Davis Guggenheim Wants to Know, ‘What is a Teacher?’

Documentary king Davis Guggenheim is back with a close look at public-school teachers. He talks to Caitlin Dickson about his masochistic mission, his days as a C- student and what he thinks makes a good education.

Cultura/yellowdog, via Getty

In his last education documentary, Waiting for ‘Superman', Davis Guggenheim raised some provocative questions. Are charter schools worth the trouble? Should public school teachers earn tenure? How do you fire a bad one?

Now, Guggenheim is back, asking a surprisingly difficult question: what is a teacher?

In TEACH, the Academy Award-winning producer and director, also known for creating Al Gore’s magnum opus An Inconvenient Truth, profiles four public school teachers—two in Denver, one in Idaho, and one in East Los Angeles—as they struggle to figure out how exactly to make each one of their students succeed.

Ahead of the movie’s premiere on CBS this Friday Guggenheim talks to The Daily Beast about his masochistic mission to tackle the topic of education, his days as a C student, and what he thinks makes a good teacher.

TEACH follows four teachers in different parts of the country. How did you find the teachers that are profiled in the movie?

We spent a huge amount of our time and energy looking for our teachers—in Florida, Colorado and Idaho, and all over California. It was really about finding those characters that are interesting and also represent what this movie represents.

Why did you pick them, specifically?

I was really interested in how teachers become great teachers. We found many teachers who were already on top of their game, or teachers who were far too novice. I wanted teachers who were becoming great—teachers who were in that moment where you could see them becoming great on camera.

What inspired you to make this movie? Were you asked to make it?

It was my idea. It’s the third film I’ve done about public education. It’s become a passion of mine.

It’s kind of like self-flagellation a little bit. The fastest way to get someone to walk away from you at a cocktail party is to tell them that you’re working on a movie about public education. It’s not the sexiest topic for a movie, but to me it’s the most important thing, the root of everything that is right and wrong with our country.

I find it fascinating. I was just watching [TEACH] the other night; we were just finishing up the last touches of the color. I’ve seen it now too many times, thousands of times, but I am still so moved by these characters and what they do and their life choice. They make this huge sacrifice for these kids. When I’m inside that world, I love it. Getting people to pay attention in the right way is the hard part. Education is such a tangled web. The conversation is so loaded and complicated.

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In the film, different celebrities talk about the teachers that inspired them. Did you have a particular teacher who inspired you?

I went to Sidwell Friends in Washington. There were 100 people in my class. I was probably the 100th, the worst student in my whole class, maybe even the whole school. The best grades I would get were C- or worse. I was a shitty student, but my U.S. History teacher, Harvey LeSure, saw something in me. I can’t quite pin it down but he refused to accept what I believed, which was that I was a complete failure. He saw something in me and he made history interesting and fun.

I guess that’s one of the reasons why I became a filmmaker. I always had a fantasy—I still do—of quitting my job and becoming a history teacher.

Would you ever do it?

Yeah. I’ve been doing some teaching, mentoring some students. It’s really fun. But if I was a C- student I’d be a D teacher. It’s a really hard job. Some of us respect that job, but few people really understand the job.

If most of us were to say, ‘What does a lawyer or a doctor do?’ we pretty much get it right. There are specifics we wouldn’t get right. But most of us couldn’t describe what makes a great teacher, and that’s weird because all of us have sat in the classroom for many, many years. It’s probably because we had these extreme memories, good and bad, baggage that keeps us from understanding what the job is.

What do you think makes a good teacher?

Great teachers have a sense of mission to dramatically affect the lives of their students and how to do that involves part art and part science.

Your next movie is a documentary about Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani activist, which is also obviously education-focused...

Fuck me! Another one?! (He laughs.)

Are there other aspects of the education system in the U.S. that you want to explore?

I think the other critical piece is the parent piece. Teachers will tell you this, when a parent is really involved or not involved at all it affects success. Kids could be in the worst possible situation and, if they have a strong advocate as a mom or dad, they can overcome anything. The opposite is true, too. Teachers tell me about kids who could have a great day and then they come in the next day and they haven’t had a good night’s sleep, or a place to study, they haven’t had breakfast. Teachers are working against really tough challenges.

I suspect I’ll be doing many more films about education.

How did [the film’s narrator] Queen Latifah get involved?

Her mom was a schoolteacher in New Jersey and it had a huge effect on her life. This isn’t in the movie, but Jerry O’Connell’s mom was also a teacher at the same school as Queen Latifah’s. Our producing partner was one of [Queen Latifah’s] mom’s students, so it’s something that’s close to her. And Queen Latifah is brilliant. She speaks from her heart and she’ll bring the audience that we want.

And what is the audience you want?

Narrowing it down, I would say everybody. I think Waiting for ‘Superman’ played to a pretty sophisticated art-house audience. I want this to play to a more broad, mainstream audience. Moms and dads with kids in school. I want people to see what teaching is and rethink what this job is so they can advocate for their kids and support those teachers that need the help.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.