THE TEACHER tells the story of public education in a bold and authentic way - shattering misconceptions, challenging stereotypes and shedding new light on the complex and profound relationships between teachers and students.
Vance Stewart (Corey Cott), a first-year teacher and recent college grad, is young, white and idealistic. He has always been successful in everything he has done. Now he faces his biggest challenge, teaching in a New York City public high school. Vance doesn’t want to be a traditional, “authoritarian” teacher who stands up in front of the classroom and lectures all day. He wants to be a different kind of teacher – creative, original. He wants to give his students a voice, to hear their stories. But when his students question, interrupt and resist his efforts, the success Vance is sure he'll achieve never comes. Instead, Vance enters a world where his ideas and his ideals are constantly questioned.
When veteran teacher Earl Hayes (Clarke Peters) and other more experienced administrators try to step in to help, Vance is torn between his vision of the way things should be and the need to adapt to survive. But as Vance wrestles with his own morality and his fear of being discovered as just another new teacher who can hardly control his kids, his classroom becomes a battleground and his students take the heat. They finally revolt and Vance is forced to confront his own contradictions and the strength of his conviction.
Will Vance finally be able to acknowledge the truth? And will he survive as the teacher he wanted to be?
In order to convey a true and authentic New York City classroom with all of its dynamism, it was essential to the creative team that real teenage actors play the student roles. And so we went on an intensive three-month casting search across New York City public schools to find a core ensemble of students. Nearly 500 teenagers auditioned. From this, a primary cast of 13 teenage actors were selected. This group then participated in a six-month pilot rehearsal process.
Writer/Director Jeremy Engle created the screenplay using a unique process of collaborative storytelling that he developed with teenagers during his 10 years of public high school teaching and which he utilized in the creation of his award-winning short film Mosquito.
The rehearsals began as a series of improv workshops where our ensemble cast of teenage actors shared experiences from their own lives. Actors kept journals to observe and record situations and dialogue from their schools which they would bring into the rehearsal space. They then created scenes and characters. This personalized process allowed the young actors to develop a sense of community and to creatively draw from their own experiences.
Over time new situations, scenes, characters and dialogue from the original screenplay were introduced. The completed screenplay has been shaped and reshaped to fit the actors and to incorporate the work from our rehearsals.
writer/director statement - jeremy engle
I was a high school teacher for over 10 years and have worked with schools and teachers across the country as a professional developer. I have drawn upon these experiences to create an intimate story about the relationships between a teacher and his students. I hope to challenge some of the conventions of the high school film. There is no sex, drugs, gangs or teenage pregnancy in ‘The Teacher’. And there also won't be any heroes, white saviors, convenient villains, easy answers or false uplift that we often see in Hollywood films about high school. Instead, we hope to tell a more complex story that gives a unique and honest look at the challenges so many teachers face in negotiating their ideals and the challenges of the public education system.
I was initially reluctant to make a film about high school. But increasingly I have felt that Hollywood films and the current political discourse about urban highschools provide an incomplete and simplified picture. In telling the story of one teacher, Vance Stewart, I want to tell the story of a larger, almost hidden story in the crisis of public education – that schools are designed to fail teachers.
Today, while it is common to read headlines about student dropout rates, we have in many ways a more alarming teacher dropout crisis. 1/3 of New York City teachers are in their first 3 years in the profession – many just out of college -- and almost 60% leave the profession within 5 years. With the ‘The Teacher’ I want to explore the struggles, choices and compromises of these young teachers. Vance Stewart is one of the thousands of teachers who will join the profession this year, and with little support, are faced with the blunt choice of quitting or compromising their ideals.