Wednesday, September 28, 2011

'American Teacher': A Film on Education That Gets It Right

Published on Wednesday, September 28, 2011 by The Answer Sheet Blog

Every policymaker should be required to see the new film “American Teacher,” which powerfully reveals the huge challenge that the country faces in attracting and keeping the best teachers to help improve public education.

Director Vanessa Roth’s new film, co- produced by Dave Eggers and Nínive Calegari and narrated by Matt Damon, notes that while “most people agree that a teacher is the most important in-school factor to school success,” you’d never guess this from what many teachers experience in our public schools.

Instead of focusing on this problem we’ve gotten lost in misdirected answers and foolish debates about improving public education. The answer is charter schools! The problem is charter schools! Blame the teacher unions! Fire bad teachers! And some movies, like “Waiting for Superman ,” have fallen into the same traps.

American Teacher takes a different approach. It compellingly shows how we lose many of our best teachers, and suggests how we can change this pattern.

The film follows a handful of teachers, each dedicated and highly effective both pedagogically and interpersonally. They are:

  • A first-grade teacher in Brooklyn who works 10 hours every day and who spent $3,000 of her own money to provide classroom supplies during her first year. (Ninety percent of public school teachers have been found to spend their own money to provide necessary supplies.)
  • A middle school teacher, who has 40 desks in her packed classroom along with with students sitting on cabinets. She says, “I feel like I give everything I have, but it’s never enough. …And if I had three of me I might be able to get it done.”
  • A gifted social studies teacher and coach in a Texas school who has a starting salary of $27,000 and eventually has to take a night warehouse job to help support his wife and two children.
  • A gifted young African-American teacher, with a bachelors degree from Harvard University and a masters degree from Columbia University, who has to explain to family and friends why she chose teaching. “You could do anything! Why teaching?!”

There is no better encapsulation of the problems facing teachers than the story of this teacher, named Rhena, who also exemplifies the best practices and habits of a great teacher. She has great energy, knows her subjects, motivates kids, and works closely with their families. She makes it clear just how challenging and complex teaching is today:

“So little of what I do is …instructing in the classroom. So much of what I do is in the role of a counselor or a social worker or a parent when they need one, or a friend when they need that. Dealing with all of those other social and emotional and personal issues so we can just get down to the work of learning is a huge part of what… many teachers do that I don’t think people always realize.”

Certainly most policymakers don’t.

Most good teachers work 10 hour days that include early morning tutoring or planning and afternoon tutoring, coaching or club advising. Many have papers to grade at night. They average close to 50 hours a week at school and 15 hours after school. Many work on weekends. And more than 30% also have after school jobs.

The stories of these teachers are in some instances heart-breaking.

The Brooklyn first-grade teacher gets six weeks of maternity leave and then has to go back to work to make ends meet.

The Texas teacher, continually unavailable to his wife and children, loses his family, his home is foreclosed, and he eventually has to take an even longer night job.

Another superb African-American teacher who helped many inner-city students go on to college has to quit to go into the family business because he can’t support his family with the low salary. Students use the words “shocking” and “devastating” to describe his departure.

Forty-six percent of all teachers quit before their fifth year, driven from the profession by a combination of low salaries, long hours, a lack of support, and the lack of prestige given to the profession. Almost all leave despite a love for teaching. Almost all miss it. And, of course, many potentially excellent teachers don’t choose this as a career because of these same obstacles.

The deputy superintendent of South Carolina nails it when he says: “When you have teachers who have to have second jobs…. teachers that are living at the poverty level. Then I think there is something wrong … And as a society we need to really change that culture. We need to flip it around to say that being a teacher is the most important job in our society.”

Although the film doesn’t see this as THE solution to the problem, it introduces us to Zeke Vanderhoek’s new Equity Project Charter School in New York City. He pays the best teachers $125,000, cuts almost all other costs, most of them administrative, and thus gives the kids who need it the most the best teachers possible. Vanderhoek says that the high salaries change the perception of what it means to be a teacher.

As the film shows, Rhena becomes one of 600 applicants for eight teaching positions at this school. She is selected and leaves her traditional public school in New Jersey, a loss deeply felt by the children and parents. But after a number of years of low salary and long hours, this is an understandable choice.

“We still struggle to provide the status, the salaries, the respect, and the training that teaching as a full profession requires and deserves,”said Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, an expert on teacher training and one of our most prominent educational leaders.

Finally, the film notes that the top-performing countries on international standardized tests in math, science, and reading share a number of characteristics. They selectively recruit for teacher training programs. Training is government funded. The pay is much higher than in the United States. Professional work environments are excellent. And the cultural respect for teachers is very high. In Finland, teaching is the most admired job among top college students. Few teachers leave the profession.

“American Teacher” spells out the cost to teachers who stay in troubled, low-paying schools as well as to the students when good teachers leave — and it continually makes the point that the most disadvantaged kids are the ones who suffer the most as a result. But it goes beyond spelling out the problem by showing things that we can do to change the dynamic.

The film will open in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, in San Francisco on October 7th and in New Orleans on October 14th. It will also screen in Rockville, Md., on Oct. 12; in Charlottesville, Va., on Oct. 13, and many other cities. You can check the screenings here.

You can also check the Teacher Salary Project website for additional information and updates on showings:


1 comment:

José M. López Sierra said...

Dear Partner,

Now that our First Oscar – Mandela March in Puerto Rico was successful, we can look forward to an even bigger success with our First Oscar Mandela Protest in New York City. This year, The New York City Puerto Rican Day Parade, a week before our protest, will honor our political prisoner Oscar López Rivera.

On Monday, June 23, 2014, the United Nations (UN) will be discussing again Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the United States. The UN is in its third decade trying to eradicate colonialism from the world, because of the belief that it constitutes a threat to world peace. Since this date is a week later than usual, our committee decided to have 2 protests this year.

On the Monday, June 16, 2014, the day after Fathers’ Day, we will have our first protest in the park across from the UN on 46th Street and First Avenue from 8 AM to 6 PM to show the world that we too believe that colonialism is a crime against humanity. On the same day of the hearing, Monday June 23, we will have the second one. We will have a press conference in New York City to inform the public of the latest details of these event. We will need as many people at the protest as possible to make the government of the United States (US) comply with the 32 UN resolutions asking the US to decolonize immediately Puerto Rico. After this many resolutions, it is obvious that the US does not want to.

President Obama recently showed the government of the United States’ hypocrisy about human rights. In his memorial ceremony speech, he had only praise for Nelson Mandela. He, however, has refused, despite the enormous pressure from Puerto Rico and the rest of the world, to release from prison Oscar López Rivera who is doing exactly what Mandela did. Oscar has already spent 6 more years in prison than the 27 that Mandela served. The US is happy when other countries decolonize their colonies, but the US wants to keep hers. What kind of democracy is this? Obviously, those who have colonies don’t believe in justice for all.

Please tell your friends about this important protest for Oscar López Rivera’s release from prison, and to achieve what he has spent his life on, the decolonization of Puerto Rico.

We will have a sheet of paper so that whoever who wants to get involved in the planning of this yearly permanent event in New York City can provide us with your contact information. If you wish, you can also email me right now at

We look forward to greeting old and new partners in our struggle to provide real justice for all!

José M López Sierra
Because, rights are not requested, they are demanded!