I Teach Child Stars, and I'm Much More Than a Babysitter (Guest Column)

Nickelodeon schoolroom in 2017 -Matt Babb- Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Matthew Babb

Matt Babb, an educator who's worked on the sets of Nickelodeon shows and films like 'Bird Box,' writes that teaching child actors requires rigorous training and high emotional intelligence — not to mention the moxie to protect kids from rule-bending auteurs.

For the past seven years, when I've told people that I'm a studio teacher, at least half have never heard of my profession. In the past three or so years, the other half have responded: “Have you seen the Netflix show Love?”

Yes, I have seen Love, which features — for the first time, as far as I know — a main character who's a studio teacher. It's been the talk of the studio teacher community: Finally! A character based on us appears onscreen, and people might actually know exactly what it is we do.

Yet a lot of people in this rarefied group — there are 128 members of Local 884 in the IATSE union — were less happy when they watched the show (its third and final season dropped in March of this year). Here was the most prominent ever media portrayal of our profession, and the character — whose real dream is to be a screenwriter — takes an exam for one of his students; asks one of his students to be in a movie he's writing; pitches his own ideas to directors and producers while at work; and, just for good measure, on his off time, attempts to have sex with a pair of sisters, at the same time.

I enjoy the show; I've watched every episode. What's hard is that the only popular media representation of our profession is not an accurate one.

Studio teachers have also gotten a bad rap in some news stories, including one in August in The Hollywood Reporter. The article detailed egregious actions, including the story of two men, neither of whom had proper credentials, who managed to teach on more than a dozen sets, posing as legitimate studio teachers. "You [hire a studio teacher] because you have to," one producer told THR. "I don't think anyone expects the kids to actually learn."

The behavior THR covered should be called out — it's unacceptable and illegal. But the teachers (or imposters) who are getting press are the outliers, not representative of the field. 

So I'm here to set the record straight. I have a master's in education from USC, and I've been a studio teacher on TV shows such as Nickelodeon's Thundermans and Sid and Marty Krofft's Mutt & Stuff, films including Suburban Gothic and Bird Box, commercials for Kmart and Target, and even a boy-band tour.

The history of studio teaching goes back to at least 1932, when Louis B. Mayer hired Mary McDonald to run a two-room schoolhouse on the MGM lot. She taught the child actors of that period, including Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and made sure they weren't overworked. McDonald was hired after returning from teaching in the Philippines because of her ability to teach French; she had no formal postgraduate education.

Things are different now. Most public and private classroom teachers in the United States have one teaching credential, allowing them to teach students either from kindergarten to sixth grade or sixth through 12th grade. Studio teachers must be licensed to teach every grade from K-12 in California, which has one of the most stringent educational certificates in the country. That involves getting two credentials, each of which requires one year of postgraduate work and six months of student teaching. 

In addition, studio teachers must get certified by the state to know child-labor law and how it intersects with educational requirements. Trust me, it's not an ideal "day job" if your real dream is to write or act.

All the children who work on sets are also enrolled in a state-accredited school, which they attend — either in person or online — when they're not working. Studio teachers work with that school to make sure kids are meeting all the requirements, and to ensure that they are educated at least as well as their non-acting peers.

Our job is undeniably different from classroom teaching: our students are not just students, they're also working in a highly competitive, often stressful industry, and we have to work within time constraints and in unusual situations. It's not out of the ordinary for studio teachers to travel to our students' houses to tutor them, or teach them in unique situations that would occur only in our industry — like when I quizzed a student while he was being painted blue.

Yes, we have to fit our school hours in between shots. But on the plus side, because we have fewer students, we have the opportunity to create individualized study plans and have the time to truly get to know the kids we work with.

“Because we often work one-on-one, we become family — and I care for them as such," says Adam Bennett, studio teacher on ABC's Black-ish. "One time, I gave up an entire unpaid winter vacation to help a student through college applications. When I heard my student got into their top-pick school — and more — I couldn’t stop screaming and jumping up and down. I was just so proud." In my years working on set, I have written college recommendations and speeches commemorating a student's graduation. I've been asked relationship and career advice, and was even once asked what happens to one's soul once we die.

You have this connection with the kids: you are there not just to make sure they do their work, but also to help them discover things that interest them and help them learn — so you can hit a wall when they show no interest in learning anything they do not need to learn. The might sit at their computer and fill in the bubbles, but when no lights of curiosity and engagement are lighting up no matter what you do, that feels like failure.

There have also been times when I felt regarded as a babysitter instead of a teacher. One time, a parent introduced me to her 6-year-old son, telling him I was "the one who will entertain you." Later, when I was on set with other children and he was under his mother's supervision, he fell into the hot tub in the backyard of the mansion where we were shooting (he was fine, just wet). 

In addition to our responsibilities as educators, studio teachers regularly stand up to the very people who hire us, sometimes putting our jobs on the line to protect our charges. Directors — who are in charge while cameras are rolling — aren't always enthusiastic about school and work limitations. A film or TV set is a hypersensitive place where a random noise during a take is catastrophic and a single rebuke can be emotionally devastating to a child. Studio teachers exist in this environment in part to make sure the laws that protect children are being followed, and to show the child performer that there is someone on his or her side.

The great majority of studio teachers I know feel proud to be in an (admittedly imperfect) industry that inspires, and proud to be in a union full of people who continually work at the flaws in the system and try to make the industry better. These are women and men who have dedicated their lives to teaching and protecting some of the most vulnerable people in the entertainment world. And yes, we definitely expect them to get an education.

It doesn't make for great TV drama — I can see why the producers of Love made the choices they did — or even a catchy headline. But like many things that don't translate well to the screen, it's true.

Matt Babb has been a studio teacher on productions such as Nickelodeon's Mutt & Stuff and films including A Happening of Monumental Proportions.