Inner-city film teacher turns camera on himself and his award-winning students
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Director interview'New teachers, for the most part, are learning on the job'

Inner-city film teacher turns camera on himself and his award-winning students

In a movie now streaming on Amazon Prime, Israeli-born Hanan Harchol portrays the joys and failures of his early days teaching at a rough-and-tumble urban public school

  • Dov Tiefenbach as Mr. Harchol and Tibor Feldman as Daddy in this still from 'About a teacher.' (Courtesy Hanan Harchol Productions)
    Dov Tiefenbach as Mr. Harchol and Tibor Feldman as Daddy in this still from 'About a teacher.' (Courtesy Hanan Harchol Productions)
  • A still from 'About a teacher.' (Courtesy Hanan Harchol Productions)
    A still from 'About a teacher.' (Courtesy Hanan Harchol Productions)
  • Dov Tiefenbach as Mr. Harchol and Leslie Hendrix as Ms. Murry in this still from 'About a teacher.' (Courtesy Hanan Harchol Productions)
    Dov Tiefenbach as Mr. Harchol and Leslie Hendrix as Ms. Murry in this still from 'About a teacher.' (Courtesy Hanan Harchol Productions)
  • Israeli-American filmmaker Hanan Harchol's new film 'About a Teacher' is based on his first three years teaching in a challenging public school system. (Courtesy)
    Israeli-American filmmaker Hanan Harchol's new film 'About a Teacher' is based on his first three years teaching in a challenging public school system. (Courtesy)

Hanan Harchol’s first year of teaching film class in an inner-city New York public high school was a challenge. The Israeli native brought to his new job an impressive resume as an accomplished artist, musician and filmmaker of animated works about Jewish ethics. But when he became a teacher, he quickly realized he was unprepared, and considered quitting.

It’s a common occurrence among new teachers. One statistic indicates that 41 percent of New York City public school teachers quit within their first five years. Yet Harchol found some unexpected staying power. He sought advice from more experienced teachers and administrators, and it’s paid off.

Although now home due to coronavirus closures, he has been on the job for 11 years and counting, with his students thriving year after year, winning admission to top film schools such as NYU and USC, and getting their films recognized by such outlets as the Tribeca International Film Festival.

Now Harchol has made a feature film about his experiences: “About a Teacher,” which screened in its world premiere at the Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival in Redwood City, California, on March 7. Two additional Cinequest screenings scheduled for March were postponed through August due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In a decision made in solidarity with teachers under pressure, the film will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video from April 7.

“So many teachers are at home and teaching remotely and I think this is a perfect time to get the film out to them,” Harchol told The Times of Israel in an email follow-up to a telephone interview. “Additionally, with so many parents having their kids at home now all day, I think it’s important that a movie is available that shows how difficult the teaching profession is and how much our teachers do to help kids. I think teachers need to be celebrated and supported.”

In an early March interview, Harchol said that the goal of the film is to give an insider’s perspective on the hardships faced by teachers.

“The problem is, teachers are trained in their craft, but not in how to engage kids, how to structure a class in a way that engages all the students in an effective manner. Instead, new teachers, for the most part, are learning on the job. One teacher described it to me as trial by fire. I heard this from many, many teachers, the same story,” said Harchol.

Israeli-American filmmaker Hanan Harchol’s new film ‘About a Teacher’ is based on his first three years teaching in a challenging public school system. (Courtesy)

Harchol said that being a public school teacher is “the hardest job I’ve ever done and continues to be the most exhausting job.” But, he added, it is “very impactful and meaningful.”

All of this is conveyed through Harchol’s film, which shows the protagonist’s first three years of teaching. For legal reasons, he could not disclose the name of his school, and he changed the names and identities of his students. But, he said, the entire film is based on actual events.

Harchol wrote and directed the film, with primary funding coming from executive producer Sara Bloom. Actor Dov Tiefenbach plays Harchol, and in a unique twist, members of the cast and crew include some of Harchol’s former students. “We have tremendous respect for each other,” he said.

Harchol’s new school was much different from the suburban New Jersey environment in which he grew up. He was born on Kibbutz Kinneret and his family emigrated from Israel when he was a child. When he attended high school in New Jersey, he said, “there were a handful of African-American kids. Almost everybody was white.” But after becoming a teacher in New York, he said, “I suddenly encountered an environment where most of the kids were Hispanic or African-American, and also from a low socioeconomic background.”

He said that in his first year, he had to deal with disruptive students regularly. “I would wake up in the middle of the night screaming,” he recalled.

“When I started teaching, I perceived a certain toughness in many of my students, but as I got to know them I realized that it was just an exterior facade and I quickly began to recognize what amazing young people they are,” Harchol said.

In the film, trying to stay on the job, he seeks advice from fellow teachers and an assistant principal — and vents to his wife and his father in poignant scenes.

Harchol’s wife, Christina, works for the Metropolitan Museum of art, and in real life gave insights from her native Austria, where newer teachers are paired with more experienced ones to gain seasoning. In general, he said, “my wife was incredibly supportive. She saw I was losing my mind and just encouraged me to keep at it.”

Dov Tiefenbach as Mr. Harchol and Pamela Vasquez as Aisha in this still from ‘About a teacher.’ (Courtesy Hanan Harchol Productions)

There’s also the perspective of Harchol’s Judaism, which he uses to teach ethics in his animated films funded by the Covenant Foundation, “Jewish Food for Thought: The Animated Series.”

These films, on such subjects as gratitude and forgiveness, acts of kindness and judging favorably, have been shown on Jewish websites such as Aish HaTorah and URJ, as well as on NPR, and by Jewish day schools. His artistic interests are multifaceted; his artwork has been featured in a solo exhibition at the Hebrew Union College museum that traveled across the country, and he has performed on 11 CDs with 50,000 copies sold.

Harchol’s animated films draw upon the wisdom of past and present scholars, from Talmudic sages to Rabbi Abraham Twerski. They also feature humorous personal exchanges, including between Harchol and his late father, Micha Harchol, who was an Israeli nuclear physicist. Harchol’s mother, Irit Harchol, was a nurse at Hadassah Medical Center.

Dov Tiefenbach as Mr. Harchol and Tibor Feldman as Daddy in this still from ‘About a teacher.’ (Courtesy Hanan Harchol Productions)

“What I realized, even though my parents were not religiously observant, they raised me with a lot of Jewish values,” Harchol said. “Values about being kind, and also the importance of doing well in school.”

“Excellence in education, the importance of education, the importance of doing well, being on time — I try to instill all of these values in my students through personal stories,” Harchol said.

My students are my teachers, my best teachers

He noted that his students refer to “Harchol’s Life Lessons,” several of which are referenced in the film. Harchol reflects that “my students are my teachers, my best teachers.”

He said there were two things he needed to achieve to do his job better. “Number one, I needed to learn to structure the class in a way that had me talking less and having the kids doing more,” Harchol said.

A still from ‘About a teacher.’ (Courtesy Hanan Harchol Productions)

“Secondly, I had to learn that it’s not about me, it’s about the kids,” he said. “If they’re not engaging, not succeeding, not doing what they need to do, it’s counterproductive to blame the kids. I needed to learn to listen to them and figure out how to adjust what I was doing to connect with them, their perspectives, their reality.”

That comes through in the film as Harchol first begins to bond with his students one-on-one about the challenges they face, then encourages them to make documentary films about their experiences.

“Everyone has a story to tell,” he explains. “The best story is your own story, which you know better than anybody else.”

Sterling Morales as Sophie in this still from ‘About a Teacher.’ (Courtesy Hanan Harchol Productions)

Students who were once disruptive become active participants in class, pitching thoughtful film projects to their peers. “The kids have very rich and intricate lives with a lot of incredible experiences to share,” Harchol said.

Films that have come out of Harchol’s class include one student’s documentary about his dyslexia, in which he discussed how he “tried to hide it and was unsuccessful” before realizing that he “can learn in other ways — visually, kinesthetically,” Harchol said. That film was screened at Tribeca. Another student explored her experiences living in poverty while serving needy individuals at a soup kitchen run by Hebrew Union College.

Harchol particularly recalls one pitch by a student that became a film. The student lost his father when he was four years old. His father was shot and killed by a rival gang member.

Dov Tiefenbach as Mr. Harchol and Leslie Hendrix as Ms. Murry in this still from ‘About a teacher.’ (Courtesy Hanan Harchol Productions)

“The kid described to me and the class how he had to learn to be a man on his own, what it means to be a man,” Harchol said. “These are amazing young individuals telling powerful, personal stories through professional films that are winning prizes, and screening at Tribeca.”

The students continue to achieve each year. Harchol’s classes have won, collectively, almost $200,000 in film prizes, with over $160,000 coming from Disney/ABC. And in the last two years, 100 percent of his students have passed.

Harchol envisions that his film will show new teachers that they indeed work in a challenging environment, but that they can rise to the challenge of a worthy profession.

After all, he said, “A quality education for every child is, in my opinion, the most effective way to make our society more just and equitable.”

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