Researchers, policymakers, and parents tend to agree that effective teachers are the key to high-quality schools—and, by implication, to maintaining an educated and thriving citizenry. So why are teachers in the United States so undervalued and lately even disparaged?
That’s the question at the heart of “American Teacher,” a new documentary produced by author Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari, a former teacher who helped Eggers create the 826 National tutoring centers. The film was shown last night at an advance screening in Washington attended by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and assorted other government officials and policy mavens. (Eggers, in brief remarks before the film, admitted that he “always gets nervous in D.C.”)
Narrated by Matt Damon, “American Teacher” seeks to counteract popular misconceptions about the teaching profession by showing, in a style of close-up realism, what teachers actually do and what their lives are really like—and how continued neglect of the profession may be jeopardizing the nation’s future. The film interweaves portrayals of five stellar K-12 educators from different parts of the country as they navigate daily challenges and try to manage the “logistics” of their lives. Examples of the teachers’ obvious professionalism and skill are set against, sometimes to comic effect, the near-Dickensian nature of their working conditions. They are forced to buy their own supplies, work impossible hours, and endure sundry deflating injustices. There is a memorable scene in which one of the teachers, trying to get information about maternity leave, is forced to spend 18 minutes of her sole 20-minute free period on hold with the central office HR department. (Later, after a mere six weeks’ leave, she is shown frantically scrambling around her school trying to find a place to pump breast milk.)
But the film’s central theme is money. For all of the teachers profiled, the problem of
how to make ends meet on their minimal-growth salaries is a grueling, intractable reality. Indeed, the film’s most moving sequence follows an award-winning Texas history teacher and coach named Erik Benner who, to provide adequately for his family, is forced to take a second job as a loader at Circuit City (and subsequently, when he is laid off from there, at Floor & Decor). At one point, Benner quietly admits to the sense of shame he feels when customers at the store recognize him and say, “I thought you were a teacher.”
The film intersperses the teachers’ stories with a host of troubling commentaries and statistics—some familiar—on teacher pay and workloads, rising attrition, falling student achievement, and the (apparently extreme) differences in the ways teachers are treated and supported in academically high-achieving countries like Finland, Singapore, and South Korea.
The combined effect is powerful—"How long can we let this go on?,” you wonder—and could generate some important conversations when the documentary is publicly released (expected this fall). As one of the teachers featured in the film said in a panel discussion after the preview, “I think it’s about time there’s a film like this.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.