Show and tell: new documentary exposes reality of teaching in America

The American Teacher is a new, long-awaited film directed by Vanessa Roth. Told through the eyes and lives of real school teachers, Roth’s documentary examines the working conditions that face public school teachers across the country—conditions that drive many of them out of the profession within the first five years, and often limits their success beyond the fifth year.

Based on the book, Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers (The New Press: 2005). The book’s authors, Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari, are also producers of the documentary. As with the book, the film seeks to debunk some widely held myths about what it’s really like to be a teacher in America today. The core of the film follows the careers of four very different, very dedicated teachers. To me, the working lives of these teachers looks and feels painfully familiar.

Roth interweaves informative graphics and commentary from teachers, politicians, researchers, parents, and students to create a fuller picture of the teacher life than what most people outside the profession ever see. A recurring thread in the piece are how underpaid teachers really are in proportion not only to other similarly prepared professionals, but in relation to the immensely important work we do. The film underscores the latter point by balancing testimonials from parents and students about teachers in the film who are hurt in various ways by our working conditions, and how that in turn, hurts our children’s futures.

The film contains many touching moments, one of the most poignant being the expression by a student of how traumatic it is for the students when good teachers and leaders leave a school. This is underscored by research graphics connecting teacher retention and improved compensation of teachers at a school with increased graduation rates for students. At a time when turnaround plans and teacher layoffs have become too common and easily justified, we have lost sight of how much stability matters in a school; or maybe, we just don’t care.

That’s the biggest, saddest take away from the film—how little we really care about teachers or students, despite all our public proclamations to the contrary (many of them featured in the film). Also in the movie are clips from those who argue that teachers are too self-serving, overpaid, and inept. The examples in the film present the opposite argument: Our best teachers are almost dangerously self-sacrificing, grossly underpaid, and frustratingly overly trained for what they are allowed to do. The $250 tax credit teachers get for what they personally spend on classroom supplies, for example, is almost laughable when one considers that most teachers will spend five times that amount in a school year. For many teachers, it’s their own children and families who suffer most when the teacher commits to doing what she or he must do to meet the needs of students, particularly in our chronically and deliberately underfinanced high needs schools. The litany of marvelous teachers in this film who have left the classroom, many for reasons that could have been avoided, can be multiplied thousands of times around the country. Nevertheless, the documentary ends on two strongly positive notes:

  1. We could change teacher’s working conditions today if we really wanted to do so.
  2. Many teachers continue to give their best for their students, despite the unnecessary obstacles placed in their way.

I’m hoping that this film gets wide viewing; that the issues it raises finally get addressed with meaningful action.

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