Industry Voices: An Interview with On-Set Teacher Sally Rusk

It used to be said that school was about the three “Rs”: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Today’s students delve deeper into a wider range of subjects, of course, with additional studies in the areas of history, science, technology, and more. But when your classroom is on a set and your schoolwork happens between takes, your teacher’s responsibility goes even further than that.

On-set teacher Sally Rusk recently sat down with this reporter to discuss her experiences on-set.  If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to teach young performers or you’ve been interested in taking your teaching career in a new direction, Sally’s insights are something you need to read. 

OLE: How did you get your start as an on-set teacher?

SR: The convergence of several experiences - production and teaching - sent me on the path to being an on-set teacher.  I began my career in production as a writer/director/producer of marketing and training programs. Because I wanted to transition into the production of children’s program, I took classes in education. I also trained as a reading tutor in order to help my son struggling with dyslexia. I enjoyed teaching and soon realized that teaching would be a better life style fit for raising a family than the unpredictable world of production. I returned to the University of Delaware to earn a certification for teaching kindergarten through grade eight. I worked in a Montessori school, a middle school for the arts and a traditional public school. 

One day I found myself with my son on location in a beautiful field shooting a feature film. My curiosity was piqued when he was sent to the “school trailer.” I explored the role of on-set teacher and tucked the idea away until later. Eventually in 2008, with the new flexibility of an empty-nester, I was fortunate enough to work for On Location Education as their on-set teacher on the movie Doubt. 

OLE:  What types of projects have you worked on? 

SR: I have been on TV shows, on feature films in studios and on locations in and out of the country. My classrooms have been very nice school trailers, a small tent on a glacier in Greenland, the top of the Reading Pagoda, a deck overlooking a Costa Rica rainforest, and on boxes in an abandoned factory.  You never know where you will be teaching.

OLE: How does your role on-set differ from the responsibilities of a teacher in a traditional classroom setting? How is it the same?

SR: Obviously, besides the physical surroundings, there are other differences. In addition to teaching, I feel my role is to help the students balance their educational requirements, their professional responsibilities, and just being a kid. I strive to continue their progress with academics and to take advantage of the educational experiences abundant during production. 

You need to know child labor laws. The production may turn to you to advise them on the number of work hours permitted for a certain age or expect you to watch over the minor’s safety during the shoot. Knowing all the SAG rules for minors may not be required of the teacher, but it is a good idea.  Working for On Location Education is a huge advantage. They know all those idiosyncrasies.

You teach all subjects and multiple ages. One minute you may be teaching basic vowel sounds and the next reviewing how mitosis divides chromosomes or the impact of Imperialistic British Empire. Thank goodness for the internet.

OLE:  What is the most rewarding aspect of being an on-set teacher?

SR: You really get to teach. You get to work with students one-on-one or in small groups so you learn your students’ strength, weaknesses and learning styles so you can get some great interactions going.

I like having the opportunities for creative teaching in all core subjects. 

If you are lucky you get to visit some unusual locations and get to plan some amazing field trips for your students. That may be just a walk around set, a guided tour around the block, or a hike across the glacier with the Stunt Coordinator. 

You get to work with an amazing variety of talented people.

OLE: What's the biggest challenge?

SR: Just like everyone in production work, your personal schedule has to be very flexible. It is a crazy unpredictable scheduling that can turn into long hours. When you get reserved to work, you mark off that entire day on your calendar because you rarely know what the hours will be until the evening before. It’s not for everyone.

You have to think on your feet. It’s a challenge, but it’s also what I love. You never know what you will be teaching or how long your session will be with your student. Some students come prepared with lessons and work from their schools and others do not. Sometimes you have time to prep a lesson, but many times you have to get creative on the fly.

OLE:  What advice would you offer someone who is considering a career as an on-set teacher?

SR: To do it right, like all teaching positions, be prepared to put more time and energy into the job than the actual hours with the students. Be flexible.

OLE:  What misconceptions do you think people have about the role of an on-set teacher?

SR: The teacher’s role in this is often misunderstood. California requires a “Studio Teacher” to be on set (Specific title compared to an on-set teacher). In addition to being certified teachers they are child advocates (they have training similar to a social worker.) Because so many production people come out of California they think all teachers play that role.

OLE: How do you stay active in the industry?

SR: I am still writing/producing/direction so that keeps me in touch. I keep track of productions coming to my area through film office websites.

OLE: Thank you for your insights, Sally!

If you’re interested in exploring the career of on-set teacher, you’ll find more information on our web site here: