Americans entrust educators with one of the most important tasks in our society.
Yet, when it comes to diagnosing the problems that ail our public education system, teachers are the last ones we ask, says Winston-Salem resident Denise Agard. She hopes her new documentary, “I Teach: Voices of Public School Teachers,” will change that.
“I’m hearing all of this stuff on television. Every time I turn around, teachers are being denigrated,” said the Queens, N.Y. native who spent 30 years working in public education before her retirement in 2008. “I’m not really hearing teachers being asked, ‘What are the things we need to do differently?’ So basically I decided I’m going to to do this film.”
Though the words education reform are on the lips of seemingly every politician these days, Agard, a mother of two, said educators are too often excluded from the conversation, and educators as a group don’t always feel empowered to speak their minds about what the nation’s public education system needs to be successful.
“The reason why I decided to make this film is because I realized, really in my first year of teaching, that teachers do not have a voice. I found them not being willing to speak up for things,” said Agard “…What I really want the film to do is be a springboard for conversation. I want people to have a better sense of the issues, and I believe the teachers are the ideal people to give a better sense of what the issues are.”
“I Teach” is the sophomore effort for Agard, who holds a Master’s of Fine Arts in filmmaking from the University of Southern California, and her first project as an independent filmmaker. She also created a documentary on the skin condition vitiligo more than a decade ago for a public access television station in Maryland.
Her new project explores the stories of nine educators with nearly 200 years of combined experience, Agard said. She spent two weeks crisscrossing the country last year, gathering the points-of-view of educators in Maryland, New York and Texas.
Veteran educator Karen White is among those featured in the film. White, an assistant principal in Salisbury, Md., said she was drawn to the education field 28 years ago because it offered an opportunity for her to make a tangible difference in the lives of others.
“Knowing that there is a need and knowing that I can fill that need and seeing results … that’s been my primary motivating factor,” she said.
But things have changed, so much so that White plans to leave the field when she is eligible for full retirement in about two years
“…The constraints are getting too much for what I am willing to deal with,” she said.
White is not alone. The teaching profession has experienced a 50 percent increase in turnover within the last 10 years; one third of new teachers leave the profession within the first three years and 46 percent leave within five years, Agard said. While it is not meant to “fix” the public education system, by asking some tough questions and demanding blunt, candid responses, “I Teach” provides a thought provoking commentary on the state of education in America, Agard said.
“My criteria was real simple: I need you to be honest,” Agard said of the teachers featured in the film. “I wanted to give teachers a voice. My goal when I found these teachers was not to have this film say what I wanted it to say, but to say what these people wanted it to say. I think they represent the belief systems of what is a national problem … the retention of teachers and the improvement of the quality of education.”
White said she jumped at the chance to speak her mind in the film.
“I thought it was awesome. I know that Denise has a passion for film, and I thought that the questions that she was asking were the questions that educators have wanted someone to ask them for a long time,” said the mother of one.
After more than a year as a one-woman crusade, a chance meeting with an Apple computer employee landed Agard a co-producer: 26 year-old Mark Hutson. Hutson, a native of Alabama and the son of an educator, was helping Agard navigate the editing software she had purchased and said he was immediately drawn to the film.
“I knew after the first five minutes of watching Denise’s cut that I had to be involved. It was a story that I felt we need to keep talking about,” said Hutson, who has a background in television and film. “It really hit home because of my mom. She was always extremely passionate about her job, and she’s gotten really disheartened about the fact that in the last 10 years or so, her job has become increasingly stressful and she feels sort of under appreciated.”
Hutson is hopeful that “I Teach” will bring a fresh perspective to an age-old debate.
“Education reform is something that we’ve kind of been constantly doing. It’s not a new thing…It’s on the forefront now because it’s highly politicized. It has a lot to do with our standing as a country,” he remarked. “What we have to do is change the culture of education in America. We have to start re-valuing our education system.”
Agard and Hutson are currently seeking donations to complete the film, with the hope of having it ready to tour the film festival circuit in 2013.
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