, directed by Vanessa Roth and Brian McGinn, opens with the sound of a bugle that is interrupted by an explosion somewhere in a Southwest desert. In the eighty minutes that follow, this documentary tells the plight of contemporary public school teachers in America, attempting to blow up the notion that teachers have easy, good-paying jobs. Through the stories of five teachers from across the country and the voices of politicians, policy makers, academics, and educators, the filmmakers argue that teacher quality is paramount in the quest for better education and that in order to attract and retain high-quality teachers, we need to reestablish teaching as a profession that is well-compensated and respected. While recent films such as Waiting for “Superman”
(2010) highlighted the role of unions and bureaucracies in protecting low-quality teachers, American Teacher
emphasizes the value of retaining high-quality teachers and the need to attract more to the profession.
The filmmakers highlight the tensions that exist between teachers’ love of and dedication to teaching and the financial realities of trying to raise a family on a present-day teacher’s salary. We hear these struggles in the vignettes of four teachers from Brooklyn, Texas, New Jersey, and San Francisco and in the short clips from the video diary of a fifth teacher in Denver. Through these sketches, we see the lives of teachers as they span what appears to be at least one full academic year.
We first meet Jamie Fidler, a first-grade teacher in Brooklyn who is the daughter and sibling of teachers and who is an expectant (and eventual) mother. Next we move to Keller, Texas, where images imply a rural, economically constrained community and where we meet the self-made middle school social studies teacher and football coach, Erik Benner. We then visit Maplewood, New Jersey, where Harvard graduate Rhena Jasey is an elementary school teacher bucking the trend of other elite college alumni by serving as a certified public school teacher rather than in Teach For America. Our final protagonist is Jonathan Dearman, a father of two and a former high school social studies teacher turned real estate professional in San Francisco. Interspersed among these four dominant voices is Amanda Lueck, an elementary school teacher in Denver whose video diary entries often express frustration, fatigue, and resentment toward the long hours she works.
The film is at its best when highlighting the long hours and emotional energy that go into being an effective teacher. It leverages the inspirational effect that these teachers have on their students by interjecting excerpts of interviews with students, parents, and administrators who know them well. The explicit inclusion of the underrepresentation of teachers of color resonates and further complicates the narrative of what it means to be an effective teacher, as does the inclusion of the historical arc of teaching as a gendered profession. Well placed, too, is the clip of researcher and professor Eric Hanushek, who is skeptical of merely increasing school resources but who, in the film, cites recent research on the economic benefits of good teachers. And a realistic accounting of a teacher’s time is also refreshing to anyone who has performed this work.
As with many documentaries, American Teacher
has an agenda. The choice of statistics is selective, and at times the film lacks appropriate context, especially in making comparisons among the United States, Finland, South Korea, and Singapore. It is similarly less convincing in its silent, lingering shots of these four teachers as they appear to ponder the pain, confusion, and conflict in their respective realities. Their stories are raw enough without this dramatization, and viewers are likely to be left wondering who the filmmakers considered their intended audience to be. Judging from its limited release and emphasis on local community screenings, the film appears to be a vehicle for a grassroots effort to shift the discourse around what changes are needed for American teachers. To those who have served in our public schools, little will be surprising in the film, but it may serve as a hefty counterweight to the current emphasis on removing low-quality teachers, which may often leave people wondering whether there are any good teachers at all.
By the end of the film, we are able to appreciate how the joys, constraints, and challenges of the lived experiences of these five teachers continue to inform their choices. Jamie remains committed to teaching, despite challenges, and intends to continue into her thirteenth year. Rhena, while continuing to teach, has moved to an innovative and better-paying charter school. Jonathan is working as a real estate professional but continues to express the sense of loss he experiences at having left teaching. Amanda is on unpaid maternity leave and is unsure whether she will return to the classroom. And Erik—who after fifteen years of teaching now earns $54,000 per year, is forced to work a second job, and has a personal life that has been torn asunder by the economic limitations of his teaching salary—remains steadfast in his commitment to continuing as a teacher in the public schools.
As the soundtrack crescendos in the upbeat musical loop that undergirded the film’s opening credits, the waning minutes of the film present reminders of the dedication and persistence required to be a teacher by titans in education, including Stanford professor of education Linda Darling-Hammond and pioneer in the field of teacher effectiveness Charlotte Danielson. Even Amanda in Denver, who we previously heard speak to the long hours and lack of resources, seems energized by reminding herself of the joy she derives from working with her students. The clincher is a closing quote from former teacher Jonathan Dearman, who states that teaching is “the best job in the world, no comparison.”
We are left to juxtapose the economic realities presented with these inspiring thoughts and reminders of the power and importance of teachers. In the end, the filmmakers get it right. Though the message is not subtle and the presentation is heavy-handed, perhaps in the current policy and political environment it needs to be that way.