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Can a Filmmaker Balance Movies with a Full-Time Teaching Career?

God Bless the Child

Selected for Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces series, filmmakers Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck are currently on Kickstarter via producer Laura Heberton’s campaign to cover festival expenses for their latest feature, God Bless the Child. In the below guest essay, Machoian, who works as an adjunct professor, ponders the current dilemma in his life: should he accept a full-time teaching position that will necessarily change the rhythm of his filmmaking? Read on, and check out the film’s campaign on Kickstarter and consider donating.

“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

This is a phrase I hear thrown around often, I am pretty sure it was used in Girls two episodes ago, when Hannah decides to take a position substitute teaching after dropping out of graduate school. I remember it used in Breaking Bad, in a discussion of Walter White being a Chemistry teacher. It makes my skin boil immediately. Why? Because it’s one of the most damaging phrases out there, and… it’s not true.

Why do I consider it to be one of the most damaging phrases? Because it suggests that anyone who chooses a profession in teaching is a failure. That they couldn’t measure up, and so they did the lesser thing. In its phrasing it suggests that teaching is the lesser thing! It doesn’t actually acknowledge the huge impact teachers have on society for the better, and it discourages good people from going into teaching as a whole.

The reason I bring this up is because I am right now at a crossroad in my own life. I have been making films for the past six years, I’ve made two feature films that have and are doing well and premiered at major festivals, a handful of short narrative films that have premiered at major festivals, and over 50 portrait docs that have been recognized. All of this has been possible because I adjunct teach. By adjunct teaching, though paid poorly, I am able to make enough to make ends meet, and I spend any hours not teaching writing, producing and all around making films. Because the pay works in a way that they pay me through the summer, I have been able to take the summers off, and make two feature films, so I am “do”-ing!

I am not alone here. Countless other filmmakers that I know have gotten graduate degrees and gone into teaching. Some teach for this exact reason: it allows them to make work that they value and that may be a hard sell for financiers. Like me, they can work for free on the production so any money pulled together can go toward the film. Professional experience brings value to the class room. Others who I know want to teach, and being an adjunct allows them to build their career academically and time to do things professionally so when they do go into teaching full time, they bring a lot of value to the table. What is very rare  —  and personally I don’t know anyone who is this person — is the person that goes into teaching so they can have the summers off to lay around, who has no interest in making work or actually teaching students. Nor have I met anyone who adjuncts and does professional work as well who doesn’t like to teach.

Now the crossroad I am at is this. I have been adjuncting for five years now, and I really enjoy it, but at this point, I need to start thinking about full-time positions if teaching is something I want to do. But I also have a feature film premiering at SXSW in the next few weeks, and from a professional career stand point, I have built a solid resume and I am getting very close to reaching a point where I think I might actually be able to make a living making films. The challenge is if I take a full-time teaching job, then the filmmaking will have to slow down for a few years. When you teach full time you become so much more involved then when you just adjunct. I’ll have committees I need to be on, after-class events I need to attend with the students, service activities, and a few more hidden fees. From a filmmaking standpoint, time commitment to teaching is starting to get in the way. I am only free to make films a month during winter break, and summers, and there have been a few opportunities that I have had to pass on because the semester started and I could no longer commit to the project. To be honest I don’t know what the right answer is, but I guess the point I wanted to make is that I’m not alone in this struggle. Many of us enjoy teaching, and making films, many want to do both! So the next time you use that phrase to belittle teaching, I hope you will realize there are many of us out there that “can do, and teach!”

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