Directed by Neasa Ní Chianáin & David Rane
School Life follows a year in the lives of two inspirational teachers in the only primary-age boarding school in Ireland. Similar to Hogwart’s with its 18th century architecture, Headfort has secret doors and beautiful woodlands. This place has also been home to John and Amanda Leyden for 46 years, and a witness to their exemplary careers.
For Amanda the key to connecting with children is the book, and she uses all means to engage the minds of her young charges with literature. In the film, we see Amanda take time to read aloud to his classes. She also prides herself in leading the drama productions at the school each year. The students appear at ease with her charming and nurturing approach to teaching. Amanda sees potential in her students; she fosters an environment where minds are to be open.
Complementary to Amanda’s down-to-earth approach is John’s. For him, rock music is just another subject alongside Maths, English, Scripture and Latin, all of which are taught in a collaborative, and at times, very funny ways. He connects to his student through dialogue as well. He is approachable, and does not ‘sugar coat’ things for his pupils. Yet he also has a nurturing side to him, which is evident throughout the film as we see him interact with the students in and out of the classroom.
Through the film, we see how each John and Amanda try to not only impart knowledge, while at the same time providing comfort to these students in their time of sadness or anxiety. These young people are away from home, which for some may be their first time ever. There is more than simply teaching that happens at Headfort — partly because John and Amanda have been at the institution for almost half a century.
During their time at the school, John and Amanda have shaped hundreds of minds — but now they must start making plans for their retirement. What will happen to their intimate and caring nurturing and educating of future generations? Once they are gone, what happens to this culture that Headfort is known for? It is a question one cannot help to wonder, as John and Amanda wonder as well. Partly bittersweet, but certainly a decision they must make at some point.
Nonetheless, School Life gives us a chance to get to know this pair of “delightfully unconventional teachers who help their young students overcome a variety of different challenges,” as Ní Chianáin describes them. The film is a reminder of how important the role of teacher is in the formative years of one’s lives. It is an entertaining and charming story that can be enjoyed alone, with friends and family as well. Definitely one of my picks from this year’s Hot Docs Festival.
School Life is currently screening at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema for a limited time. For screening times and box office details, please visit boxoffice.hotdocs.ca.