American Teacher [purposely] made its world premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival on National Teacher Appreciation Day (May 3rd), but the film shows that teacher appreciation should extend beyond a day. I usually don’t start my reviews with ‘I’ or by making it personal, but as a recent college graduate, I owe a great deal of my accomplishment to the elementary, middle, and high school teachers who taught me the basic skills I would need to make it through in a higher institution. Unfortunately, there may not be as many people who will be able to say the same in possibly just a few years from now. More public educators are exiting the field and less people are willing to fill the void. The stories brought to light and the statistics presented in American Teacher provide some frustrating but very real explanations as to why.
Based on the book Teachers Have It Easy by Daniel Moulthrop, Ninive Calegari, and Dave Eggers, the documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Vanessa Roth brings on-screen some sad realities and the struggles that teachers face in keeping their jobs—and their cool—while supporting themselves and their families. The film is narrated by a well-known name (Matt Damon), but the subjects and figures speak for themselves and can most likely speak for many other American teachers. Featuring former and current educators, faculty members, students, families of subjects, and experts on education, American Teacher particularly highlights the stories of four compelling instructors: Jamie Fidler, a Brooklyn first-grade teacher with a baby on the way; Eric Brenner, a Texas history teacher and athletic coach who works a side job in retail stores; Rhena Jasey, a Harvard grad who must leave her fifth graders in Jersey to teach at The Equity Project Charter School; and Jonathan Dearman, a popular San Francisco teacher who leaves the profession to better support his family by working in real estate.
The film is not flawless, but it goes as in-depth as it can be, and it’s certainly eye-opening and stirs some strong feelings not necessarily about the education system itself, but rather raises questions and ideas about how we can keep people teaching and how more can be created. For example, one segment compares the value of teaching in the U.S. to countries such as Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, where teaching is considered a popular and sought-after profession and training programs are funded by the government. It’s just one of many startling graphics presented. The film also gives honest insight into a teacher’s typical work day (It actually averages to about 12-15 hours) and compares teachers’ measly incomes to those of other professionals over the course of many years. It presents demographics, showing that female educators outnumber male educators and that there is a lack of teachers of ethnic minorities. Part of the reason why most males aren’t teachers is because the salary isn’t enough to support a family, which carries Dearman’s narrative and is part of Brenner’s, who is a statistic as one of many teachers who must take on a second job and whose familial relationships were severely strained by time consumption in dual occupations.
While the film tries to address the issues clearly and answers questions, most of it is left open in order to hopefully motivate change and give the viewers the opportunity to find their own answers. For me, I especially want to know why certain professionals can get three months of maternity leave while Fidler only gets six weeks, and why teaching is an unfavored profession for a Harvard grad like Ms. Jasey to get into. Why is being a teacher in America looked down upon and what can be done to make it better respected?
Their stories will make your heart drop, but their unwavering strength is uplifting and their stories need to be out there. This film is a remarkable platform for them. American Teacher goes inside and beyond the classroom and shows that quality education starts with great educators—but it must start by making things better for them.
‘American Teacher’ is part of The Teacher Salary Project.