January 4, 2018 – This charming old Irish boarding school and a couple of captivating teachers combine with some cute students for a compelling documentary about the essence of teaching and learning. This is so different from the schools I attended as a youth, it made me wonder what effect it would have had on me had I gone to this school.
The Headfort School in Kells, Ireland, housed in a converted old mansion, is quite different than a modern school built for that purpose. The small class sizes, individual attention to students and emphasis on creative pursuits such as painting and music, set it apart from typical schools.
John and Amanda Leyden, two teachers nearing retirement, maybe, are front and center in this film, along with their students. The Leydens live on the extensive school grounds in a home owned by the school that will be demolished when they leave. They talk about what they will do when they are no longer teaching. Amanda says she will continue teaching as long as she can physically do the job.
John is reserved, with a sarcastic wit, but he obviously cares about his students and wants them to succeed. Amanda is very outgoing and her enthusiasm for teaching is infectious. One of the more unusual classrooms looks like a large storage closet with graffiti-covered walls. It has a worn, lived-in look. This is where John teaches music and painting.
John forms his students into a rock and roll band. When the kids perform the old Troggs song “Wild Thing” in the movie it is just unbelievably adorable. The look of satisfaction on Amanda's face when her students successfully perform “Hamlet” as a school play is wondrous to behold.
Of course the kids get into trouble and have to be scolded, and there are other problems. A young girl breaks into tears while trying to play the drums. John and Amanda disagree over how to deal with the girl's emotional problems. Another girl, though shy and withdrawn, is a star student. John is very pleased when he sees that she is coming out of her shell and interacting more with other students.
The teachers featured in this film are very inspiring. This film makes a convincing argument that it isn't the school building that matters, or is it computers, or other fancy equipment. What makes a difference in how well students learn is the quality of the teachers and other people at the school who give them the guidance and emotional support they need.
At the end of the school year, when the students head back home with their parents, it is quite an emotional scene. One boy hugs the school's groundskeeper. Others hug their teachers. There are a lot of tears. During the school year, the teachers and staff act like the parents of the children, reflected in the Latin term In Loco Parentis which is the original title of this film.
Directed by Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rayne (“The Stranger”) this is an intimate look at a school, its students and some of its teachers and staff. This is a warm, personal portrait of these people, much like the portrait of another fine 2017 documentary about school students, “Step.” This film rates a B.
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