Only 50% of new teachers who work in urban areas will still be teaching
in 5 years according to statistics from the NEA. What causes this
high rate of people leaving the profession? Is it the environment,
the pay, or some other factor? Director/co-producer Davis Guggenheim
decided to examine this question by chronicling the trials and tribulations
of five new teachers who are working in south central LA. These five
are followed over the course of a year in the award winning film The
These five teachers are teaching the whole spectrum of grade school
ages, from kindergarten to high school. They come from differing
backgrounds themselves and teach different subjects, but they are all very
enthusiastic and have a sincere desire to help their students. But
during the course of their rookie year, these teachers come face to face
with many problems that were not covered in their college classes.
One of them doesn't have a classroom, and has to move from room to room
during the day lugging her books and papers in a wheeled suitcase.
Another teacher has to battle through bureaucracy and indifference to get
a student the speech therapy that is his legal right. They not only
have to face the student's apathy, but often the apathy of the student's
parents as well. Interestingly, these teachers do not despair in
the face of these misfortunes; they adapt and continue to help the children
in their care.
This cinema verité film has a lot going for it. The subject
is an important one that affects millions of people across the country.
But more interestingly, the film gives you a glimpse of what it is like
to be inside a classroom. The fly-on-the-wall style of filmmaking
works very well with this subject. This documentary has no wrongs
to be righted, or axes to be ground. You just see life unfold through
the eyes of a teacher. You see children acting out, but also trying
their best. It shows you how a caring teacher can have a great influence
on one student, but little affect on another.
This film was similar in a lot of ways to the masterful film Salesman
(1968). In Salesman, the Maysles brothers follow a group of
traveling Bible salesmen as they sell their wares from town to town.
As the movie progresses, and you follow these men day after day, you start
to feel the pressure and desperation that they feel. While there
are a lot of similarities, The First Year doesn't succeed as well
as Salesman did because you didn't get to really know the teachers
intimately. You see them inside their classrooms, and interacting
with a few of their students after school, but you rarely get a chance
to see what their life is like outside of their job. The whole focus
of the film is the interaction between these teachers and a their troubled
students. While this is interesting, I would have like to have seen
how teaching affected their personal life. I also would have like
to have seen more comments from the students. Sometimes it was hard
to understand what the kids were thinking about their teacher, and whether
the methods were effective or not.
While not a perfect film, this is still a movie worth watching, especially
if you are considering a career in education. It paints a unique
picture of what teaching is like, and what obstacles and hardships have
to be endured when instructing our nation's youth.
The two-channel audio was very acceptable for this documentary.
The dialog was easy to discern and the levels were appropriate. Since
this wasn't recorded under controlled conditions, there is some variation
in the sound quality but it is generally good. There are no subtitles.
The nonanamprophic widescreen video was slightly above average for a
documentary. This movie was recorded on digital video, so there are
a lot of artifacts in the image. Aliasing is very evident in the
backgrounds, and there is a 'rainbow' effect when the camera pans over
closely spaced parallel lines, but while these are obvious, it is not distracting.
It appears that the movie was filmed using ambient light, without any extra
illumination being applied by the filmmakers. They compensated for
this with the camera settings that resulted in white objects blooming.
When a window was in the frame it had a blooming effect also. These
defects are common with digitally shot documentaries and shouldn't discourage
anyone from viewing this film.
This disc has a few very nice extras included with it. First and
foremost is Teach, a 35 minute short that basically condenses the
movie into a shorter piece that would be good for showing to prospective
teachers. This featurette is more upbeat and direct than the longer
version is, and this makes it more powerful in a lot of ways. You
don't get to know the teachers as well, but you do experience the problems
they encounter. There is a teacher featured here, Andrew Glass, that
is not in the full-length movie. It is too bad, because he was a
very interesting case, and had the most difficult problem to deal with
in a lot of ways. This is equal, if not superior, to The First
Year, and a great extra to include on the DVD.
There is also a 5½-minute epilog that tells what happened to
the featured teachers and some of their students since the film was made.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that they all retained their desire to
teach in one form or another.
There is a commentary track that features the five teachers giving their
thoughts on the movie. While there were long spaces with no one talking,
and frequent comments about how someone looked that day, I found it to
be an interesting track. They people profiled were able to explain
why they handled situations in the way that they did. They would
explain what they did correctly, and what was wrong. The teachers
also talked about how they viewed their relationship with the students.
Though it seemed like their rookie naivety had faded, their enthusiasm
and sincere desire to help the students was still present. This commentary
track would be especially useful to students entering the teaching field.
There is also short video profiles of the teachers, a text based series
of production notes, and a "How to Get Involved" text piece that is also
reprinted as an insert.
This is a very good set of extras that adds to the value of the DVD.
This was an interesting film that made me wish there was just a little
more. A more rounded accounting of the student and teachers would
have strengthened this already strong film. The commentary was very
informative, though a little slow in parts. This is a film that anyone
entering the education field should view. Recommended.