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

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.

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 Ninive 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: www.theteachersalaryproject.org/

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