Those Who Can

I have been exploring what motivates different people to pursue work as teachers. This interview and my last post represent two interesting paths and experiences of peers of mine — a young generation of teachers.

This interview is with an old friend from my home town. He currently teaches film to 7-12th grade students in Flagstaff, AZ at Flagstaff Arts & Leadership Academy. We connected to discuss how he came to teaching.

LM: I wanted to open by pointing out that you’re one of my older friends, that I’m still in touch with, who wasn’t a homeschooler! So, I’m wondering – be honest – when you met me at sixteen…was I a weird homeschooler? Did I fulfill the stereotype?

Brent: Ha ha! – You were hard to read sometimes. There were times when the conversation seemed to be a bit much for you, and you’d just turn and leave. It was confusing but endearing at the same time, but I never had a “she’s weird” reaction.

Honestly, I’m pretty sure you’re the first home schooler I’ve known in any substantial way. I wasn’t aware of a stereotype.

LM: There’s always push-back to the idea that homeschoolers end up being socially awkward, but I know I felt socially awkward when I met you at sixteen! I just thought your impression would be fun to hear.

So, you teach film at a charter school in Flagstaff, AZ. I’m wondering at what age you were exposed to film and filmmaking and how it became your passion.

Brent: Wow, I love being interviewed!

So, my dad and his friends made a handful of their own “films,” which included re-dubbing soap operas with sexual innuendo, and music videos they called “woodys” where they’d paint faces upside down on their chins and then sing along. I saw these very early on and wanted to make my own. I can’t pinpoint the actual date, but there are some of my own videos from as early as eight years old. So, from eight to forteen, it was something fun to do. At fourteen, I saw “Pulp Fiction” and decided that making movies was what I wanted to do as a career.

LM: That’s awesome! I didn’t know your dad did that when you were a kid.

Did you like school, growing up? Looking back, was it interesting and relevant to your goals?

Brent: I loved school. Or at least I never hated it. There was never really a time where I struggled.

I don’t think school impacted my career goals until high school, where I became a “theater nerd” – taking acting classes and then, senior year, I got to direct my first play, and it was an amazing experience. I learned a lot during that time and felt convinced that directing was the goal. College was where the real impact occurred. For the first time I was taking FILM classes and making films in a more professional and earnest way. I applied twice to the Film Production program at USC, and got denied twice. The second time, I hedged my bets by applying to the Film Studies program as well – and got in. I fell in love with Film Studies and felt I was getting a much stronger education there. Upon graduation, my goal was still to make films. But my post-graduation activities did not yield much fruit with screenwriting or film production, and I decided to go back to school to be a teacher.

LM: It seems that some teachers are interested in education itself, interested in learning, and they become teachers to participate in that process.

But then there are teachers like you, perhaps, who have a primary passion in a subject, in a field, in a pursuit or craft. This is the type of teacher who teaches as a way of incorporating that original passion into their lives, and engaging with others about that interest.

Does that sound like a fair representation of how you began teaching film?

Brent: That’s correct. I think the interest to teach was never completely foreign to me, but the decision to pursue this path certainly came from a desire to DO SOMETHING with my passion, even if it wasn’t filmmaking itself.

I had two theater teachers in high school who were awesome. There was a real connection there, not just a social contract that they would talk and I would listen and learn. That different kind of teacher-student relationship always appealed to me. When I decided to drop my focus on trying to write or make films and become a film teacher, it did feel like a compromise, but I don’t feel that way anymore.

LM: Yeah, I think that the saying “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” is a terrible cultural trope. I think it’s actually kind of destructive…

Brent: I think the reputation of teachers in America is interesting. I think there is a discrepancy between our job and how the public perceives our job. It feels to me like the “ugh, school” attitude that most students have stays with them as they become adults and parents. I’m lucky to be at a school where exceptional things are being done.

LM: We were talking recently about how different teaching an elective is compared to teaching a required class. What do you think would have been different if you had been allowed more self-direction as a student? Is this something you think about, working in education?

Brent: I don’t remember being allowed to self-educate much in school, except for that directing gig as a high school senior. I think I would have been mature enough to handle that kind of independence, and it would have allowed me to thrive.

Also, you learn much more when you’re asked to teach someone else. A lot of my work now involves giving my students a foundation and then letting them work on their own.

LM: Before teaching film, you went to South Korea to teach English for a year. Did you get a sense of how the Korean school system is different than the American school system?

Brent with students in South Korea, 2010

Brent with students in South Korea, 2010

Brent: Korea was a fascinating experience for many reasons. The education system there is intense, and it was quite shocking at points. As a nation, they are OBSESSED with learning English. The demand for native speakers like me to teach there is incredible–I was paid handsomely and treated like a rock star.  

The motivation for learning English is mostly based on Korea’s desire to be a major global economic player. But Korean culture is extremely homogenous and there was a strong resistance to interracial relationships and to  the adoption of American ways of living.

The stereotype of Asian kids being forced into academic excellence is basically true — what surprised me, though, were the negative effects. Almost every student goes to a hagwon (academy) immediately after finishing their regular school day. The hagwon are often centers for specialized education in whatever subject or career the student (or the student’s parents) want — for most high schoolers, their hagwon education was solely focused on obtaining entrance to a university, which can be amazingly competitive. Between regular school and the hagwon, some students would study for 12 to 14 hours every day. The school I was placed in was in a lower class neighborhood, and it seemed to me that the pressure on these students was even greater than that on students from wealthier neighborhoods. The lower class parents want their kids to succeed, to pull themselves and their parents out of the slums. This pressure on kids often found release in bullying and physical violence — there was a fist fight just about every week in my class, including full-swing punches and lots of crying — all with kids between 3rd and 6th grade. As a joke, I sometimes likened myself to a warden instead of a teacher. What is not a joke in the slightest is the rising suicide rates for Korean youth. Korea has one of the highest suicide rates, for kids and adults, in the developed world. And the biggest reason for this is the pressure that they put on themselves to succeed.

LM: In the US we hear that teachers in Korea are seen in a more respected and positive light. Did you see that?

Brent: On the one hand, in Korea teaching is a very honorable profession, and teachers are highly respected. But an interesting thing about the Korean education system is that teachers would only work at a school for four years before being transferred to another school. As far as I could understand, this was done so that teachers would not become complacent or take their positions for granted.

LM: Getting back to the charter school where you’re working now, what do you think about Common Core? How has that impacted your work?

Brent: We’re adjusting to it as we speak. You can imagine that imposing any kind of strict standards on an art school is going to meet some resistance. Being a charter school, we’ve been able to modify those expectations the best way we can, which is not a lot but way more than a regular public school could. We’ve found a way around more standardized testing with a portfolio system designed to show student growth and achievement the same way a fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice test would try to.

LM: If you could see one systemic change in our public education, what would it be? (Or maybe you feel like the system is good and doesn’t need to change?)

Brent: Ok, this is probably unrealistic, but I’d love for education to involve more gray areas. Obviously, math and science need definitive, 2+2=4 types of knowledge, but there’s so much in history, literature, social studies, the arts, etc., that could be much more interpretive. Teaching American History, for example, should be more about “this person thinks this and that person thinks that,” and not simply “this is what happened.” I learned very early in middle school, through listening to a lot of punk rock, that things aren’t so simple and that what people tell you is “truth” is subjective and often misinformed. Allowing for interpretation in education might produce people who have to think for themselves, not just xeroxes of outdated perspectives.

LM: I would say taking that same approach even in math and science — showing the scientific process, the beauty and intricacy of mathematics at work around us…

I hope that kind of change isn’t unrealistic. You know, kids today have the knowledge of the world on their smart phones. It’s a time when education should be about critical thought and synthesizing all the information that’s around us.

Anyway. Thanks for talking, dude…

Brent: My pleasure, thanks for inviting me!