Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Teacher of the Year (2014)

"In my class on Monday, it's Wednesday."

This line when delivered in Jason Strouse's Teacher of the Year was one of several times I guffawed during my first viewing of the movie.  It's a ridiculous line that makes no sense.  However, when it is said and how it is said - and by whowraps the line's absurdity in a rhetorical stylization I have become all too familiar with as a teacher.

The real power of Teacher of the Year is that, just like that line, it is a clever satire with a heart for the ridiculous.  Even in its most outlandish depictions of public education, there is a kernel of truth that will strongly resonate with teachers who have been in the profession for a while.

Take for instance the spineless administration, the useless guidance counselors, and pointlessly competitive teachers featured in the film.  All are cartoonish and exaggerated portrayals, but any long-term teacher will see qualities they recognize and have encountered at some point in their careers.

The film's authenticity comes from the fact that Strouse (who both wrote and directed it) is a high school English teacher himself.  Or, at least he was at the time the film was made.  As such, his writing and directing, although over the top at times in how they approach the subject matter, show a sharp insight into the joys and frustrations of public education.

The story follows Mitch Carter, an English teacher at a California charter school, who has just been named State Teacher of the Year, as he navigates the ins and outs of being an educator.  In faux-documentary style, the film reveals Mitch's personal feelings about his career as well as those of his colleagues.  We learn that Mitch is a good, dedicated teacher, one who truly deserves the honor he has been given, but he has slowly become disillusioned by the state of his profession.  When a lucrative job offer comes his way, he is torn between a career that is personally fulfilling and one that would mean more financial security for him and his growing family.

It is the film takes a serious tone towards what teachers are thinking and feeling.  Some moments, particularly during the interview segments, are cringe-worthy because they are too real.  It is in these moments that Strouse manages to capture a variety of teacher voices and attitudes, all of which ring true on some level, ranging from the young energy of new teachers to the grizzled, been-there-done-that stillness of the veterans.

Everything about Teacher of the Year shows a precision and craft that are not only needed in true satire but also make for a damn good film.


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