'You Are Heroes'

Filmmaker Brett Culp Encourages Educators to See Their Actions as Heroic and Stay Focused on the Mission

Documentary filmmaker Brett Culp has an urgent message for teachers: Stay anchored to your mission.

Documentary filmmaker Brett Culp at the Texas Computer Education Association 2022 convention in DallasThat’s much easier said than done, Culp acknowledged. But during his journey making inspiring documentaries that tell the stories of everyday people doing extraordinary things to make a difference in the lives of others, Culp’s definition of “hero” changed.

He traveled all over the globe while making his first documentary, “Legends of the Knight” (Apple TV); it’s about average-seeming people of every background imaginable who were inspired to do heroic things by their lifelong love of Batman.

“Batman was human; he had no superpowers,” Culp said Monday at this week’s Texas Computer Education Association convention in Dallas. “These people were inspired to engage in the world, to overcome adversity, and to make a difference because they loved Batman when they were little kids, and they could relate to him.”

When his team finished making the film, Culp said he wanted to allow the public to request free screenings in their local theaters as a fundraising vehicle for the charitable program of each requester’s choosing. His plan wasn’t uncomplicated: he had a budget of $0 and no staff to work on distribution or marketing. Once the portal was set up for people to request a local viewing, the rest was up to him, he recalled.

“Does that ring any bells in your world?” he asked the hundreds of educators in the audience. “You have these extraordinary visions of what you want to accomplish; you signed up for the mission, not because you thought you could get rich in education … you knew the mission, why it was important, and you wanted to be part of it. But with the budget you have, and the people you have — and it seems like education is losing more people every day right now — you must be asking, ‘How do we accomplish our mission?’”

Culp described what happened next: He decided to go forward with the charitable screenings initiative, even with a zero budget for the “marketing plan.” He and a few friends sent out messages, tweets, a press release, some emails; the subject line read: “You are invited to be a hero.”

The overwhelming response took him by surprise and reinforced what he’d seen during the filming, he said.

“Our little film was selling out theaters all over the world. Even on Mondays!” Culp said. “Every single screening had an amazing story behind why these people came together, what their mission was, who they were raising money to help.”

The widespread outpouring of participation in the Legends of the Knight charitable screening initiative was “all about the technology being a tool to empowers ignites people to live up to their best potential in the world,” he said.

“The world is filled with good people who want good things for their own lives, for their families, and for their communities — all they need are individuals, organizations, and groups who will step up first and create spaces where the light in those people can shine.”

The experience redefined what leadership meant to Culp. “My idea of leadership had been mostly about management and creating intricate systems of best practices and more intricate systems of rewards for those who follow the best practices. … Today, I define leadership as inviting people on a mission to do something extraordinary together.”

Educators, and especially teachers, must see themselves — and remind themselves daily — that they are, in fact, heroes, Culp said; they must believe and know every day that their leadership is important.

“You have to frame your work as a mission in the classroom: This is a noble quest! What you are a part of matters. We are all craving servant leadership that focuses on people, on students, on hearts and minds, on spirits, on the future; leadership that knows it’s about the young people, the families, the communities, the students whose lives we are making a difference in,” he said.

“When I think about the last two years, how many difficult things teachers have done, how many days you must have felt like giving up but you didn’t — that’s extraordinary. The fact you made it through — one moment at a time, one day at a time — to help others, you are a hero.”

It’s easy to say it and not so easy to believe it, particularly during the darkest days when teachers feel like all they do is solve one problem after another, Culp acknowledged.

“That’s how you burn out. That’s how you lose track of the mission — what this is all about anyway, and who it is really about,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important as a personal discipline every day to remind yourself why you signed up for this in the first place, and who it makes a difference to. Stay anchored to your meaningful mission.”

And hope is the “secret weapon” to staying anchored to the mission, Culp said.

“Hope is possibility. In the midst of the challenges, we imagine what could be, what’s possible,” he said. “Every step forward is built on the belief that our action makes a difference. We keep moving because of the possibility that tomorrow can be different from today.”

The job of every leader in the world is to hold space for what could be, he said, to paint a picture of what could be, and then invite others to into the mission.

Culp encouraged teachers to embrace their roles as heroes and as leaders to bring hope as possibility into their classrooms.

“So often job of leaders in your roles is not to change people, it’s simply to tell them the truth — about who they are, and who they can be, and the difference they can make in the world,” he said. “As a leader, the greatest gift you can give to others is to bring that sense of possibility, to say even in darkest times, ‘I see more, I see good, I see beauty; I see it in our community, I see it in our school, and I see it in you. And I will hold space for that good. Even when I’m disappointed and discouraged I’ll keep holding the space for the good in you because I believe.”

About the Author

Kristal Kuykendall is editor, 1105 Media Education Group. She can be reached at [email protected].