To most, Robert Phillips is an English and Cultural Media Literacy teacher, but to those who have had the opportunity to learn more about him, he’s also film director and the co-creator of the documentary “Teacher of the Year”.
Phillips’ story is different than one would expect considering who he is today. He was a first generation college student who attended the University of North Carolina at Pembroke on a combined basketball and academic scholarship. According to him, he was a terrible student in high school but still managed to get by.
“I was terrible — I was a miserable student. And I’m being way too hard on myself; I was very mediocre, very uninvested in learning for learning’s sake. I thoroughly enjoyed school–with that said, mostly because of basketball. I was way into sports, and that was my opportunity to be successful in an arena where I was pretty comfortable,” said Phillips.
While at Pembroke, Phillips followed his father’s advice and started a business major but decided to switch to an English teaching degree. His senior year, he decided to take a step back and took the fall semester off, also choosing to not play basketball.
“The main reason why I decided to take off that fall semester is that the previous year I had stopped playing basketball. It was a huge part of my identity… pretty much from middle school on…when I let go of sports, to be perfectly honest, because it was such a huge part of my identity, and that part of my life was over. I need some time, it that makes any sense…that gap semester from that summer through that fall was awesome,” said Phillips.
Phillips was involved in school activities but did not begin to focus more on his academics until he dated a young woman who encouraged him to study more. It was then that he began to realize the value of learning and education.
“Once I altered my poor study habits, my experiences as a student changed, and I found myself becoming invested in the intangible act of intellectual self-improvement, and I’ve been on that journey ever since,” said Phillips in an email.
He went on to start a master’s degree at Appalachian State University but left after a year because he was “miserable” in the English program. After leaving Appalachian State, he became a teacher at Green Hope High School when it first opened.
Phillips taught at Green Hope for a number of years, then came to Leesville in 2006. It was when he was at Leesville that he decided to go to NC State University to complete his master’s degree and ultimately decided to concentrate on film.
“Film had always been something I wanted to do, but initially that was not what my designation was. And then I said this is what I want to do, this is my chance, and so I jumped on it and it was probably the best decision I’ve ever made,” said Phillips.
Despite having two interests that might seem very separate, Phillips has found many ways to bring his interest in film and teaching together. One of these ways is his Cultural Media Literacy class, a class designed to teach students about media and its relationship with society.
Considering that Phillips combines teaching and film in his classes, it demonstrates his belief that there is an emotional connection between the two.
“[Teaching and making a movie are] very similar, and it’s only started to happen recently when we’ve been showing some of our filming process to audiences that I’ve sort of made this connection of similarity. When you design a lesson for students and you hope that they’re going to get something out of it and then that moment when you realize…when you kind of see the light in their eyes and you know that student is getting the lesson…it’s very similar to when you’re in a screening session and you’re showing clips of your film to an audience and they laugh when you thought they were going to…and it gets the reaction that you planned…the reward is very similar it’s…emotional and intellectual satisfaction,” said Phillips.
In the time Phillips has been teaching at Leesville, many students have experienced the reward of his teaching style. Phillips teaches in a way that can be frustrating at first to many students, but many find his class to be beneficial.
“At first I actually really didn’t like [AP English] because [Mr.Phillips] just answered everything with a question…but he…helped us grow…because we had to think for ourselves rather than just being told,” said Sydney Wilson, a junior who had Phillips for AP English III last semester.
Furthermore, Phillips gives students many lectures, mixed in with media and text examples, with the intent of creating conversation and allowing students to think for themselves. His student teacher from last semester, Tyler Bunzey, who actually had Phillips when he was in high school, has an insightful view of Phillips’ teaching style.
“Mr. Phillips’ teaching style is absolutely confounding to most students. Students coming to him with questions will most likely receive a thoughtful question in response, which drives most students crazy. However, that frustration—and yes, occasional annoyance—ignites a desire in most students to find an answer. Students who engage with him in this manner leave his class with the ability to think independently and solve complex problems,” said Bunzey in an email interview.
Despite his teaching style being a new and potentially frustrating experience, many students enjoy Phillips’ class.
“His class was probably my favorite even though it was the hardest class I had last semester, but that would probably be because I got a lot out of it. So even though it was a lot of work, it was the kind of work that I think a lot of people enjoyed because it was clearly making everyone’s head work a lot harder,” said Nola Baldwin, another former AP English III student.
Besides teaching, Phillips’ latest project is the documentary “Teacher of the Year”. He began working on the project in 2012, with Jay Korreck, another Leesville teacher. The documentary is a crowdfunded project that follows Angela Scioli, a history teacher at Leesville, to display what teachers must do and how they must “perform” for society. Phillips and Korreck plan to send “Teacher of the Year” to many different festivals once post production is complete.
Phillips will continue to combine his love of film with teaching in years to come. However, right now, Leesville students enjoy the experience of learning from a real life filmmaker.