An accurate portrait of an educator would land somewhere between the extremes of Dead Poets Society and Bad Teacher. Robert Phillips and Jay Korreck hope to illuminate that middle range with Teacher of the Year, their in-progress documentary about Angie Scioli, a teacher at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh.
What started as a spotlight on the classroom and home life of the energetic Scioli—a two-time teacher of the year—took a surprising turn when she joined the protest movement against the regressive legislative agenda enacted by the 2013 N.C. General Assembly. (A recent data-driven survey by the website WalletHub ranked 2014's best and worst states for teachers. North Carolina placed dead last.)
Phillips is also a teacher at Leesville Road High, and Korreck, his former colleague, is an instructional coach at NC New Schools. They've already trimmed hundreds of hours of footage to a rough cut lasting several hours, and they're aiming for an 80- to 90-minute feature about the triumphs and travails of the teaching profession.
To raise funds for post-production, the filmmakers launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign (http://bit.ly/1DXljEG). As of Feb. 10, the campaign, which ends Feb. 19, has raised about half of its $18,000 goal. The INDY spoke with Phillips about the project's origins, its twists and turns, and the high cost of (a film about) education.
INDY: What background did you or Jay have with film production prior to beginning work on Teacher of the Year?
ROBERT PHILLIPS: This is our first film project together. My master's degree from N.C. State is from the English department, but it's also film studies. I studied under [former NCSU film studies professor] Joe Gomez, and he was my mentor and guide. Most of my experience is from the critical or theoretical side. Jay's background was more from the production side. I coordinated research and interviews on the project. Jay's the real expert when it comes to editing and things like that; he has an MFA in digital media, and that's one of the things he taught when he was at Leesville.
How did your background and affinity for film inform this project?
When I was in graduate school, one of the things I became interested in is the intersection between media and how people shape their identities. As I got further into building my teaching career, I began to explore the notion of not only how teachers see themselves but also how other people see teachers, informed by media. I uncovered some scholars on the subject, namely Dr. Robert Bulman at Saint Mary's College of California and, closer to home, Dr. Mary Dalton at Wake Forest University. I read their books and my mind was blown. That's when I thought this subject could become a short film by interviewing these folks and then doing some first-person interviews. Jay and I talked about it and said, "Let's do this."
When did you begin filming?
Jay and I began discussing this project in December 2012. I guess it was March 2013 when we filmed Angie leading a staff development session, where she said something that struck me like a lightning bolt. She said, "We all know that this profession, to some degree, is acting, but this actress was getting a little bit weary." That articulated what I'd been researching. I immediately texted Jay and told him we needed to take this film in a different direction. So we decided to drop the other subjects and make her story our theme-line.
We conducted a few interviews and then tabled things with a plan to start filming in earnest in the fall of 2013. But then everything with the General Assembly happened, and Angie texted me over the summer to say she was going to the protest, and asked if we were going. We went, and there were thousands of people marching in the streets. We were overwhelmed and felt we had a tiger by the tail.
It's morphed into something I couldn't have anticipated. Initially I was thinking maybe a half-hour short film told in a straightforward manner. But it's now something so much bigger—the story of this woman's life, with commentary informed by scholars, politicians, educational professionals, former students and family members. We've got between 40 and 50 hours of footage that we've whittled down with just her, her husband and her kids.
From a narrative standpoint, how did the events surrounding the N.C. General Assembly in 2013 and beyond alter the focus of the film?
It added another dimension that we didn't anticipate. One thing our film does that I haven't seen in other documentaries about teachers is to go behind the scenes to show what teachers do that the general public doesn't have a clue about—everything from department meetings to Angie's family life.
The legislative aspects come up throughout the film with some of the bigger protests that really galvanized Angie and led to the Red4Ed movement. That movement changes dramatically in terms of how much time it takes in Angie's life and the trajectory it takes. I wouldn't go so far to say that it plays a dominant role in the film, but it's a significant one.
Were you ever concerned that the project would sway too far into an issue-advocacy film?
That was something we were fearful of, and to be perfectly honest, when we first started we wondered if we should even be filming her [protesting]. Is it going to look like we're in league with the protest movement? The North Carolina Association of Educators approached us and said, "We'll back you." Public Schools First said, "We'll back you." But as much as I would love to have that endorsement, we have to stay above this or there will be questions as to whether we're being objective.
Where are you now with post-production and fundraising, including your Indiegogo effort?
We've held two sets of fundraisers. One was to pay for production. Post-production is something we're going to need to outsource, especially for color correction, editing, sound mixing—things that will have to be handled by people who do that day-in, day-out. And there's also Errors and Omissions insurance, which is absolutely necessary. We're probably in the middle of the entire post-production effort, and paying for that is what the Indiegogo fundraiser targets.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Reading, 'riting & revolt."