Surprise: Teaching Is Hard


Poster for THE TEACHERS' LOUNGE (2023)

If you think teaching is easy, you haven’t spent enough time with teachers. 

I thought once I might want to be a teacher—that is, until I spent time in the classroom. I knew I’d burn out quickly, and kids don’t need another bored, bitter instructor. I graduated a few years before the pandemic, and when I heard friends and acquaintances in education describe the challenges of virtual learning, politics, and culture wars that accelerated in 2020, I knew I’d never have been able to withstand it. Post-COVID, several of my friends with education degrees decided it was time to pursue other careers. And while I’m no expert on German culture, the more I read about their national debates, controversies, scandals, economy, and historical rethinking, the more they sound like the conversations we’re having in the U.S. Among other issues, educators there are dealing with too few teachers, not enough funding, classroom violence, and growing dissatisfaction with public schools.

Teaching has always been hard, but this film reminds us raising children in the 21st century comes with unique challenges.

Fortunately, you don’t need all of this context to hang out in The Teachers’ Lounge, which hit the film festival circuit this fall (including the St. Louis International Film Festival) and was nominated for Best International Feature at the upcoming Oscars. The episodes compiled in the film may sound mundane (Classroom management! Math tests! Student government!), but the tense score gives itself away: This is a thriller forcing us to watch one worst case scenario after another.

You might be thinking, “I still have nightmares about forgetting to study for a test—why would I pay to experience this feeling awake?” If so, consider that the the only respite from your nightmares is waking up from that story torturing your mind, while The Teachers’ Lounge is a story you won’t want to leave unfinished. Middle school teacher Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch, who would fit right in on the list of Best Actress nominees) starts the year at a new school principled, self-sufficient, and optimistic. She and her students have a real connection, but when accusations of stealing begin, it poisons relationships across the entire building. It only takes one small incident to escalate into a situation undermining her authority in the classroom and send the school simmering closer and closer to a boiling point. The once passionate Ms. Nowak becomes timorous, second-guessing and isolating herself. As for the rest of the school? If only they could keep it together as well as she does. 

Leonard Stettnisch as student Oskar in the classroom in THE TEACHERS' LOUNGE (2023)

If you’ve ever survived an anxiety-fueled environment driven by politics, prejudice, or, frankly, middle schoolers, The Teachers’ Lounge will ring true. (On an everyday basis, is there anyone crueler than a 12-year-old driven by vengeance?) Teaching has always been hard, but this film reminds us raising children in the 21st century comes with unique challenges, including the ones specific to Germany mentioned above as well as global ones such as the surveillance and out-of-context voice recordings that come with smart phones. The heart of teaching, however, is still the same. Ms. Nowak is trying to break through with one student (Oskar Kuhn), hoping to give him the best chance for his future while trying to fill in her knowledge gaps about his life outside of school. Teaching is hard, yes, but with instructors like Ms. Nowak, the next generation has a chance.