TEMPLE TERRACE – Last fall when MaryEllen Elia, superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools, answered her phone, the voice on the other end was that of Davis Guggenheim.
The well-known filmmaker and Oscar-winning director was seeking her permission to shoot video in the classrooms of two teachers at Greco Middle School for “Teach,” a documentary he directed and co-wrote with David Wild and is hosted by actress Queen Latifah.
“At first I thought it was a joke,” said Elia, who admitted it took her a moment to realize that it was the same director whose name is attached to “Waiting for Superman,” an unflattering 2010 film about the American educational system.
In light of the film's negative light cast on the nation's schools, she expressed to Guggenheim her trepidations about giving him the go ahead on the Greco project.
But as they talked further, he tempered her concerns by explaining that “Teach” – which recently aired on CBS – focuses on the obstacles teachers face in the classroom in spite of their tireless efforts to connect with each and every student.
“I gave my consent, but believe me, I would have pulled the plug if I didn't think it was going well,” Elia said.
And to Guggenheim's credit, not once during the Greco filming process did she experience the urge to terminate the agreement.
Unfortunately, the segment did not make the final cut in the documentary. Instead the finished product is centered on teachers in four other schools in the country: one each in Los Angeles and Kuna, Idaho, and two in Denver.
The filming at Greco centered on the district's teacher-mentoring program introduced in 2009 and made possible through a $100 million Gates Foundation Empowering Effective Teachers Grant.
On several occasions throughout the 2012-2013 school year, both on and off campus, cameramen followed in the footsteps of then first-year teacher Jarryd Reid and second-year instructor Chris Pettit as they were evaluated and counseled by Trenika Thornton, a 13-year veteran teacher in the district.
“Having somebody coach me every day I welcomed with open arms,” Reid said. “It was easy for me because it was my first year and I was humble.”
Pettit, who the year before had doubts about his chosen profession, admitted he wasn't quite sure what to expect with a mentor in his classroom and was somewhat “nervous” about having Thornton critiquing his teaching methods.
But, as it turned out, their time together is a period in his career Pettit will forever treasure.
“I don't know what I would have done without my mentor's support,” he said.
Thornton was pleased her notations and suggestions were so well received by both teachers.
“I have failed if I don't see growth,” said Thornton, who noted she is charged with mentoring 14 district teachers this school year.
The mentoring program to help new teachers is credited with increasing the teacher retention rate from 72 percent to 94 percent in two years.
Greco principal Yinka Alege said it's a valuable tool in helping teachers build their self-confidence and establish a positive rapport with their students.
“Having mentors really helps,” he said. “I see experienced teachers who want to mentor – it's that powerful.”
A reception and showing of the “Teach” trailer highlighting the mentoring program at Greco, followed by a panel discussions featuring Thornton, Reid and Pettit, took place Sept. 16 at the Raymond O. Shelton Hillsborough County Public Schools Administrative Center in downtown Tampa.
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at [email protected]