellent Spanish and is assigned to a difficult class of fifth-graders; Georgene Acosta, who teaches an older group of non-English speaking students; and Joy Kraft-Watts, a New York native who teaches a high school course called "Cultural Awareness."

Guggenheim and producer Julia Schachter followed the teachers from dawn until the late evenings, usually armed only with digital cameras and microphones - no camera crews, no heavy lighting. No doubt the lack of intimidating equipment contributed to a more candid look at not only the children, but, their parents, school administrators and the teachers themselves. A mother is caught trying to evade questions about her child's behavior; a father is seen reprimanding his son at a parent-teacher conference; overwhelmed school administrators are depicted in their most bureaucratic moments.

Though the film begins with a deliberate depiction of confusion and chaos as the teachers begin their first days of school, the focus funnels to a few small projects and dilemmas faced by each teacher. Rabb tries to get speech therapy for a sweet-faced child who can barely pronounce a single word. Kraft-Watts tries to dissuade a teen-ager from his homophobic views. Monley tries to befriend a disturbed boy whose mother died, apparently violently.

Not one of the teachers is completely successful in any of the endeavors, which leads to a question unanswered by the documentary: Will these young people keep teaching? According to the "The First Year" Web site, www.pbs.org/firstyear, all remain in some facet of education.

"I know deep inside that I'm where I'm supposed to be," says special education teacher Andrew Glass.

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