American Teacher, the new documentary from Academy Award-winning filmmaker Vanessa Roth (Freeheld), is one of those films which makes you want to cry, or scream, or both.
The bright young public school teachers profiled in the film, from a cross-section of communities ranging from rural to urban to suburban, are people you would want your kids to spend their days with. Articulate and committed, these teachers represent the best and brightest of the education field. And yet long hours, low pay and scant respect for the profession undermine a career path that ought to be respected and revered.
"We can't ask teachers to take a vow of poverty and then expect miraculous results," Ninive Calegari, one of the producers of American Teacher, remarks. "If we want a different future for our kids and grandkids, we'll need to give this priority the time, attention and money that it deserves."
American Teacher was inspired by Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers, a book co-authored by Calegari, Daniel Moulthrop and Dave Eggers, in which teachers reflect on the pros and cons of their jobs. Calegari, a veteran public school teacher, and Eggers, whose mother had been a teacher, co-founded 826 Valencia, a nonprofit tutoring, writing and publishing organization now active in eight cities across the US. The organization galvanizes volunteers to support teachers and work with students, and has been duplicated in 30 satellites internationally.
Teachers Have It Easy was on The New York Times Best Seller List, but the authors wanted to reach a larger audience with their message about the necessity of giving teachers the value and support they deserve. Working with Vanessa Roth, they traveled all over the US, visiting many schools and spending time in many classrooms. Roth felt very strongly about the importance of teaching and points out that kids spend as much time with their teachers as with their parents. "Teachers not only affect what our kids learn in books, what they retain or how they score on tests, but how our kids look at the world, and who our kids become," she notes.
The film follows four teachers over the course of a school year, while weaving in observations from students, parents, colleagues and education experts. Each of the teachers faces personal quandaries that impact their perspectives on their profession. Rhena Jasey, a Harvard-educated elementary school teacher from a middle-class African-American family, makes ends meet by living with her parents. After several years of hard work, she finally decides to move to a charter school where starting salaries are $125,000. Johnathan Dearman chose teaching because he believes in its importance and loves it. As one of few male teachers at his San Francisco charter school, he is an important role model for his students, who adore him. But after a long period of struggling to support his family, he decides to leave teaching and go to work for his family real estate company-a job that he admits is far less satisfying but allows him to fulfill his responsibilities as a husband and father. Jamie Fidler is an energetic young elementary school teacher well along in her pregnancy. She has to take on extra tutoring to augment her salary, and when she has her baby, she gets only six weeks maternity leave, and is soon back in the classroom because she and her husband cannot afford to lose her salary, or her job. Eric Benner is a dynamic history teacher in rural Texas who earns the devotion of his students, colleagues and parents. He also coaches three sports teams. But to support his family, he must take on a second job selling stereo equipment-and the long hours away from home take a toll on his marriage; his wife files for divorce.
Despite the crisis situation that emerges from American Teacher, the film is not a rant, nor is it depressing. Rather, it has the effect of making us greatly admire these young people, and then curse a system that defeats and wastes their enthusiasm, their training and their commitment.
As Eggers and Calegari wrote in a New York Times editorial, "When we don't get what we want in our military endeavors, we don't blame the soldiers...If the results are not there, we blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition. And yet in education we do just that. When we don't like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don't like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources."
American Teacher opens September 30 in New York and Los Angeles through First Run Features, followed by community screenings across the country planned in conjunction with teachers, schools, districts, as well as local and national organizations. For more information, click here.
Wanda Bershen is a consultant on fundraising, festivals and distribution. Documentary clients have included Sonia, Power Trip, Afghan Women, Trembling Before G*D, Blacks & Jews. She has organized programs with the Human Rights Film Festival, Brooklyn Museum and Film Society of Lincoln Center and currently teaches arts management at CUNY Baruch. Visit www.reddiaper.com.