The First Year
New Video // Unrated // $24.95 // April 27, 2004
Review by John Sinnott | posted April 22, 2004
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The Movie:

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 First Year.

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 DVD:


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.

The Extras:

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 5˝-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.

Final Thoughts:

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.

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